Distributed vs. Local

Published November 26, 2018

We’ve finished our first round of hiring at Jupiter last week and this question of a distributed or local team has crossed my mind more than a few times. From am ideological perspective, I like distributed work. However growing Jupiter requires me to still carefully analyze my own precious beliefs. Is it right for the product or business? The answer wasn’t clear.

Most of what I’ve read from tech workers who are pushing remote work (and my, does it feel like a push) revolves around the quality of their individual contributions and their own desires.

They’re not wrong: happier employees produce better work. Although it seems to me this defensive stance is born out of bad experiences with poor management than it is directly related to distributed work creating inherently better products.

Google’s Project Aristotle1 studied high-performing teams in a quest to answer, “What makes a team effective at Google?” After looking at 180 teams studying variables like skill sets, emotional intelligence, and personality traits, they conclude what mattered most was psychological safety. I think about this study all the time.2

Psychological safety requires a more than healthy amount of trust. It’s impossible to make any hard conclusions on the best way to build it but one easy way is to continously see your coworker in a variety of situations to build a more rounded understanding of who they are. This is hard to do in a distributed model.

This is further outlined when distributed teams talk about meeting their coworkers in-person or when you hear about the most engaging conferences in our industry. Everyone, almost always, raves about what it’s like to talk to people face-to-face. You create deeper connections, faster.

Distributed may be more convenient but if we look at work as more than simply a chore, optimizing for convenience doesn’t add up.

I also believe strongly that personal experiences bias how people build–everything is art. I question if encouraging someone to live a more isolated life (facing inwards towards their family units) produces an individual who can build something for someone whose bread and butter is face-to-face interactions. They can, obviously, but would they be better if they were more socially practiced?

When I consider my own experiences, I understand I’m biased towards choosing a local team. Many people don’t talk about it for fear of repercussions, but, multi-location offices are hard. Out of sight, out of mind–and that’s the most graceful of explanations. It takes a considerable amount of emotional work to undo things if it goes wrong.

To-date my favourite team of my career has been a local team. We grew up next to each other and years later being in the same room feels like putting on an old glove. Would I trust them more than the average colleague? I’m not beyond saying: it’s likely.

These relationships weren’t formed in large formal steps–they happened accidentally. In the same physical space, I became used to their temperature setting complaints, their favourite coffee mug, how they decorate the Christmas tree, and that annoying way they tap their foot when they work. It’s always the small things.

We had long discussions about the consequences of distributed vs local vs both and we didn’t see convincing arguments for any. It’s a stalemate. What did we decide in the end? We prefer local candidates but, for the right relationship, it’s worth trying our best to make it work.

This non-decision is now under the category labelled as, “Likely Doesn’t Matter.” You can’t know for sure so you work with what you have, go in with eyes wide open, and you’ll learn the hard way if it’s wrong soon enough.

1 Duhigg, Charles. (2016, Feb 25). What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team. Retrieved from nytimes.com

2 The majority of this report doesn't speak to physical prescence being a factor to high-performing teams but my assumption here is that trust is highly affected by physical prescence.