Deconstructing Decentralized Teams

Brad Campbell / July 23, 2016

When I think about successful companies that “work together” to get things done, the word “collaboration” always coalesces in my mind. And with it comes images of people working together: these images often take the shape of people huddling around a computer, pondering together over some difficult engineering problem in front of a whiteboard, or pounding out some issue in a huddle room. In my mind’s eye, these people are always “together,” physically present in the same space. For certain (at least for me), there is a level of comfort that comes from working in a more “traditional” office setting.

At a more analytical level, though, I see that many of these comforts actually stem from my own insecurities. For example, I (and I imagine many) workers frequently ponder whether or not their superior is happy with their performance. Sure, quarterly and annual reviews provide a very rigid, impersonal way to know this quantitatively, but often it’s pretty easy to know the answer to this question on a consistent basis by measuring the interaction that you have with your superior–does this individual seem suddenly distant or even angry with me, or does this individual consistently meet me with what seems like a high degree of satisfaction?

Answers to these questions are easily inferred in a face-to-face setting (though there is certainly an implicit danger in reading too much into the emotional state–or apparent emotional state–of others), but certainly not when the work team is decentralized. Of course, we are all aware of the benefits of decentralization to a team: access to deeper talent pools, more individual autonomy, better work/life balance for staff due to decreased commuting time and expense, and so on.

The point of this article is not argue that one paradigm is better than other: each situation has its own merits. In my own experience, though, I have encountered opportunities for growth as a member of a decentralized team that I don’t think I would have encountered in a more traditional setting–many of them personal.

Things like not overanalyzing responses, not reading too much into textual responses when communicating, or constantly searching for “metrics” as to whether or not I “measure up,” are just a few small examples.

In short, it’s been a growing experience for me personally while still allowing me to work with a great company full of smart folks from literally all over the globe, and it has provided the completely intangible bonus of spending more time with my family. I have learned that to make decentralization work, it takes work. It takes work from management and from the individual employees, but thus far I’ve found it to be a very rewarding and worthwhile proposition.