As companies have navigated the transition to distributed work, physical distance has become top-of-mind. Yet when we fixate on physical distance, we miss the big picture. When considering “distance” in the context of distributed work, it’s important to consider three different types of distance—physical distance, process distance, and cognitive distance. It’s tempting to focus on physical and process distance—especially in terms of how to use technologies such as Slack and Zoom to streamline processes across an organization. Yet we can’t afford to overlook the importance of cognitive distance—ensuring team members embrace a shared understanding of themselves and their work.
All evidence points to the fact that remote work can translate into enhanced performance. 90% of employees say that flexible work arrangements and schedules increase morale and 77% say remote work leads to lower operating costs. Yet, in order for remote work to be empowering—rather than constraining—we can’t overlook the importance of bridging cognitive distance.
Here are four expert tips to propel you to rethink distributed work and help ensure that physical distance doesn’t translate into cognitive distance.
Embrace a culture of documentation.
I recently spoke with Kevin Fishner, Chief of Staff at HashiCorp. Since it was founded, HashiCorp has been predominantly distributed. Fishner emphasized that the most effective distributed companies adopt a strong culture of documentation. Since employees are working across time zones and in different locations, it’s crucial that decisions be written down for asynchronous consumption.
Today, HashiCorp embraces three core written artifacts — scorecards, problem requirement documents (PRDs), and requests for comments (RFCs). Scorecards are the place where HashiCorp captures its goals for the year. PRDs are problem discovery documents. And RFCs are solution documents. The general scaffolding is such that scorecards establish the company’s annual strategy and goals, and PRDs and RFCs explore problems and solutions throughout the year. PRDs and RFCs go through an approval process and are distributed via a company-wide email list. By tracking all decisions, HashiCorp’s approximately 1,000-person distributed workplace is able to execute work with clarity and conviction. But this didn’t happen overnight. HashiCorp’s culture of documentation has evolved over six years. As Fishner reminded me, it takes time for these practices to develop and it’s important to be open to improvement and iteration.
Craft a holistic onboarding experience.
As teams continue to hire employees, onboarding is critical to creating an empowering remote work experience. According to research by Glassdoor, organizations with a strong onboarding program improve new hire retention by 82% and productivity by more than 70%. Unfortunately, only 12% of employees believe their organization does a great job of onboarding new employees.
One of the major limitations of traditional onboarding experiences is that organizations tend to focus on processes and paperwork rather than the overall experience. More than half (58%) of organizations say their onboarding program is focused on processes and paperwork. When it comes to onboarding remote employees, a focus on processes and paperwork can be especially detrimental and cause engagement to plummet.
I recently spoke to Stephanie Hess, Head of Global Communications and Corporate Marketing at Asana, about how to craft an onboarding process when working in a distributed fashion. She emphasized the importance of crafting an onboarding process that emphasizes relationships and experiences. First impressions matter. Try to replicate the feeling of being in the same room as other colleagues. Host virtual town halls. Embrace transparency by being open to all types of questions. Pair remote workers with a buddy to whom they can ask questions, share concerns, and develop a strong bond with from day one. At Asana, each buddy is encouraged to set up 1:1 intro chats with cross-functional team members. This is a great way for them to get exposure to different parts of the business and build relationships in a low-pressure way. Finally, don’t feel the temptation to crunch the entire onboarding experience into one week. The most effective remote-first companies craft onboarding experiences that can last up to six weeks.
Prioritize structured brainstorming.
Remote brainstorming is hard. It’s strenuous to sit in a Zoom for three hours. It’s challenging to whiteboard virtually. And it’s difficult for multiple people to speak without cutting each other off—intentionally or unintentionally. Ultimately, the process of real-time virtual brainstorming with more than three people is nearly impossible.
But the act of brainstorming is really valuable — it surfaces diverse perspectives, helps participants communicate ideas without the pressure of immediate actionability, and is often a fun team-building exercise. While the essence of brainstorming is promising, converting in-person brainstorming to virtual brainstorming often leads to an awkward—and unproductive— experience.
Fishner explained to me how HashiCorp has harnessed the potential of brainstorming in a distributed environment. Specifically, HashiCorp embraces structured brainstorming. It works as follows. The meeting leader sends out question prompts a week prior to the brainstorming meeting and each person responds to the prompts asynchronously. Then, during the brainstorming session, each person has approximately 10 minutes to collectively review their answers. After all participants have the time to review, the group then distills the common insights and moves forward. This format maintains the essence of brainstorming — multiple perspectives presented without pressure — and translates it into a virtual setting. What’s more, it has the added benefit of everyone coming to the meeting prepared rather than trying to think of ideas on the spot. Research has shown that this type of “prepared brainstorming” leads to better results.
Integrate constant pulse checks.
Research has shown that distributed work environments can give rise to location-based “faultlines” that make it difficult to foster a shared team identity. Hess recommends that when teams are working in a distributed fashion, pings of positivity and pulse checks are essential. In addition to regular 1:1 meetings, Hess recommends that leaders regularly check in with distributed team members via chat to see how their day is going, ask if they need a sounding board, or offer help with moving work forward. Every morning, Hess encourages her team to share one goal for the day along with a potential blocker. This enables team members to acknowledge challenges, and it also empowers everyone to pitch in to assist—even with just a word of encouragement.
Weekly meeting cadence is also essential. In a distributed environment, it can be challenging for team members to feel a deep sense of ownership for work. During Hess’ weekly team meetings, her 16 team members rotate playing the role of the “host”. This enables each team member to have ownership of the meeting flow and outcomes, and helps ensure that engagement remains high.
Distributed work might mean physical distance but it shouldn’t mean cognitive distance. By embracing a culture of documentation, crafting a holistic onboarding experience, prioritizing structured brainstorming sessions, and integrating constant pulse checks, you’ll be able to rethink what it means to work distributively and empower your workforce for success.