5 Practical Ways to Engage a Geographically Distributed Workforce - SPONSOR CONTENT FROM DATASTAX

June 5, 2018

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Like many technology companies, DataStax competes with some of the world’s largest enterprises for top talent. We’ve come to realize that much of that talent is located outside of Silicon Valley, and even outside of the typical urban areas where a company might naturally look for new talent.

Over the past seven years as CEO of DataStax, I’ve worked hard to understand the best ways to foster collaboration and leverage the talent of a distributed workforce. Below are the five steps that we believe companies must take to ensure that their teams can thrive and have a sense of belonging despite being geographically distributed.

1. Name It

If you want a distributed culture, it’s not going to happen by accident. The first step in being successful is to be intentional, and that means boldly declaring that you are a “distributed company.” Sounds trivial, right? It’s not. When we decided to take a “distributed first” approach to meetings, not everyone was comfortable with the idea. People who were co-located bristled at the idea of having to go through the extra steps of running an efficient distributed meeting when only one or two people were not in the room with them. For example, each week we have an extended leadership meeting with 12-14 participants in nine cities, half of whom may be co-located. The temptation would be for the co-located people to sit in a room together, with the rest dialed in. Instead, we create a fully distributed meeting where everyone is “remote,” even if sitting in offices right next to each other. When you explicitly name it, people will need to understand very quickly what it means for them, which will be your next step. But before you get there, the act of declaring your intention with clarion clarity will set things in motion. A word of caution: do not take this step lightly. Distributed teams can detect half-hearted commitment. I recommend you do not go down this path unless you are fully prepared to commit to it.

2. Define It

After clearly declaring your intention, you must define exactly what it means. The first 20 people at DataStax were nearly all engineers, and having them distributed was not controversial. That changed when it came time to add inside salespeople. Dialing phones all day is emotionally exhausting work that also requires a lot of real-time training and adjustments. There’s tremendous benefit in being co-located with others doing the same thing. That meant we had to be clear that for certain roles, working remotely was not an option. So for the inside sales teams, we still needed to be distributed, but distributed in a co-located fashion. That meant creating regional offices. For example, we just added a new facility in Atlanta, adding capacity to our existing locations in Santa Clara, California, and Windsor, England. Each company will have a unique context for which roles require co-location and which do not. The important thing is that you have the conversations and explain the rationale for the decisions.

3. Model It

Nothing says you are serious about engaging a distributed team more than having your CEO and leadership team personally model it. At DataStax, when we have our monthly “all-hands” calls, I have chosen to present remotely from my office. The natural tendency is to have those who are in the office with me join in a larger room and then present to the rest of the company on videoconference. Doing so is a bad idea. Inevitably, the people in the room get a fundamentally different experience than those who are remote. You tend to not pay attention to remote problems such as a bad angle on video or the presenter talking too quietly because you unconsciously (or consciously) tailor your style to those in the room with you. The better approach is to simply give everyone in the company the same experience and present to them all remotely. Doing so does not preclude the various audiences from getting together in-person to watch the presentation, nor does it dampen interaction. Quite the contrary. For our all-hands meetings, we have a lively online collaboration tool running during the presentation. This provides real-time interactions among the participants and allows company leaders to answer questions or offer clarifications in real time. A side benefit is that we can also track the online interactions while reviewing the recording, thanks to simple tags we embed in the chat stream marking each section of the presentation.

4. Survey It

Engagement surveys are good for a whole host of reasons, but in a distributed company, I would argue they are invaluable. The important thing is that you are doing them on a regular basis and allowing those distributed voices to be heard on an equal footing as the “water cooler” vibe you are getting in whatever office(s) you are visiting. You will find out whether your distributed teams have the right communications tools, if they feel part of the overall plan, and what things they want to see to enhance their productivity and engagement. Stay plugged into their feedback on a consistent basis. For example, we run quarterly surveys that provide us deep insight on multiple levels, including by team and region. A few years ago we identified an issue that spanned most of the company, which was a feeling of disconnectedness from the executive team, and from me, in particular. As a result, we put on our creative hats and came up with something that fits my style and our company culture: “huddles,” or remote meetings I conduct with distributed teams of eight to 20 people at a time. We usually have one huddle a week. Not only do the distributed teams appreciate them, but they also give me a tremendous amount of valuable insight from our distributed workforce.

5. Enhance It

In addition to using the proper tools for remote communications, you should also get creative with ways to dissipate that feeling of isolation. While technology can help solve for distributed workforces, we do have periodic large team meetings such as our Go-to-Market Summit and Product & Engineering annual meetings, bringing large teams together for face-to-face meetings. We also encourage off-sites as “investments” rather than “expenses,” and many teams pick rotating locations to get to know each other and collaborate periodically.

In conclusion, managing a distributed workforce takes commitment and thoughtfulness. You need to apply your particular culture to the equation to truly embrace it in whatever ways make sense for you and your employees. These five steps can serve as a starting framework for you to think about the most effective ways you can leverage a distributed workforce in your organization.

Think about the ultimate impact that having an engaged distributed workforce has on your company. You have the freedom to hire the best people not just in your country but the world. Then, you are empowering these talented employees with the responsibility of getting their work done from wherever is most convenient for them, putting the focus on results and execution instead of number of hours spent at the office. What does that translate to? Happier employees and better execution, which translates to a better product, which translates to happier, more loyal customers.

To learn more about DataStax click here.


About Billy Bosworth

Billy Bosworth joined DataStax as CEO in May 2011 and propelled the company’s growth from sub-$1 million in revenue and 25 employees to more than $100 million in revenue and over 500 employees today. Billy is on the board of directors of Tableau Software (NYSE:DATA) and is an active contributor to the Forbes Technology Council. He is a frequent speaker on the topics of cloud databases, data autonomy, hybrid cloud, AI, and distributed workforces, and was most recently at the Economist Innovation Summit discussing AI and data trends shaping the future of global business. Connect with DataStax on Twitter at @DataStax.


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