Distributed Thinking, Fast and Slow

I worked at Microsoft ten years ago, and quickly got familiar with how a company that large works with distributed teams all around the world. One thing that struck me as I worked in Redmond, Microsoft’s headquarters, is that distributed work had the potential to accelerate progress or slow it down. It just depended on communication and expectations.

One day, two days of results

9am in Redmond is 9:30pm in Hyderabad. So if we had our communication straight, expectations aligned, and people working hard, we could get two days of work in one. I’d work all day, hand off my work by 5pm my time, then go home. A few hours before my bedtime, my co-workers would get up in India and work all day, handing work to me while I slept. We’d get two days of results in one! It was magic!

Three days to get one day of results

But if we didn’t have our communication straight, it was a disaster. Let’s say India is waiting for me to complete a task, but I don’t finish by 5pm. That means they’re blocked by me for their entire work day. And even if I get it done at 9:01am on day two, that’s too late because it’s their bedtime. By the time they get back to the office to work, I’ve taken two of my workdays and one of theirs, for a total of three.

Asynchronous communication skills are key

The difference between productivity superpowers and team kryptonite in these situations was the ability to work asynchronously. Ten years later, I’m seeing these skills become even more important. All other things being equal, the employee who can document their work clearly, coordinate work items without requiring a video call, and communicate across time zones will be more valuable than ones who can’t. Fortunately, these are all learnable skills.



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