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Distributed teams are critical to the future success of digital government services

We’re at the point in the organizational and civic evolutionary cycle where distributed teams can and should play a critical role in building highly-effective digital government service teams.

By GovFresh · February 26, 2020

Photo: 18F

We’re at the point in the organizational and civic evolutionary cycle where distributed teams can and should play a critical role in building highly-effective digital government service teams.

As civic leaders wrestle with and seriously address the issues of our times -- disasters, pandemics, climate change, health and wellness, economic empowerment -- distributed teams make more sense than ever.

Defining distributed

My colleague at CivicActions, John O’Duinn, author of Distributed Teams: The Art and Practice of Working Together While Physically Apart, has written the definitive book on why distributed teams are important, and how they can be extremely effective.

John has a great post on distinguishing between ‘distributed teams,’ ‘virtual teams,’ ‘virtual employee,’ ‘remote work,’ ‘remote employee,’ ‘work from home,’ ‘work from anywhere’ and ‘telework.’

How he describes ‘distributed’:

All humans on the team work together, even though they are physically apart from each other. This is not a collection of individuals who each do solo heads-down work from different locations. Instead, this is a group of humans who coordinate their work with others on their physically distributed team. Because everyone on the physically distributed team is “remote” from someone, it is clear that everyone on the team has equal responsibility to communicate and coordinate their work with coworkers – regardless of whether any individual human is working from a building with the company logo on the door, from home, from a coworking space, a hotel or a parked car! Example usage: “I work on a distributed team”, “my team is distributed”.

Why distributed is important

Key reasons why distributed teams are critical, especially for government:

  • Representation: Geographic (true) representation in the workforce.
  • Resiliency: Ability to maintain operations regardless of whereabouts, especially if physical locations or regions have been compromised.
  • Sustainability: Decreased carbon use.
  • Work/life balance: Less time commuting, closer to and can spend more time with family and communities.
  • Economic empowerment: Distributing financial impact to local communities rather than centralizing to one.
  • Recruiting: Talent pool is exponential.

Increased empathy

In addition to the above reasons, empathy is exceptionally important, particularly because it is inherent in the role of authentic public service.

Once you truly experience distributed culture, you have a stronger understanding of what digital really means. If teams don’t place themselves in digital environments of their own, the ability for government service teams to have complete empathy for those they serve is lessened.

Distributed digital government service teams have more potential to have empathy for their end users. Immersing yourself into a distributed team is the ultimate digital service user research experience.

We have the means

We now have the tools -- G Suite, Slack, GitHub, Zoom to name just a few -- that fully empower asynchronous, instant collaboration. Training on the tools, the culture of distributed, as well as implementing supporting policies are critical to highly effective distributed teams.

In 2020 we now have all of these at our disposal.

Government is doing this

18F has actively socialized the use of distributed teams, how it has made them more effective and has excellent documentation around this:

Vendors are doing this

Two companies I work for, ProudCity and CivicActions, are fully distributed. ProudCity is a small start-up that services 50 cities, and even played a critical role in helping to quickly stand up and support digital response and recovery efforts for the recent Sonoma and Paradise fires within weeks and days. CivicActions is a 70-person government digital services firm serving federal, state and local governments throughout the United States.

Undoubtedly, there are many others -- particularly the newer, more innovative government and civic technology vendors -- operating in the same way.

Survey says

A 2019 Owl Labs survey highlights the varying benefits of distributed, and here are just a few:

  • Remote workers earn salaries higher than $100,000/year, 2.2x more frequently than on-site workers.
  • Remote workers say they're happy in their jobs 29% more than on-site workers — 71% of remote workers say they're happy in their job, and only 55% of on-site workers say they're happy in their job.
  • 34% of U.S. workers would take a pay cut of up to 5% in order to work remotely.
  • 42% of remote workers plan to work remotely more frequently than they currently do in the next 5 years, and that more than half of on-site workers want to start working remotely.
  • 55% of remote workers would be likely to look for another job if they were no longer allowed to work remotely. And 61% of remote workers would expect a pay increase if they were no longer allowed to work remotely.
  • 68% of remote workers say they are not concerned working remotely will impact their career progression, while 23% say they fear it would.
  • The top reasons remote workers choose to work remotely include: better work-life balance (91%), increased productivity/better focus (79%), less stress (78%) and avoiding a commute (78%).
  • Remote workers say they work more than 40 hours per week 43% more than on-site workers do. However, on-site workers are also working longer weeks because it's required of them, while more remote workers are doing so because they enjoy what they do.

Distributed government

If government is going to authentically deliver meaningful digital services of the future, it will need to embrace the inevitable relevance and importance of distributed teams.

If government leaders truly value representation, resiliency, sustainability, work/life balance, hiring the best and brightest, economic empowerment, instilling exponential passion for mission-driven work and the many other possibilities for civic innovation, embracing the distributed mindset is the new requisite of how we will define the next phase of public service.