Distributed Organizations are Inherently Responsive

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By 2020, it’s possible that 50% of worldwide knowledge workers will work remotely. As internet speeds increase and there are more powerful tools for collaboration, it’s easier for people to gain control over where they live, on what schedule they work, and who they work with. This is a massive societal shift, and one that is only beginning. It is also making an entirely new form of organization possible: the distributed company.

A Distributed Organization’s members are at least 50% remote: a Distributed Organization may have no central office at all. Our company, Parabol, meets these criteria. We’re presently 6 people spread across 6 different U.S. cities. There is a growing roster of distributed companies of note: Auth0, Automattic, Buffer, GitLab, Invision, Toptal, and Zapier. These organizations have some remarkable similarities in the way they are run: they value transparency, they also write and publish often, and because they write and publish often they can share and evolve more easily, because they share and evolve more easily they are more Responsive.

Here’s the definition of a Responsive Organization from the Responsive.org manefesto:

Responsive Organizations are built to learn and respond rapidly through the open flow of information; encouraging experimentation and learning on rapid cycles; and organizing as a network of employees, customers, and partners motivated by shared purpose.

The “open flow of information” within a Distributed Organization relies on valuing transparency. Both Buffer & GitLab’s CEOs have been quite public about how transparency enables their organizations to grow. In the post titled GitLab & Buffer CEOs Talk Transparency at Scale, they detail many of each company’s transparency practices:

Both companies are remote only, making the impulse to document everything a necessary one for organizational knowledge….Buffer has made their financial model predicting the company’s health available to all employees. Their transparency dashboard also includes details on equity breakdown by individual, demographics of applicants and employees, pricing, fundraising, and every email sent by teammates.

GitLab recently rolled out a salary calculator on our jobs page, and our company handbook is entirely public, including details on the hiring process and how we should respond in the event of a crisis. We recently live-streamed the recovery of deleted production data. Finally, Sid’s monthly email to our board is also sent to all team members, including all the good and the bad from the previous 30 days.

GitLab’s company handbook is described as, “the central repository for how we run the company.” It exemplifies how vital writing and publishing company processes are to a Distributed Organization. In the handbook, GitLab documents everything from new employee onboarding, to management and decision-making practices, to department-specific topics such as GitLab’s current content marketing strategy. Distributed Organizations cannot rely on in-person social interactions as a way to establish norms, written documentation is the only way to get people to coordinate behavior across so many locales and time zones. However, once something is written down, it can be changed.

The mere act of writing enables a Distributed Organization for evolution, to be Responsive, from the get go. Consider GitLab’s policy on Spending Company Money. If an employee found the company’s reimbursement policy unclear or insufficient for describing a scenario they could propose an edit and the entire company’s behavior can shift. Any employee can do this. This is light years beyond the operating practices of most other sorts of organizations, and GitLab — a Distributed Organization — can do it by default.

Over the coming weeks, I will be spending time speaking with people who work within distributed organizations in pursuit of other traits of what makes this novel way of working special. If you’re following along, what might you hope to learn? Who would you like me to speak with?

About Jordan Husney