Distance Team in ML / AI – O’Reilly

I am well versed in the ups and downs of teleworking. I’ve been doing some sort of it for most of my career and I’ve met lots of people who have a similar story. When companies ask for my help in building their ML / AI teams, I often recommend that they consider remote hiring. Sometimes I would even suggest that they build their data function as a completely remote, distributed group. (For the sake of brevity, I will simplify by using “remote team” and “distributed team” interchangeably. And I will treat both as umbrella terms covering “remote friendly” and “fully distributed.”)

Remote employment has lots of benefits. As an employer, your talent pool spans the globe and you save lots of money on office rent and insurance. For the people you hire, they get an almost zero commute and a Covid-free workplace.

Learn faster. Dig deeper. See further.

So again, even if you really ought to build a remote team, neither should you. Not right yet. You will first think through a very important question:

As a leader, do I really want a remote team?

The litmus test

The key ingredient to successful telecommuting is simply whether the company’s management wants it to work. Yes, it also requires policies, tools and reconsideration of a lot of interactions. Not to mention, your HR team will have to double check local laws, no matter where team members choose to live. But before any of that, those responsible must actually will have a remote team.

Here is a quick test for the managers and hiring managers among you:

  • When the Covid-19 pandemic forced your team to work from home, did you then insist on hiring only local graduates (so that they could eventually work in the office)?
  • With wider vaccine rollout and small print, do you now require your team to spend some time in the office each week?
  • Do you see someone as “not really part of the team” or “less suitable for promotion” because they do not enter the office?

If you have said yes to any of these, then you simply do not want a distributed team. You want a team in the office that you reluctantly allow to work from home every now and then. And as long as you do not really want one, any attempt to build and support one will not succeed.

If you have said yes to any of these, then you simply do not want a distributed team. You want a team in the office that you reluctantly allow to work from home every now and then. And as long as you do not really want one, any attempt to build and support one will not succeed.

And if you does not want it, that’s fine. I’m not here to change your mind.

But if you do want to build a successful remote team and you want some ideas on how to make it work, read on.

How to say what you have to say

As a leader, most of your job involves communicating with people. This will require some adaptation in a distributed team environment.

Many of you have developed a management style that is optimized for everyone to be in the same office during working hours. It has developed poor, disruptive communication habits. It’s too easy to get past someone’s office, jump over a cabin wall, or bump into someone in the hallway and share some information with them.

With an external team, you will need to write these thoughts down instead. It also means that you decide what you want to do before you even start writing, and then stick to it after you submit the request.

By communicating your thoughts in clear, unambiguous language, you have demonstrated your commitment to what you are asking someone to do. You also leave them a document that they can refer to when performing the task you requested. This is the key because a person, depending on work schedules, can not just press you on the shoulder to ask you to clarify a point.

(Side note: I have spent my career working with extremely busy people and being myself. It has taught me a lot about how to communicate in writing. Short sentences, bullet points and beginning message with the call to action – sometimes mentioned as BLUFF: Bottom Line Up-Front — will, in the long run, make your emails clearer.)

The same applies to meetings: the person who convened the meeting must send an agenda in advance and follow up with summary notes. Participants will be able to confirm their common understanding of what needs to be done and who does what.

Does it feel like a lot of documentation? It is fantastic. In my experience, what feels like overcommunication for an in-office scenario is usually the right amount for a distributed team.

Embracing remote control for what it is

Grammar rules differ from language to language. You will not go far in speaking the words of a new language while using grammatical constructions from your mother tongue. It takes time, practice and patience to learn the new language so you really can express yourself. The path leads you from “this is an unnatural and unpleasant word order” to “German requires me to put the verb infinitive at the end of the sentence. That’s just how it works.”

There are parallels here to leading a distributed team. It’s too easy to assume that “teleworking” is just “people recreating the experience of the office from their kitchen tables.” It will definitely feel unnatural and uncomfortable if you have that perspective. And it ought to feels strange as optimization for teleworking will require reconsideration of much of what and how team interactions and success metrics. You start winning when you decide where a distributed team works better than the alternative in the office.

Teleworking is people who get things done from a place that is not your headquarters, on schedules that are not strict 9-to-5, and maybe even communicate in text-based chat systems. Remote work is checking your messages in the morning and seeing a stream of updates from your night owl teammates. Teleworking is its own thing, and trying to shoe-horn it in the form of a setup in the office means losing all the benefits.

Embracing remote teams will require letting go of outdated tropes in the office to accept some unpleasant truths. People keep working when you are not looking over their shoulder. Some of them will function even better when they can do so in peace and quiet in an environment they control. They can be fully present in a meeting even if they have turned off their video. They can certainly be productive on a work schedule that does not match yours while wearing casual attire.

The ancient tropics were hardly valid to begin with. And now, 18 months after diving with his head first in remote work, these tropics are officially dead. It’s up to you to learn new ways to evaluate team (and team members’) productivity. More importantly, in true telecommuting way, you will have to step back and trust the team you have hired.

Exploration of new terrain

If distributed teamwork is new territory for your business, expect to stumble every now and then. You’re going through a new area, and instead of following your credible old map, you are now creative the card. One step at a time, one studded toe at a time.

You will spend time defining new best practices that are specific to this environment. This will mean that you think through many more decisions than before – decisions that you used to be able to handle on autopilot – and as such you will find yourself saying “I do not know” much more than you used to.

You will feel some of this friction when you sort workplace norms off. What are “working hours” if your team has any at all? Maybe all you need is a weekly group check-in, after which everyone goes in different directions to focus on their work? If so, how will individuals specify their working hours and their free time? With so much asynchronous communication, there is definitely confusion about when a person is expected to intercept an ongoing conversation in a chat channel, in relation to their name @ being mentioned or contacting them via DM. Setting these expectations will help the team switch to (the right kind of) autopilot because they want to know that they should not get frustrated when a person spends a few hours catching up on a chat thread. As a bonus, will review this exercise when you really need to hold a group meeting versus when you just need to make a message (email) or ask a quick question (chat).

Safety will be another source of friction. When everyone is in the same physical office, there is not much question of the “inner” versus the “outer” network. But when your teammates connect to shared resources from home or a random cafe, how do you properly shield the office from everything else? Mandating VPN usage is a start, but it’s hardly the whole picture. There are also questions about company-issued devices that have visibility in home network traffic and what they may do with this information. Or even a corporate laptop, hacked through the corporate network, infects personal devices on the home LAN. Is your company’s work so sensitive that employees will require a separate, work-only internet service for their home office? That would be quite extreme – in my experience, I have not even seen banks go that far – but it is not out of the question. At some point, a CISO may rightly decide that this is the best path.

Saying “I do not know” is OK in all these cases, as long as you follow it with “then let’s figure it out.” Be honest with your team to explain that you as a group might need to try a few rounds of something before it all settles down. The only two sins here are refusing to change course when it does not work, and returning to the old, familiar, office ways just to ease your cognitive burden. As long as you are thoughtful and conscious in your approach, you will succeed in the long run.

It’s come to stay

Your computer scientists (and developers and IT operations team) have long known that teleworking is possible. They communicate through Slack and collaborate using shared documents. They see that their “data center” is a cloud infrastructure. They already know that many of their daily interactions do not require everyone to be in the same office. Business management is usually the last to take this up, which is why they tend to show the most resistance.

If adaptive leadership is the key to success with distributed teams, then discipline is the key to that adaptation. You need the discipline to plan your communications, disable your office autopilot, and trust your team more.

You need to focus on what matters – define what needs to be done and let people do it – and learn to let go of what does not. It will be uncomfortable, yes. But your job as a leader is to clear the way for people who carry out the implementation work. What does them pleasantly trumps what does you comfortable.

Not all companies will accept this. Some are willing to swap the benefits of a distributed team with what they perceive as a superior office experience. And that’s fine. But for those who want it, the remote control is here to stay.

Give a Comment