A playbook for distributed teams

Originally posted on the Truss blog

There are a lot of articles coming out these days about how to be an effective distributed employee. But there is much less around on how to be a good distributed team. Truss hired our first distributed employees back in January of 2018, and we’re now at 55% outside our “home state” of California (and many of us are spread across CA). We’re now 75 folk, and there are usually 5 of us in “the office.” As Isaac recently said, “it’s like a coworking space that only Trussels have access to.”

We’ve had to learn a few things in order to keep the organization functioning and aligned with our values. We’ve now codified the steadiest of these lessons in a distributed playbook on GitHub.

A quick note on language, and why we chose “distributed” over “remote.”

“Remote” suggests that there is a central place to which a node is remote. Because we wanted to emphasize that we are all on equal footing, we instead chose “distributed” – there is no “center.” We have collections of Trussels in NYC, Atlanta, Chicago, Sacramento, LA, and SF; as well as individual Trussels in many other locations.

What the playbook holds

We think healthy distributed team interaction falls into four buckets: facilitating interaction, properly resourcing people, bonding with each other, and seeing each other in person on occasion. This includes other things like taking stack, having a place for banter, having offsites, and having ways to connect about not-work. Things we’ve talked about in previous blog posts and will continue to post about (and now will collect into this playbook as we do).

A quick note on internal references in the playbook

We talk in the playbook about TDRs – Truss Decision Records. We pulled these from ADRs (Architectural Decision Records) which we use in our code repos to document why we made certain choices. We do the same for our organization now, and anyone can propose a new decision. We should probably do another blog post on that at some point.

We want your help!

We’re still learning about distributed team interactions—we all are—and we’d love your feedback and contributions to the playbook so we can all learn with each other.

Facilitating distributed All Hands meetings

Originally posted on the Truss blog

All hands meetings are important – they are a way to spread a message, a way for a team to get to know each other, and a way to move a decision making process forward. They are easy to do wrong—to hear something everyone already knows a thousand times over, to be unclear, or to be a jumbled mess without enough time to accomplish a goal. I’ve run the numbers of how much we pay for an all hands meeting (something I can do with internal salary transparency), and the cost is nothing to laugh at. So why do we have these meetings so often (at Truss, once a week), and how can we make sure we’re getting the most of them?

We see facilitation as the way to get the most out of a meeting like this. I’ll arbitrarily define “meeting facilitation” here as the act of deciding what you want to get out of a gathering, planning for, and then constructing and maintaining a space and flow to optimize for achieving that goal with a group of people. This is different from presentations—which are also useful—as a presentation is about the clear delivering of a message by one or a small group of people to another set of people. It is possible to facilitate a set of presentations, especially if there is Q&A at the end.

Facilitating distributed meetings

As we’ve talked about before, facilitation changes when you have a distributed group. And so as Truss noses up past 70 (and still growing) we’re hitting new facilitation challenges. As our client base grows, and our internal operations change, and fewer Trussels know each other well, what do we want out of our all hands meetings (that we call “Practitioners’,” or “Prac” for short), and how can we be sure we’re achieving those goals?

Skill share

We know we don’t have all the answers at Truss, and so we wanted to have the conversation about how to further improve our practices with a broader group of people. Four Trussels (Sara, MacRae, Isaac, and Willow) were joined by Emily of honeycomb.io, Pam of One Medical, Aaron of CivicActions, Liz of Public Lab, and Mike of an undisclosed media company to skill share. The all hands we facilitate run from groups of a handful to in the 70s. Some of us rotate facilitators, some of us hold that honor for a prolonged period. Some of us are fully remote, some of us are clumped into rooms in different locations.

While you can get into the details by watching the video or reading the notes, our main categories of interest fell into engagement & participation, meeting purpose, and who is remote versus who is in person. We had a few main takeaways that we’ll be cross-pollinating across our organizations.

Facilitation Guild

Having a group of similarly dedicated folk within your organization can help up everyone’s game. Try out experiments together, lean on each other for support, and perform course corrections by having allies to check in with. We try out new things on our project teams and then share them back to the guild, helping the whole organization benefit from gains (and avoid and/or reproduce discovered failures!)

Collaborative decision making

While some of us (including Truss) still use all hands primarily as a way to disseminate information, Aaron of CivicActions and Liz of Public Lab told stories of making decisions as organizations during all hands meetings. This makes my robot heart sing with joy, and the Truss facilitation guild will be looking for ways to start doing this in our projects.

“Hand” in chat

As a group grows larger, it becomes more difficult to track who wants to say something, and in what order. We use the video conferencing software’s chat to raise a hand through text—literally typing “hand”—in order to signal we want to say something. Not only does it help the facilitator keep stack, it also gives time to folks who want to consider what they want to say before they say it

Banter / Side channel

Banter is a great way to keep everyone engaged—I may not want to take up everyone’s attention with the perfect gif in reaction to something that’s just been said, but if I have somewhere to post it, I’m more likely to stay engaged as are the folk looking at and responding to the gif. Using a side channel (so not distracting from the “hand” channel above) means everyone wins.

What’s next?

Huge shout out to all the folk who joined for this facilitation skill share—I’m excited about a lot I get to do, and this was still the highlight of my month thus far. To be able to share skills across organizations is rarer than I’d like in the private sector, and that’s just silly. We all do better when we all do better. I hope we have more reason to collaborate with each other to grow and uplift the spaces we’re in. Is there something you want to learn or share about?

There is a growing body of work around working from home and working from anywhere… as well as the practices individuals take to stay sane and healthy while doing so. But we’re lacking a supporting body of work in how to help groups work together well in this new distributed environment. Truss is beginning to codify our learnings into a distributed playbook, which we’ll share when it’s good enough to face the tumult of the internet. When it’s out, we hope you’ll join us in making it better.

Upping Our Distributed Practices

Originally posted on the Truss blog

While there are lively debates about whether or not the Future is Distributed, at Truss we’re having a pretty solid time of it. Running online meetings is just the beginning of making sure your distributed team is included, and we’re continually working to improve our distributed practices.

We have a running doc of practices we want to try. Our goal is to fail at least occasionally — it means we’re actually reaching further than our grasp. Here are a handful that we’ve recently tried, and to what result.

  1. Persistent distributed video : quiet failure
  2. Being Humans Together : resounding success
  3. #in-out-status : success
  4. Synchronized cupcake delivery : failed, but worth a re-attempt

Persistent distributed video

One of the things we missed most in becoming fully distributed was the human bonding time we got with our rad coworkers while in the office together. One of our attempts at addressing this has been a standing video link which people can jump into and out of to “cowork” with each other. There’s sometimes some idle chitchat, and then often heads-down working.

It ended up not working for a few reasons:

  • being on it as the same time as other folk is rare;
  • we have a culture of scheduling time to talk about specific subjects rather than hoping it happens organically;
  • the standing video link quickly became “invisible.”

Result : quiet failure

Being Humans Together

Getting distributed folk in a video in a coordinated way to talk about Not Work is now a standing half-hour weekly timeslot. It is some Trussels’ favorite part of the week. We do a couple different formats:

  • if under 9 participants, each person gets 2 minutes to talk about anything at all they want to, so long as it’s not work.
  • if it’s more than 9 participants, a quick checkin happens on how people are feeling, and then breakout groups of 3-4 people each for a deeper dive.

We sometimes have a prompt (“what’s one story about you that you think really represents what you’re like?” or a show-and-tell.

Breakout functionality in video conferencing software has been amazingly useful. So far we’ve done these randomly, but at some point we might try self-selection into these “rooms.”

Result : resounding success


Has this ever happened to you? You log in on the East Coast after a sick day, and you have no. idea. what is going on with different stories. Did someone delete that blocker, or has it been worked around? And it’s 3 hours before anyone else who might know what’s going on will be online.

We now have a Slack channel called #in-out-status where people give a brief summary of the status of what they were working on before they go out for the day. It’s evolved to be a place where we also flag when we’re in for the day, going to lunch, taking a sick day, etc.

Result : success

Synchronized Cupcake Delivery

The project I manage recently hit a big milestone in October. While it was more of a non-event than our June release, there was still some stress around it, and a celebration was warranted. I set up a 2-hour session — the first hour of which was to catch up with each other (similar to Being Humans Together, but less structured), and a second hour to wander around where each of us is, and post pictures back to the group. The pictures were to put everyone on equal footing, rather than prioritizing office Trussels.

Also, during the first hour, I had lined up (what I thought would be) synchronized treat delivery to people regardless of location, scheduling deliveries for the time of the zone of delivery (IE, deliveries marked for 11:30 PT, 13:30 CT, and 14:30 ET in the interface should all arrive at the same point in time).

It ends up this is not a use case for this particular delivery service.

While all the cupcakes (plus one cookie order and one bundt cake order for some destitute places of the world which don’t have cupcakes available for delivery) for people in my timezone arrived as expected, 2 folk received theirs at the time requested but in MY timezone (hours late), and 2 received theirs hours early (for conversion errors I don’t understand).


While it didn’t work out this time, everyone felt included and celebrated. Definitely worth trying again at some point.

Result : failed, but worth a re-attempt

Well Met: The Online Meeting

Originally posted on the Truss blog

There are many valid reasons to consider having an online meeting — maybe your squad is spread across multiple time zones or just different regions, or maybe you’re trying to foster a time of inclusive change at your org. However, with that optimistic reach for cohesion comes some real risk: online meetings are, inevitably, much more difficult to do effectively than in-person ones.

These two meeting types do share some goals: not having a single talking head, needing to pay attention to the “room’s” temperature, needing an agenda and a dedication to timekeeping. What changes is that people are even more likely to be distracted and less likely to engage, reading a room is different, and audio/technical issues are exponentially more likely as more people join.

To host a successful online meeting, you’ll ideally have:

  • an agenda;
  • strong, uninterrupted connections for each attendee;
  • a conferencing system that allows for “hand raising” or other signals;
  • a place for notes to be taken collectively;
  • someone whose sole task during the call is dealing with technical issues (at least until the system and participants are tried and true).

Adjusting your own expectations is also a useful exercise. I think of online meetings as a block of time everyone has offered to spend attention on the topic at hand… not that they’ve agreed to listen, nor (if they aren’t listening) to speak. Maybe I’ve simply admitted defeat too early.

How to be remote

When it makes sense

If anyone on your team is remote, everyone on the team should act remotely. Sometimes we have 4 or 5 people of a 6-person team in the same room but on laptops for a Truss meeting. We do this because the moment meetspace is prioritized is the moment you’re not able to hear your remote crew. They matter. That’s why they’re your crew. Invest in noise-cancelling headphones and a reliable conferencing system.

When you simply can’t all be online, have a person in the room dedicated to watching for signals from the online crew that they want to speak, can’t hear, have questions, etc.

Temperature checks

It’s harder to gauge how people are feeling during a meeting when it’s not in physical space. Are shoulders slumped because energy is low or because proper posture at a desk is hard? Are people looking away because social media truly is a fascinating cesspool, or because they’re displaying the video on their other screen? WHO KNOWS. Here are some ways to read a digital room.

  • Optimize for how many people you can see at once. Zoom gallery mode works well for this. There’s even a special setting for sharing a screen on one screen and still having gallery mode on the other screen if you’re sufficiently decadent to have more than a single screen to work from.
  • Be sure to check in on people you can’t see. People still call by phone to video sessions; that’s part of their beauty. But not seeing someone’s face means not only are their reactions not included in temperature checks, but also that sometimes we even forget they’re there. Make a conscious effort to include them.
  • Set (and stick to) how people “raise their hands.” We often use the “raise hand” button in Zoom to help the facilitator keep stack. This is because, again, lack of physical bodies means a sudden lean into a camera might be someone getting comfortable, not wanting to jump into the conversation.

Some tools have options to use (or adapt to use) for polling, including Zoom and Maestro. These can be used for a multiple-choice question, for voting on if a proposal should pass, and for flagging technical issues.

Technical support

One of the most distracting and time-consuming aspects for the facilitator (thereby impacting everyone else on the call) is a participant experiencing technical difficulties. “Are they ok? Is it their setup or ours?” One of the easiest wins for online calls is to have a person dedicated to troubleshooting technical issues. While the facilitator moves the group towards the meeting goal, the troubleshooter can help everyone engage fully.

Agenda and what you ask of participants

Online meetings don’t have to be a time during which everyone half-listens-in while perusing parts of the internet with the other half of their attention (we’ve all done it). Your goal as facilitator is to offer opportunities for people to engage even when not fully listening to the speaker. Having other things related to the topic to work on assists in maintaining and regaining attention.

Collective note taking and asynchronous questions

In contrast to fully in-person meetings, where it’s reasonable (even vital) to ask people to put away their devices so their attention can be maintained, remote meetings take place on the distraction device. One of the best ways to keep people engaged is to ask for their help in documenting. Multiple people can take notes in one place, with others cleaning up typos or adding in links. This can evolve into a “live blog,” and/or will sometimes spark side conversations in nested bullet points. Both add depth and thoroughness to something that might otherwise be a bare-bones skeleton not much better than the agenda itself. Taking notes this way can lead to documentation like this.

Taking this approach also helps those who are joining late or having audio issues — they can follow along in the notes to catch up, or to read ideas they weren’t sure they heard correctly.

Breakout groups and other activities

Breakout groups and other activities can still happen when meeting online, it just takes a bit more planning and group robustness than doing it in person. Zoom and Maestro both have a breakout-room functionality, for instance, which allow you to randomly or directly assign people to rooms, to indicate when wrap-up times are nearing, and to regroup people. You might also set up jit.si or Google Hangout rooms in advance for breakouts, and include the links to the breakouts in your notes. Asking people to maintain documentation from these breakout sessions in the main set of notes ensures a cohesive understanding is still maintained across all groups.

Activities such as spectrograms can also be adapted to online space – when using collaborative note taking, put a grid into the space, like so, and then have people move their cursors if visible (Google Docs) or mark an “x” if highlighted by color code (etherdocs) based on where on the spectrum they “stand.”

We’d love to hear how you engage with folk in online meetings – it’s a growing art form, and we’re still wet behind the ears ourselves!