I worked at Truss from 2017 to 2020. During that time, I helped transition the company from being a dozen people based in the Bay Area to being nearly 100 fully distributed employees in over 20 states. While the company still has an adapted version of the playbook on their website, I am proud of the original Truss Distributed Playbook and have recreated it here. Many links are private and link to Truss Decision Records — a practice of tracking what decision was made and the reasoning behind it. I’ve tried to expand on each as to what it contained so you can recreate it as needed for your own organizations.
Bond with each other
We’re still humans, even if we mostly only see each other in video chat. How can we build understandings of each other as humans when we don’t bump into each other in the hallway or by the much lauded, proverbial water cooler?
Healthy work practices
We’ve done a lot of thinking about how to be healthy as individuals. We think a lot about what counts as work, what taking breaks looks like, how to have boundaries between work and not work, and how to distribute time over a day. We have a lot more to say in 🔒our healthy work habits in a distributed company internal doc. We’d recommend every organization come up with a similar doc which aligns with their work habits and expectations. (We, along with the research, stand by a 40 hour work week maximum.)
Applicable to groups over 50 – when habits are no longer transferable across the whole group by observation and happenstance.
Being Humans Together (BHT)
Getting distributed folk in a video in a coordinated way to talk about life outside of work is now a standing half-hour weekly timeslot at Truss. It is some Trussels’ favorite part of the week. If under 9 participants, each person gets 2 minutes to talk about anything at all they want to (but talking about work is lightly discouraged). 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 (such as “what’s one story about you that you think really represents what you’re like?” or a show-and-tell.
Applicable as soon as you have 2 or more team members outside an office.
Coworking on Things We Don’t Want to Do
There are some tasks we all put off because we just plain don’t want to do them. At Truss, we’ve tackled this by scheduling remote coworking time we fondly call, “Coworking on things we don’t want to do.” Somebody adds a meeting to our company calendar, usually for an hour, and the folks who opt-in keep each other company while we slog through our to-do lists. Past tasks accomplished include: filing expense reports, sorting through boxes of mail, and creating a form for an internal survey.
Whether it’s crafts, a book or movie club, or playing games together, having a way to share space in a lightly structured way which prompts learning things about each other is a good move.
Applicable to groups of 50 and above – when you will have critical mass for interest. Ok to do before, but with less frequency.
A certain set of people are often able to make it to BHT or to a topic-based socializing event, and some folk see each other often because they’re on the same project or committee. To introduce some serendipity into the mix, we also have an opt-in channel that randomly pairs two (or three) Trussels together every other week. The Trussels then schedule a time together and meet to talk. We use https://www.donut.ai/
Applicable for groups over 30, highly recommended after 50.
Some folk have fallen into more regular hangouts with each other outside of being randomly paired. Whether once a month or every other week, we fluctuate between explicitly not talking about work or allowing work checkins. Great for deepening relationships with far away coworkers.
Humans are creatures who tend to like recognition of arbitrary cycles. We have a bot to remind us of folks’ birthdays and Trusselversaries. It also gets the gif party started. People opt in to have https://birthdaybot.io/ remind others of their birthdays or join date in a stand-alone channel to keep distractions contained.
Applicable for groups of 15 and more, sooner if you don’t have someone around who cares to track dates.
This channel is our way of saying “hello” or “goodbye” as you enter or leave an office. It’s not a punchclock. It’s not specific to any given team. It’s not mandatory. It’s just a nice place to :wave:. We can wish each other to get well soon, or have a gif party here.
Remembering that people have faces also helps us to remember that they are human. Having a selfies channel in chat reminds folk it’s ok (encouraged, even!) to post pictures of themselves, which lets us see glimpses of their lives.
Discretionary kindness budget
Everyone has a noncumulative budget to do nice things for other Trussels as a part of their Employee Effectiveness Budget (see Resourcing People Properly. We’ve sent each other stickers, coffee cups, and yarn. This helps with bonding of a distributed team in a direct way.
Meeting up with coworkers in other locations
When traveling, it’s fun to see who is also in that area. Having a coffee or a meal together is on Truss, under the 🔒 TDR 0037 – Employee Effectiveness Budget. We’ve done this many times to much success!
You can also read more in our blog post on how to be inclusive of a distributed team.
Interacting in a distributed fashion benefits from a bit more intentionality around facilitating. Interactions serve a number of purposes: collaboration, updates, socializing, alignment on strategy, and celebration. Pay attention to what should be spoken in a meeting, versus posted about async in chat or a doc, versus a combination. See more in our 🔒TDR – 0027 – All Hands Meetings, which describes the different purposes of all hands meetings and how to achieve those goals; and in our blog post on the online meeting.
Fully distributed meetings
If anyone on your team is distributed, everyone on the team should act distributed. 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 meatspace 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, a reliable conferencing system, and mute/unmute skills to mitigate being on the same call in the same room.
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.
Many folk still choose to clump together in conference rooms in different locations, and we’d like to hear more about how this works for them. This may become necessary at 120 people, but from 3-70, fully remote meetings work best.
See more in our 🔒TDR – 0012 – Truss Meetings Will Be Fully Remote By Default about deciding to say if anyone is joining from a laptop, everyone should be on a laptop.
With everyone remote, it can be difficult to tell when someone wants to speak. Eye contact and body language are already difficult in video format, and as the group goes above 9 (your number may vary based on the gelling of the group) visual cues become tiny.
We pull from the activist tradition of taking “stack),” with a twist for being distributed. Participants post “reply” in the video conferencing chat to indicate they want to reply to the current point, “new” for a new topic, and “point” for point of order (keeping things on track).
Applicable for groups of 5 if new to each other; can be forgone if the group is well gelled.
As a group becomes more familiar with this practice, they will self-prompt, rather than needing a facilitator to prompt for each person. This gives a more fluid (and time effective!) conversational flow and is worth encouraging.
Side channel for banter
The chat associated with the video conferencing software can get overwhelming to the speaker and/or facilitator if it is used for banter as well as taking stack. We have a specific room in our non-video-conferencing chat for banter. Keeps everyone engaged without distracting from the main point.
Applicable when banter outweighs stack indicators, or if you have a distractible facilitator or speaker.
We often do breakouts as a chance to hear from more people, faster. Zoom has breakout room functionality which takes some practice but is ultimately very worthwhile. People can’t self-assign to rooms, sadly.
Collaborative, live note taking
Some folk are hard of hearing, or have spotty connections, or had to join late, or just learn better by reading. By 🔒all taking notes together, we both retain more as individuals and for the collective mind. We rotate and opt into note taking responsibilities as it’s no one’s job per se, but everyone benefits. Link is internal how-to reference.
Applicable for groups over 30 – this is when you’ll start to hit your cap of people who usually step up to take notes getting burned out. You’ll notice the same small subset of folk continually taking this on, so encourage a broader set of folk. Pay attention to gender lines, too.
Find a way to still be visual
Many of us are visual thinkers and talkers, and this approach can be lost in a video conference and doc-based-notes setup. It doesn’t need to be. For things like whiteboarding sessions or even just scribbles, posting images of your drawings to the group helps them know what you’re thinking.
We also make use of tools like Miro and Mural to roughly diagram things out together, show a flow we’ve been thinking about for awhile, do card sorting exercises, or approximate sticky note activities.
Applicable to any group with visual thinkers.
Always use timezones
When you’re distributed, timezones become the bane of one’s existence. A 10-2p PT / 1p-5p ET four hour window becomes the time when everything needs to happen for companies constrained to the US. By always indicating timezones, you both make it possible for everyone to make the time you’re requesting and you also have to think about what time it will be for the other people you are talking to. No more “I didn’t realize this would happen at 7a” or “7p your time!” 🔒TDR – 0023 – Always include timezones indicates the organization has decided to do this.
Applicable to groups with more than 5 people outside a “standard” timezone – this is when it becomes difficult to remember who is where.
Pronouns in handles
Make pronouns apparent when communicating. The harder it is to find pronouns, the more likely it is that they have to be verbally communicated at the beginning of a conversation, when someone is misgendered, or when someone changes their pronouns. It also increases the likelihood of someone assuming pronouns. This can cause people to not use the pronouns they prefer and accept misgendering. 🔒TDR – 0024 – Put Pronouns in Slack Display Names and Zoom Names indicates the organization has decided to to this.
Applicable to groups over 15, when remembering or announcing changes becomes difficult.
Resource people correctly
Working space matters
People need a place to work. Make sure they have a place to work, whether a coworking space (🔒TDR – 0039 – Offer a coworking space monthly budget) or through a good home office (🔒TDR – 0040 – Offer a one-time home office improvement budget). Both TDRs indicate internal records of deciding to implement company-wide.
Quality headphones matter
Whether working at home, in an open office, or in a coffee shop, the quality of your headphones can make or break your ability to focus on work or participate in meetings. Truss offers a budget specific to headphones via 🔒TDR – 0003.
Employee effectiveness budget
We know working space and headphones don’t cover everything a Trussel needs to be effective in their work. In fact, we know we can’t predict the specific things each Trussel will need to be effective at their work. So we also offer a monthly employee effectiveness budget for them to figure it out themselves via 🔒TDR – 0037. Includes meeting with other Trussels.
See each other in person sometimes
Face to face connection still has a certain something to it, and so we recommend still seeing other coworkers in person from time to time.
See another human within 3 months of starting work at Truss
We are a fully distributed company, and many folk are the only Trussel in their state. That could be lonely! As a part of onboarding, we highly recommend people meet at least one other 🔒Trussel face to face within the first 3 months of starting work. Read more in the face-to-face policy. Document describes why and how we do this.
If you spend time together, have a coffee or meal on Truss
Sometimes, Trussels are traveling for work or for fun. We like to encourage people to meet up with each other when this is the case, and so we cover a coffee or meal while doing so.
We host a once-a-year company-wide offsite. It’s a chance to align on (and progress) strategy, get to know each other more, and do things like dye each others’ hair and roast marshmallows. Vital for trust building and alignment.
Truss Remote Experience
Sometimes we don’t want to wait until the offsite to see each other, and no business travel is coming up. In those cases, we pick a place and descend upon it. Folk rally around places they want to visit, and then we vote on which we want to go to next. Truss doesn’t foot the bill.