A “Distributed Teams” workshop, distributed across eastern Australia

Earlier this year, while in Sydney, I gave a presentation on distributed teams at Fishburners in Sydney Startup Hub. As I blogged about before, the Sydney Startup Hub is huge – a government supported initiative bringing together multiple co-working spaces under one roof to create a critical mass of entrepreneurs and literally revitalize the entire neighborhood. The event was packed. The attendance was even more impressive when you keep in mind that this was a holiday week in Australia, so all those attending interrupted their vacations to come to a work event! The event was so successful that afterwards, I was asked if I would do another session.

The twist was that this next session would be with co-working members who were not able to make the journey to Sydney in person.

It turns out that many of those attending my session traveled hours to be there. Because Australia is so large, Fishburners has a special “virtual membership” for people who are not in Sydney, yet need the features of a great co-working community, professional support, business networking and the occasional professional desk space with wifi when visiting Sydney for meetings. Catherine “Cat” Kitney is Head of Virtual at Fishburners and felt this session would be particularly helpful to those “virtual” members – if it could be done.

Holding a session on how to work well while physically distributed to a group of people who are themselves already physically distributed is tricky. The idea of explaining video etiquette to strangers who might not have working video or stable internet was concerning. Also, my workshops tend to have quite a lot of interactive Q+A as topics come up. I enjoy the questions and lively real world anecdotes but was worried that this back-and-forth might be too unstructured for a large, very distributed video call where strangers without shared cultural norms might talk over each other and keep tripping over internet and microphone glitches. Overall, it felt like a bootstrap problem and I was concerned by the very real risk these mechanical risks could turn the session into a bad waste of everyone’s time.

Fortunately, this group of people had already been trying to wrestle with the various mechanical barriers for a while now, and Cat was willing to support me as “remote moderator” during the session, so we agreed to try this experiment – a large workshop on a video call about distributed teams, with distributed strangers I’d never met before.

Those attending were scattered along the eastern coast of Australia. The bigger towns represented were Brisbane, Coffs Harbor, Wollongong, Sydney and Byron Bay, with some people joining from countryside between those towns. I was the only person in a different timezone – now back home in San Francisco.

If you’ve never been to Australia, its easy to lose sight of the sheer scale of the place. Driving from Brisbane to Wollongong would take ~12hours – not including any stops for breaks. For context, driving from Ashland, Oregon to Los Angeles, California is shorter. Also shorter is Boston, Massachusetts to Raleigh, NorthCarolina. And Berlin to Paris. Australia is big. Very big.

The session was a great success.

There was lots of Q+A throughout, and Cat did a great job moderating to make sure all questions were answered and the flow of discussions felt naturally inclusive. Most people who joined were the only attendee at their physical location, with only a few people who gathered physically in one meeting room together. Everyone’s internet connections was solid and high speed throughout. We never hit any of the camera/microphone problems I had been worried about. It all just worked, flawlessly. There were even impromptu side discussions between different participants across the different locations. Everyone was very eager and motivated to learn how to work better together while physically apart. After all, this was the reality of their daily lives!

Several discussions have continued since then, with some interesting further developments being worked on. More on those later. For now, I just wanted to note that the idea, and the entire event, was a great success.

Thank you, Cat for suggesting the idea and also to Fishburners for putting so much practical attention into their “virtual membership” as a way to help encourage entrepreneurs across all of Australia. Very very cool to see and I admire them for it.