The Secret to a Successful Distributed Team? Ask Aretha.

I’ve been at Harvest for more than two years, and in that time I’ve seen our team grow from 8 to 25 people. A large portion of our team is in NYC, but we’ve also got coworkers in 6 US states, Hungary and Canada. On top of that, Harvesters have also been know to take “work-cations” where they travel somewhere outside of the office, but work a full day as if they hadn’t left.

With a group scattered all over the place, it’s really important that the people who join our team can be counted on to deliver. I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in the hiring process at Harvest and, though I think I’ve done a fair job, I’ve never really nailed down a checklist of qualities someone should have before they’re allowed to join the Harvest fold.

Over the past two months, I’ve been working from the road as my wife and I tour the US and southern Canada. The trip has afforded me some time to visit four of my remote coworkers and spend a few days working with them on their home turf. Working in remote coworkers’ natural environments has given me a little perspective into how their day works and how they view our teammates. It’s also given me a better sense of who they are as people.

My trip has gotten me back to thinking about what makes a good coworker and my conclusions aren’t exactly rocket science: you want someone who builds things that she’s proud of and who cares about her tools and methodology, you want someone you can trust to sit and work and not play video games all day, and you want someone who can have a conversation with you even though your worldviews may not always be 100% lined up.

It turns out that these qualities can be summed up in one perfectly magical word: respect.

When talented people respect each other, building a web application feels like no big deal. Digging in on a hard problem isn’t as intimidating when you know there are 9 other developers who have your back. It’s more comfortable to argue a position you believe in when you know your opinion will receive real consideration. It’s easy to point out to someone a potentially better way to do something when you know they’re not going to freak out that you stuck your nose into their turf.

Harvest’s culture of respect isn’t something that can be artificially generated or forced upon a team. Respect can’t be learned from a company handbook or a few weeks of training – respect comes from a lifetime of experience interacting with other people. You can hire all the genius rockstar ninja magicians you want, but hiring even one person who holds his coworkers in contempt will poison the well for everyone.

The next time I’m asked to talk with a candidate, I’m going to put R-E-S-P-E-C-T at the top of my checklist.