Divide And Conquer

A little over five months ago on my first day at COMPASS, I shook hands with my new office mates, Chad and Erica, sat down at my computer, and was introduced to the rest of my co-workers: a gaggle of disembodied heads in a Skype window.  Though physically distant, throughout the days and weeks that followed my co-workers would ease me into my new role, guiding me through my responsibilities and the inner-workings of COMPASS via screen-sharing, phone conversations and a flurry of online chat discussions.

COMPASS is a small, non-profit organization.  We are 12 dedicated individuals who work with scientists to help them communicate their science ­– clearly, succinctly, and efficiently – to a variety of audiences.  And, central to how we function, is the fact that we are distributed widely around the United States.

The COMPASS team holds Monday morning scrum meetings over Skype.

It’s more than just our desks… which are located in offices throughout California, Oregon, Washington and Washington, DC… we are constantly on the move: giving workshops, attending conferences, meeting with scientists and policymakers.  At times, this distribution can be so comically vast we once considered creating a “Where in the World is COMPASS?” interactive map resplendent with blinking indicators or a bunch of little Waldos lost on a rotating globe.

This distribution is strategic; it poises us to make and maintain connections to different groups of scientists, organizations, and decision-making bodies.  In fact, with the exception of our DC contingent, the rest of our programmatic staff are housed within academic institutions – University of Washington, Oregon State University, and NCEAS – where we have status as affiliate staff.  This gives us direct access to both scientists and the academic culture.

But physical distribution can also make internal communications complicated. While initially I felt overwhelmed by our DropBox’s labyrinthine filing system, I’ve since found the technical challenges associated with working in a distributed organization to be well worth the time it took to embrace them.  We have managed to bridge mileage gaps through video conferencing, online scheduling, and screen and library sharing in a way that is central to the success of COMPASS and my own ability to do my job well.  Aside from the dozens of tools and programs that we use individually and to interact with those outside COMPASS, here are some resources we use to keep the team connected and up-to-date:

COMPASS is a distributed organization with staff located on both coasts. Photo courtesy of NinJA999 via Flickr.

  • Dropbox– Like a file cabinet in the clouds, Dropbox is a centralized storage system.  Everyone in the group uploads documents and presentations to the appropriate hierarchy of our Dropbox system; it is then synched with our computers for on and offline use.
  • Skype– We use and are on Skype from the moment we step into work until sometimes far later than we should be.  We use it as a chat messenger, as a direct phone line to other team members, as a way to quickly share articles and files, and as an internal video conferencing system for our team check-ins throughout the week.
  • Yammer– Yammer functions as a virtual, intra-office water cooler.  Like Facebook for organizations, it allows us to make groups for topics that we’re interested in and post notices or documents for the team to discuss.  We have internal groups on everything from tech support (“I’m having trouble with GoogleCal, anyone know how to fix this bug?”) and grammar rules (“Did you know that alot  is actually a creature?”) to specific topics we follow like Ocean Acidification (“Check out this news article in Science featuring the Whiskey Creek Hatchery Story.”). Yammer has drastically reduced internal email traffic and has allowed us to raise team awareness and understanding of various issues that others are working on.
  • GoogleDocs– We use GoogleDocs, like many organizations, to edit shared files.
  • Mendeley– An extremely useful program that functions as COMPASS’ collective library of scientific articles, Mendeley is also one part reference manager, one part scientific social network and one part group editing/commenting software for articles in PDF form.
  • Tungle, or ScheduleOnce– COMPASS used Tungle – a now mostly-defunct online scheduler – for arranging internal and external meetings, and has been hard-pressed to find its replacement.  After beta-testing a number of alternatives, we’ve since settled on ScheduleOnce, a program with a very different user-interface that still allows us to coordinate the availability of a group of people to find a time to meet. (How does your office coordinate scheduling?  We’d love to hear about it!)  Change is never easy, but it is our ability and willingness to adapt to changing technology, that keeps COMPASS’ virtual office fresh and highly functional.

  Distributed organizations are an increasing phenomenon… check out other ways organizations are doing it, grappling with the problems, and liking it.

About Meghan Miner

Meghan was a Science Outreach Specialist at COMPASS.


  1. One of my other favorites is being able to use Yuuguu to not only share our screens but to be able to take over remotely for tech support & training. Saves a lot of time and stress.

  2. Working in a distributed organization is a fundamentally different work culture- it alters how you approach both your work space and time allocation. Scheduling meetings with team-members on different sides of the country can often be a barrier to productive work time. Though it’s a constant struggle to maximize work productivity in any work environment, COMPASS also incorporates techniques that help us to manage our work space and time effectively, including no-call “Silent Fridays”. Here’s a TED Talk that speaks to how the elements of space and time work in tandem to create a productive environment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5XD2kNopsUs&feature=player_embedded#!.

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