In light of the recent coronavirus outbreaks, more and more companies are seriously considering setting up work-from-home arrangements for their employees. Even further, many are considering going fully remote, at least for the time being.
I’ve had the privilege of managing both on-site and remote teams at Synacy. We’re quite fortunate to already have the infrastructure in place as all our work tools are online, and all our software engineers are on laptops which they can bring out of the office anytime. Likewise, we’ve already set our expectations for distributed team members and have a basic (but still growing) set of best practices we encourage remote teams to follow. All of that made our decision to allow full remote work, within certain parameters, a whole lot easier.
Personally, here are a few things I’ve learned in the last year about working remotely and managing remote teams that I would like to share, in the hope of helping others make a smooth transition. (I’ll skip the obvious parts like making a good internet connection mandatory, though if you haven’t thought about that, it’s a definite must.)
Overlap hours are critical.
Availability is key when it comes to remote work. You can do a lot of asynchronous work, for sure, but in today’s software development environment, collaboration can’t be downplayed. Working together at least half the day allows you to make sure review feedback is discussed thoroughly and quickly, to check in with each other (especially important during the initial transition), and to generally get answers fast.
Note that this may not be possible when you’re working in distant time zones, though it’s not uncommon for companies to implement shifts to at least have an hour or two to work together. It’s a testament to how synchronizing with each other even for a fraction of the day is almost non-negotiable in this kind of work environment.
Small talk can be big.
1-on-1’s are essential for any manager, regardless of whether you’re on-site or remote. The need is amplified, however, with a remote or distributed team. Remote isolation is a real thing that we need to keep track of when managing a remote team. The lack of face to face interactions, “water cooler chats”, and being around people, in general, can be debilitating if left unaddressed.
Small talk is called “small” for a reason – it typically doesn’t have any meaningful impact in the bigger picture. But in a remote working environment, small talk can be really big. Getting a few minutes in to casually check in and bond with remote teammates can have an incredible impact on allowing everyone to feel more a part of the team.
Use both synchronous and asynchronous communication channels.
Here’s a great article by Doist on why asynchronous communication is important. In my experience working remotely, there will definitely be a lot of asynchronous communication (e.g. emails, forums, blog posts). You can’t just pop your head up and shoot a quick question to a colleague across the table or beside you. But synchronous communication (e.g. chat, phone calls, video calls) definitely has its place as well. Successful remote work depends on your ability to navigate these two different channels.
I would usually measure information on scales of urgency and permanence, two attributes that I’ve found often inversely correlate. The more urgent the matter, the more synchronous your communication should be. The more permanent the information becomes, on the other hand, the more asynchronous it might need to be, sometimes to the point of being unidirectional. This is only a rule of thumb for me, though, and your actual practice should continuously adjust to your actual context.
Output is key.
If you don’t want to micromanage a remote team, you need to shift your mindset to be more output-driven, instead of time-based. Here’s one observation I have about myself when working remotely – I always feel a lot more pressure (in a good way) to deliver. When you’re physically in an office for a period of time, it’s easy to justify that you’re working just by being present, even if you’re actually unproductive. Working remotely, however, makes you feel like you need to prove it by delivering actual value.
The shift from being time-based to output-based can be a bit uncomfortable. But flexibility of time is a key characteristic (and benefit) of remote work, and trying to maximize that benefit should never be considered an “abuse” of the system. Want to go out for a workout or take a nap in the middle of the day? Why not? As long as you deliver on your commitments (that includes your availability for collaboration), it shouldn’t be an issue.
On a side note, do check out my recent article on measuring a software developer’s productivity, for ideas on how to focus on output rather than time.
Don’t mix remote and on-site members in the same team.
This is one principle we adhere to in our distributed team. I assume it’s not something that people might unanimously agree with and your mileage might definitely vary. It’s understandably tempting to mix teams in light of the current situation just to minimize the impact of the transition.
But by many accounts, when remote and on-site members form a single team, on-site members will just eventually form some sort of sub-team and remote members end up feeling isolated not just from the rest of the organization, but even within their own teams. I think the critical mass concept applies here. A balanced mix might work, but if most of the team is on-site, it’s pretty clear the remote members will eventually feel left out and left behind on all the discussions that happen on site.
If you do need to have members on-site, it’s important to make sure everyone commits to your remote-first principles and makes an effort to adhere to your best practices. It’s not completely avoidable for people to talk face to face, but there should be a conscious effort to minimize the isolation for remote members and keep them up to date on what’s going on.
Should we go remote?
All of that said, I believe the big question at this point for most people is not how, but should we go remote. I definitely don’t have an answer to that. People often imagine remote work as being in pajamas the whole day and slacking off whenever you feel like it. But the truth is, while it has its perks, remote work takes a lot more effort and discipline to pull off, both for the organization and the individual.
I’m personally part of a distributed team, though in practice, I’m really semi-remote as I usually spend only a day or two each week working from home. This is because while remote work has its advantages and strengths to offer, it’s still important for me to maximize the advantages of being on-site as a manager.
Nevertheless, while it’s definitely more challenging, I believe managing fully remote teams can be done effectively with the right tools, the right mindset, and the right practices. I hope this article helps!
Dexter is an engineering manager at Synacy, a co-founder of ATeam Business Software Solutions, and founder of TechManagement.Life. He loves to share his experiences and thoughts on managing software teams and running businesses.