How to make remote teams work
With ever increasing salaries in competitive markets, a lack of quality software engineering talent and office rental costs spiralling upwards, more and more businesses are considering remote members to grow their teams.
Here are some of our thoughts, suggestions and general observations
Access to a new, wider talent pool.
Let’s face it, if you are based in any major city trying to hire software engineers you are one of a thousand companies competing for the same talent. You might think you have the hottest tech stack, coolest office, best stocked beer fridge, more games than you can shake a pool cue at, but so has everyone else.
Of course we all know about Facebook, Google etc and their super cool offices dotted around the globe, but even companies that you wouldn’t automatically associate with being the cool kids on the block have upped their game to attract the best talent. Check out these Tech Crunch Cribs videos here
One possible solution is to look further afield; whether that’s within your home country or across the globe. There are plenty of amazing engineers who work remotely and they are experienced in the practices that make distributed teams work.
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Managing remote teams
One of the downsides of remote teams is the obvious physical distance between the team members. You might think in this highly connected world that this isn’t an issue, but please don’t underestimate the effort needed to keep everyone connected. There is a big difference between being tooled up to the max and managing effective internal communication.
It’s so easy for those quick 2 minute ‘huddles’ where everyone within earshot quickly gets involved (you know the ones) to morph into a key product decision and everyone who wasn’t at the party (usually the remote guys) to be be completely oblivious until they see the end result (“oh that’s nice - when did we decide that”).
Clearly you can’t choke spontaneous thinking (it’s where some of the greatest ideas come from), but it’s the team’s responsibility to feed that back into the remote team members to get them involved. If they start to feel left out they will be disenfranchised and the cohesiveness of the team will be affected.
You might think that since the whole team sits there from dawn till dusk with their noise cancelling ear muffler / headphones nodding along to Spotify whilst tapping away on their keyboards on hip chat or skype, that verbal communication is dead, but it’s those spontaneous moments that can cause a huge rift.
Daily stand ups become hugely important, those 10 minutes where everyone is away from their desk, updating the rest of the team on their progress are crucial to bonding the team and keeping everyone in the loop. Depending in team size skype is a perfectly capable tool to bring everyone in.
Weekly updates - At our previous start up we tried to have an all hands every couple of weeks (my bad, this didn’t always happen, will try and fix that this time around!) - we were only 15-20 people so everyone gathered round a lap top (one in London and one in Guernsey, we were co-located rather than remote).
Most of the time it involved a mix of product roadmap updates and analysis on the impact (both positive and negative) of the latest big release - ie did it shift the metric we were aiming to shift (did we reduce churn, did we drive down cost per new customer, did we increase virality etc). It’s important that everyone feels involved in the end results - no one wants to be a code monkey where their only involvement in the project is their next jira ticket.
We also invited anyone in the team to host a session, this could be the head of UX to talk through her latest thought on the new lobby layout to the head of analytics talking about a new dashboard in Tableau.
Open video channels - we didn’t try this but feedback from teams we’ve spoken to have said this works well. It really depends on the office set up and bandwidth! But just keeping Skype open can make a huge difference - it doesn’t mean it has to be too intrusive, but it’s a constant reminder that everyones working together.
Chat groups - whether it’s Google hangouts, Hipchat, Skype or Slack there are so many to choose from. My advice is try and get everyone using the same tool, it’s no good if half the team are using HipChat and the others are using Skype. Also, IM isn’t a substitute for good old fashioned verbal chit chat. It’s amazing how long you can spend on an IM discussion compared to a call.
Not everyone is cut out for remote work
Someone described this perfectly recently - hire ‘doers’, they’ll still need direction and guidance but ultimately you need people who just get on with it.
If you are operating a flexible work schedule you can’t be constantly worrying. You need to hire people you can trust to deliver.
Can you mix it up?
Some say you need to make a call: all remote or all in the office. Personally I think you can mix it up, but you still need to make sure the remote teams all feel part of the team. As soon as you get into a situation of them and us, you’re in trouble.
Whichever way you do it, you should aim to get everyone together as often as practical. It might not be possible to do it all at once (last thing you want is a support call and everyone’s 30,000 ft in the air). We noticed a reduction in nit picking and an increase in banter after getting team members together.
Regular catch ups
Even though you can offer greater flexibility, you still need to set up regular virtual catch ups. These shouldn’t be limited to direct reporting lines. We tried to set up 1/4ly or half yearly catch ups with the CEO where everyone from marketing to engineering would have a relaxed chat. Sometimes these only took a few minutes, but sometimes much, much longer. Never assume people will come an tell you their thoughts or concerns randomly - some people need a nudge to spill the beans.
At Geektastic we plan to have a mix of office based and remote team members, with flexibility to come into the office or work from home. But these processes and tools discussed here are baked into our DNA to help make it work.