In 1979 Frank Sinatra said, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” He was referring to New York, but today, a more accurate statement might be, “If you can make it everywhere, you can make it anywhere.” In other words, if your company can work effectively with team members distributed across multiple locations, then it can work well in any environment.
In the summer of 2014, I moved from Moscow to open our office in NYC, leaving my team of developers behind in Russia. While I continued to lead the engineering team remotely, the transition taught all of us some important lessons.
When your whole team is sitting in the same room, it’s easy to assume that you don’t need processes like release management, documentation, regular meetings or reports. In that sense, going remote is like taking off the training wheels. The transition forced us to become more disciplined and ultimately made the company more efficient.
Developer, interrupted — little chats are big time wasters
“Got a minute?” How many times do engineers hear that throughout the day? If one person has a question, it’s very likely that others do too. Pretty soon engineers are spending all day answering questions instead of writing code. Studies show that once a knowledge worker gets interrupted, it not only increases stress levels, but it also takes over 23 minutes, on average, to return to the previous task.
Try a closed door policy
Frequent questions can mean knowledge isn’t being disseminated effectively. Are new employees starved for information or context because it’s trapped in email old threads? If that is the case, consider a team wiki or other central repository.
Get information out of Slack into email, where employees who are new to a project can easily go back and find what they need. Encourage document sharing by default, so a single updated version exists and can be easily referenced by everyone.
Keep in mind that software itself won’t solve your problems if your team doesn’t use it (or doesn’t use it properly). Slack, and similar tools, can be overwhelming if employees feel like they have to respond immediately or subscribe to every channel. Likewise, shared information repositories won’t be relevant unless they’re universally adopted as the canonical source for information. It’s absolutely critical for management to set the tone for this. If only some information makes it in, employees won’t bother checking. You want your database to be the Amazon of internal information, not the sidewalk sale of odds and ends.
Get it in writing
Another problem with sidebar chats is that they don’t leave a paper trail. Items agreed on orally can be forgotten or misunderstood, despite both parties thinking that they were on the same page. This leads to more ambiguity down the road.
Besides being time-wasters and unreliable sources of information, these off the cuff conversations rarely get captured anywhere, so they don’t grow the institutional knowledge of the company. Other employees or managers can’t audit the decision-making process and therefore can’t understand how a particular decision was reached.
Using collaboration software, like Confluence or Jira, help employees capture conversations while imposing some structure on the communication itself. Employees can chime in when it’s convenient and new members of the team can get up to speed by following the comment thread. Whether you use dedicated software or simple Google Docs, documenting your decision-making will save you a ton of headaches later.
Long Distance Relationships
Just like adding nodes to a network, adding people to a team increases complexity and overhead for everyone, and the effects of bad habits and sloppy procedures can become magnified exponentially. Don’t wait until things are at the breaking point to formalize project management, communication, and engineering processes. When I began managing my team from the other side of the world, we were forced to sort out all of those things right away. It was sink or swim. We began using JIRA and Confluence way more aggressively to track specifications and software issues. Had we done it sooner, the company would have reaped the benefits of less stress and increased efficiency.
Accountability: Results (and only results) Matter
It may seem counter-intuitive, but working in a distributed fashion can yield better results than having a team onsite. Once you have the frameworks in place, you’ll realize how much easier it is to scale. And doing the work to decouple one employee from the office lays the groundwork for others to work remotely too. This also means you’re no longer restricted to hiring from a particular geographic area — and this is a tremendous advantage, both for access to talent and salaries. Instead of paying high salaries in places like San Francisco, you can offer a better quality of life to employees in less expensive areas.
When your team is remote, showing up at a desk every day isn’t enough. In fact, it doesn’t matter at all. Take the time to set objective, quantifiable KPIs and OKRs. This type of “results only work environment” allows each employee to work in whatever style suits him or her, without worrying about subjective evaluations.
Of course, this relies on everyone being accountable and able to properly manage their own time. In reality, most senior-level employees are already good at this. For those team members that need more structure , try assigning specific hours to be online or having employees in the same area work together in a small office or co-working space.
Meetings Make a Comeback
Meetings are often seen as the bane of productivity — especially by engineers. But when you’re several thousand miles away, online meetings serve as your real-time lifeline to each other. Think of them as quality time, like coming home for the holidays.
And like a trip home, remote meetings need to be planned in advance to accommodate everyone’s schedule — even when it’s just a one-on-one. This encourages participants to come prepared, since it’s more difficult to casually push back or rearrange meeting times. It also discourages random interruptions since participants schedules are clearly blocked off ahead of time.
Sight and Sound
When you’re trying to mimic face-to-face communication over long distances, aesthetics matter. Remember, this is the only real-time contact you’ll have with most of your teammates.
The technical quality of videoconferencing and other internal communications is often an afterthought, but it can have a noticeable effect on the engagement level and emotional connection of your team. You don’t need a TV studio, but paying attention to a few small details can provide major improvements. For example, for video conferencing apps like Google Hangouts or Skype, make sure each person is at his or her own computer. Forcing a group to huddle around a laptop causes people to disengage and can bifurcate the group into what feels like “local” and “remote” members.
Having each participant use a headset, or earbuds with a microphone, reduces crosstalk and provides the clearest sound. Aim for the fidelity of a high-quality podcast and avoid the speakerphone tunnel sound that fatigues listeners and makes them want to disconnect.
Lighting is important too. No one likes looking at a grainy image of face lit by the cold blue light of a laptop screen. As a courtesy to your team members, turn on some decent lighting, even if it’s just bouncing a desk lamp off a nearby wall.
During your meeting, try using a shared document as both an agenda as well as collaborative note and sketch pad. This not only provides a detailed takeaway of the points discussed, but it also provides some visual reinforcement and structure to the conversation.
Slack is Great, But Find Some Overlap
Slack is wonderful, as long as everyone on your team agrees how it will be used. For workers in different timezones, that usually means using it asynchronously (i.e. not expecting an immediate response). Allowing for different response times prevents the aforementioned disruptions, but it also means that it can be inefficient for in-depth conversations. When you need a detailed discussion, schedule a meeting and work things out.
Your team should try to find at least two hours per day when everyone is online simultaneously. Schedule all of your meetings during these precious hours. This can be mean getting up early or staying up late for collaborators on opposite sides of the globe, but for some issues there’s no substitute for connecting in real-time. For everything else, send detailed messages or document the specifics in a collaboration tool like JIRA or Confluence.
Most importantly, schedule two or three trips per year for your team to meet in person. A change in environment can help shift employee mindsets from day-to-day operations to long-term strategic thinking. But don’t discount the need to have some bonding time as well. Participating in non-work activities together reminds everyone that there is a real human being on the other end of that Slack window and that you’re all on the same team.
Working in a distributed environment actually made us more efficient. And while our processes didn’t come together overnight, they made our company more disciplined and more flexible.
Even if you’re not planning on going distributed anytime soon, preparing as if you were can help you spot inefficiencies and fix bad habits before they become ingrained. And being location-agnostic will give your company more flexibility in the future.
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