How to build an effective remote team that actually collaborates
Posted on September 20, 2018
This article on building remote teams originally appeared on the Table XI Blog.
The most important rule of building and managing a remote team: the burden of communication is on the people working together from the same location, not the people telecommuting.
It may sound obvious, but I just can’t stress it enough. Because when your head is down in development on a project, it’s easy to slip into side conversations and asides that never end up getting communicated to the remote team members you’re leading. You have to constantly remember to project what you’re doing out to your remote team members. Or pretty quickly you end up working from two entirely different playbooks.
That’s why at Table XI, our primary work infrastructure is engineered to support remote work. While most of us are co-located, we want to stay flexible, and we currently have staff working everywhere from Chile to Seattle. Using remote-friendly systems does a couple of good things for us, which I’ll discuss later, but the key benefit is that it keeps people who are remote from being at a disadvantage. All our work happens in a remote-friendly infrastructure. The rest — coffee runs, lunch breaks, movie nights — are additive. You don’t hear people talking about work on coffee runs.
Here are our tips for engineering effective remote teams:
Create a virtual office
When integrating a remote and local team, the first thing I do is establish an online meeting space, effectively the project workshop. This typically ends up being a chatroom, but whatever it is, it’s important that it will be persistent for the life of the project. By creating a permanent space for conversation, people, whether they’re remote or local, have that feeling of an office, of home.
We use Slack, because it allows us to quickly spin up these channels where teams can talk about their project, or their discipline, or even just their lives. Alicia, our remote project manager wrote about why she’s joined almost every channel:
It’s really chatty, but it helps me know what’s what. I miss the in-person hallway conversations, so keeping an eye on what everyone’s discussing in Slack gives me context.
Give your remote team a way to communicate availability
Once you’ve established a home for the team, you have to give everyone the ability to communicate presence. Just like a physical office, where people wear headphones to show they’re working and can’t be interrupted, you need remote people to be able to say hello, goodbye, I’m not around. Otherwise someone will ask a question and it will go unanswered. Or worse, you’ll be constantly pulling your remote workers away from their tasks.
Use video communication whenever possible
Keeping connected is one of the biggest challenges a remote team is going to face, kind of by definition. My advice: Always use video. Make every meeting a video conference. We like GoToMeeting for its reliability, but Google Hangouts works too. Just give everyone on the team a chance to see each other. Phone calls work, but you need a format that lets the human part come through. Video lets you see facial expressions and read emotions, so you have a better understanding of how people are feeling and what’s engaging them.
Just remember to use the video once you have it. Try to avoid side conversations between co-located people. If two people are whispering about something, the remote people are going to feel left out. Make sure everyone’s projecting their voices and looking into the camera.
Have everyone work in fully collaborative tools
To keep conversation moving, make sure any software or apps you’re using are fully collaborative. That means real-time changes everyone can see. Think Google Docs, not Microsoft Word documents in Sharepoint. If people are worried about whether they’re looking at the latest version or saving over someone else’s edits, you’ll spend half the meeting talking about that, not the work that needs to be done. A truly collaborative document gives you shared context, which in turn gives the team a sense of closeness.
Develop a way for employees to show their work
Once you’ve established a system for meetings and a shared online space for the team, you have to develop an infrastructure for communicating tasks and accountabilities. Because you can’t see when people are working with remote teams, you need a mechanism that communicates what people have accomplished. Otherwise it’s on the remote workers to make noise about what they’re getting done, and we’ve already established that the burden is not on them. Set up a work structure, that lets you give someone a task and lets them deliver it back in a public way. It will keep you from pestering not just your remote workers, but everyone on your team. And it gives everyone a chance for their contributions to be seen.
We’re lucky, because this is actually already built into the Agile workflow and Scrum methodology, where big projects are broken down into small programming tasks and assigned to individual developers. The only training we had to do to make this remote-friendly was find a tracking system that works well for everyone. We use Pivotal Tracker and Redmine for all of our project management needs, but any software will do as long as it’s something your team will actually use.
Deliver project work to third-party tools, not a person
There are so many reasons to deliver to a tool instead of a person that all our teams work this way — blog posts are delivered to WordPress, code is delivered to GitHub, designs are delivered to InVision, etc. Like the above, it lets everyone see when work is done, rather than hiding it in one person’s inbox or Slack direct message. It stops one person from being a roadblock by keeping the work somewhere everyone can access it. And it prevents different people having different versions of the same project. If a design lives in InVision, the designer and front-end developer can start breaking it into development tasks at the same time a project manager runs it by a client.
Create culture and engagement by building in the personal
Working together is always easier when everyone understands each other. If your remote team hasn’t already spent time together in-person, use these same work processes to learn about each other as people. Add 10 minutes at the start of each video meeting to talk about what everyone did over the weekend. Or share periodic memes and GIFs in your chatroom. Do whatever it takes to establish a personal relationship, so these interactions aren’t robotic.
It’s not just about making sure people get along and enjoy their work — though that’s obviously important for employee retention. It’s about creating a rapport so conversations can run more smoothly. You also need to be able to pick up on when someone’s having a tough time. Your remote employees may not always speak up when they’re stuck on something. And you can’t see a furrowed brow if you’re just communicating tasks via Pivotal Tracker.
The benefits of everyone using remote working best practices
I used to be a big proponent of 100 percent remote. In the past, that’s how I operated my own companies. I’ve come off that a little bit now. You lose something without regular face-to-face interaction. That’s why project manager Alicia lists airplanes as a favorite remote working tool. There’s a level of interaction and tempo you can get out of an intense workshop in the same space that you just can’t get being remote.
Still, picking processes that work for remote employees benefits everyone. For your actual remote workers, you can always plan to co-locate when necessary — like for a strategy day or project inception. For your co-located workers, a remote-friendly infrastructure provides its own benefits:
- You learn to communicate with your team in the way that’s most efficient for each task
- Everyone knows what work is expected of them
- Everyone’s work is recognized
- No one’s a roadblock to progress, because everyone’s working in a third-party tool
- There aren’t avoidable version control mistakes, because all the software you’re using is truly collaborative.
- The tempo stays the same, whether someone’s working from home, working in another country, or on vacation
A few weeks ago, our quality assurance specialist Robin was in Spain. An urgent question came up that we just could not wait on, so we sent it his way using these tools. He responded right away, keeping the tempo going with a minimum of disruption to his vacation.
Accommodating remote workers lets us all work smarter. There’s an expectation of 24/7 availability in tech, and while we value work-life balance, we understand that things come up. Being set up for everyone to work remotely means you don’t have to run back into the office if something critical pops up in the middle of the night. The tempo can always keep going.