Where are you the most productive: at home or your office desk? What’s your most productive time of the day? Ask those question to different people, and you’ll hear different answers. The fact is: some people work more efficiently outside of their offices. On top of that, various business factors may lead companies to hire remote workers and eventually have remote teams. In this article, I don’t want to discuss remote vs. on-site. Both setups have their pros and cons. Instead, I want to focus on 3 essential pillars of successful remote teams, which I derived from my experience. As it happened, only my first company was entirely on-site. All other companies in my career had remote teams or workers.
Members of a remote team are limited in communication. Slacking or emailing isn’t that convenient as just chatting in the office. Remote work opens a better opportunity for focusing on a task but limits knowledge exchange. It also raises valid performance concerns: we don’t know how much time is invested by a remote worker. Do we care about that?
Each business tries to do a simple thing: earn more than it spends. Paying employees is an expense. Therefore we want to make sure whatever those employees do, brings way more money than we spend. For the sake of simplicity, let’s break down the whole business process into two phases: planning and execution. We’ll have the best results when after a perfect plan comes the efficient implementation of it. Let’s assume we have the best plan ever. How to be efficient?
Now we’ve asked the right question. We don’t really care how much time team members spend. We care about their efficiency. And the key to that is transparency. At any point in time, each team member should have answers to these questions:
- What should I do now?
- How should I do it?
- What happens if I do it?
- What happens if I don’t do it?
When the answers aren’t known, there should be a quick way to find them. That’s transparency. On-site teams need it as well, but remote teams depend on transparency even more, because there are less trust and less communication by default. High level of transparency enables fast knowledge exchange and guides people’s decisions. Consider these examples:
- Peter knows what to do and knows how to do it. But nobody told him what happens if he spends 10 days on the feature instead of 5. This creates a temptation for Peter to be less efficient and devote time to something else.
- Cora has a clear deadline. She knows what has to be done and what happens if the deadline isn’t met. But she never worked in that part of the product, so she doesn’t completely understand how to do certain things. Cora has a chance not to meet the deadline.
It’s normal when team members don’t know something, but they should have easy access to information. All aspects of their job should be transparent to them.
Trust by Default
As mentioned above, remote teams have less communication and less trust by default. These two aspects depend on each other. And of course, how can you trust someone who occasionally pops up in video calls and writes critical pull request feedbacks on GitHub? Trust isn’t something you can get overnight. You have to build it. Constant communication, which includes 1on1s, stand-ups, team events, and mutual success—are the ways to build trust.
In the first months of collaboration, trust doesn’t exist on a reasonable level. When someone is lagging, you think they’re not putting in enough effort. When someone is too critical, you think they’re just a jerk. You don’t trust, so you assume the worst. How can this be solved? Well, make sure everything is transparent, and expectations are set clearly. Start building trust via communication and in the meantime, trust by default. Time will set things straight. If someone is really not suitable for your team, everyone will notice that. But if you don’t trust by default, you risk focusing more on management and even micro-management, then the actual work of building the product.
When you’re working remote, you don’t have a sharp sensation of a team. No one is around, and dedicated slack channels don’t help to create that feeling.
Why should you care? Well, if you want to benefit from the effects of collaboration and joint thinking, you should have a team. Without a team, you’ll just have a bunch of individual contributors. With such setup, people tend to put a focus on themselves, their contributions, and their goals. They will not care much about the bigger picture. Most companies want employees to care about their products and not just code commits. It’s also helpful when a contributor knows the impacts of their contributions. Do they see changes to people’s lives or only code functions? Do they know what happens if they underperform? What will happen if they don’t document their code or write it messily? Thinking beyond the individual level has a significant impact on all aspects of contribution. Therefore team effect matters. And how can we create it?
Remote workers need to be reminded of team existence. One way to do it is by having daily stand-up meetings. Another is regular team events.
On one of my jobs, I spent years talking to my colleagues over Skype, and I’d never physically seen them. We didn’t have a team-building policy at the time, we just worked. All remote, as a group of private contractors, rather than colleagues. In another company, when I had trust issues with one of my colleagues, meeting him in person (and drinking beer ;) broke the ice. It gave us a massive boost in our relationship.
Creating a strong team culture requires physical meetings once in a while. It’s an investment in the future productivity of the team and the success of the company. Teams without strong connections will quickly fall apart under stress. Meet your colleagues personally and have fun with them. Maybe that guy who argues with you on slack will not seem that bad when you shake his hand ;)