How To Remote
Working with a remote team has many advantages*. It can also be hard to do effectively.
* This post is how to remote. As for why, maybe I'll cover that in the future.
Why you should listen to me
I started working at an all remote company two years ago. We have since merged with an onsite ("remote-friendly") company and later been enveloped by a huge corporation. Each step along the way saw the workplace become less friendly to our remote team. This post covers some of the things I have learned.
Complaints and Difficulties
These are a few issues that often come up as obstacles to effective remote work
nobody will do any work
This is a people problem. You do not need to see your engineering team sitting at their desks to know they are working. If there is an issue with the work they are producing then deal with that. Solve the problem at its root. (Hint: not being in the office likely isn't the root of the problem.)
face-to-face is the only way to communicate
I can only have a relationship with people I know "irl"
meetings only work in-person
These are all fallacious arguments and the tools I outline below will help mitigate them.
Can you be Agile?!
People > Process - Do not take this as petulance, I truly believe it. Rigid corporate waterfall "Big-A" agile rituals can be shaped to work for remote teams, but maybe this is a good opportunity to investigate how much value they are really adding. :)
I have opinions about tooling and enumerate them here.
Remote-First vs. Remote-Friendly
Remote-first refers to an organization that prioritizes remote employees, relationships, and communication. While all-remote companies are remote-first by default, companies split between an office and remote can still work in a remote-first style by following a few guidelines.
Remote-first companies handle meetings and company-wide communication using the tooling that the remote employees use. This can include slack, skype/hangouts, and (gasp!) email. A meeting split between in-office and remote should have each participant calling in from their own computer, even if people in the office are at desks next to each other. This sets the meeting up for success by giving the same communication tools to everyone in the meeting. You wouldn't encourage half the people at an in-person meeting have a private text message chain; think of this as the remote analog.
Your meeting cannot be a conference room with half the team and then a camera "for the remotes" to call in and watch. That makes the remote team effectively an afterthought and thus contradicts the remote-first ethos.
Remote-first in a mixed environment is difficult as it requires the on-site people to always keep their remote team members in mind. Some in-office conversations lead to involving a colleague because they are easy to find at their desk. With remote team members, these should be brought online to the correct forum for full-team communication. This helps spread context and include insights from the remote team members.
Remote-friendly describes a company with a mostly in-person culture, but some remote employees. Often, some of those employees will have a desk, but work remotely a few days per week. The key difference is in communication and culture. Many of the considerations of remote-first are ignored. As more communication happens in the office, the remote team members start to lose context. This may work for a company that is mostly colocated.
Be overly clear in all things
Communicating (especially in writing) is difficult! As the primary form of communication on remote teams, we must be careful to explain ourselves clearly. Another way to ensure clear communication is to reach out for clarification via video; a few minutes of conversation can quickly clarify miscommunication. Both sides of any communication are responsible for this final clarity and should be empowered to instigate clarification.
Working remotely requires trust. Employees need to trust management and management must trust their reports. This applies anywhere, but I've seen trust problems blamed on remote. The key here is opening yourself to the vulnerability of trusting your colleagues and making sure that hire people you trust. If you don't trust somebody to do high-quality work then why is that person working for you?
Trust issues are people problems and not related to process.
Conway's Law is a thing although it is not limited to remote teams. Take it into account or avoid it at your peril.
Bring your remote team together periodically. The advice in this post will help with a healthy and productive remote environment, but meeting in person is still a great way to make the team stronger.
Remote happy hours work. Schedule some time at the end of the day, grab your favorite beverage, and chat with your colleagues. You'll get over the weirdness of drinking a beer by yourself and laughing at your computer because you're not by yourself!
Finally, a list of Dos and Don'ts
- encourage (or at least don't stifle) some light-hearted banter in meetings
- pair frequently
- take an interest in your colleagues' lives
- consciously leave room in conversations for people who don't feel comfortable interrupting you
- if you're sharing a screen then only share what people need to see (one application window ought to do it)
- use your video camera **
- assume the best about your colleagues' intentions
- "ghost" by muting both video and audio
- assume that somebody "got" your humor/sarcasm/ribbing/subtle undertones
- differentiate remote employees with demeaning names like "REMOTE," "TV Land," etc.
- treat remote team members differently at all
** I am shy and can sometimes be quiet in conversations. By keeping the video on, I show others that I am engaged. Also, leaving it vid-muted is just rude.
The above-mentioned observations and recommendations can help create an environment where a team can come together comfortably and on even footing. Prescriptions from a blog post will not necessarily apply to your organization, but following the spirit of this post will foster strong remote company culture. The biggest peril of remote work is employees feeling disconnected from each other or left out of the culture and communication in the office. The computer can be a personal shield while reducing your colleagues to pixels; try to explicitly practice empathy with all of your colleagues.