Category culture

I enjoyed reading Jack Danger’s The inherent inclusivity of healthy remote teams post. This post covers some of what Jack perceives are the issues managers and companies with remote team members struggle with.

I see many nuggets of wisdom in Jack’s observations and suggestions on how to deal with them. If you haven’t read this post, I encourage you to do so right now. Even if you aren’t on a remote team. Plenty of those nuggets also work for management in general.

As a whole, Jack’s take on remote teams match observations I’ve made at Haught Codeworks over the years. I found myself commenting on his post in my head as I read along, and I wanted to share my take on the four problems he identifies.

Problem 1: People won’t feel connected to each other on a remote team.

This is a big challenge to tackle with a remote team and I like the points Jack brings up. I will add that I do think being physically isolated makes this harder for some people.

Some of us work well in our home office and some do not. For Haught Codeworks, we’ve had a few teammates over the years that struggled to feel connected while others on the team did just fine. All had roughly the same experience of being involved in a team as well as working on their own. I feel this will be an issue for some remote workers.

I’ll illustrate two of the ways we address this problem.

First, we work in teams that communicate on a daily basis on each of our projects. Regular collaboration on features, whether that’s remote pair programming or frequent video calls to talk through how we’ll implement a solution, reduce the ‘feeling alone’ aspect of remote work.

Second, we have a weekly team call where we share non-work updates on ourselves, starting with what we did for the weekend. That gives the entire team a sense of what’s happening with each other outside of typical work duties. It’s up to each person to decide what they want to share but this simple 15 minutes seems to be surprisingly effective at bringing the team closer.

Problem 2: It’s hard to evaluate people’s performance if you can’t see them working.

I found this inclusion specific to remote teams to be interesting. Isn’t this an issue with all teams? I have to guess that folks are equating employee desk-time with good performance. If so, that’s incredibly flawed. If you’re doing 1on1s, you should have a fairly good sense of what your employees are doing and how productive they are. Whether in person or remote, 1on1s, and not time at a desk is a better way to evaluate your team.

In addition to 1on1s, I do like Jack’s points here and would encourage readers to determine a way to measure performance in some fashion. For our teams, we do PR (pull request) reviews so I can see how someone is doing technically with their work. I also look at how many stories (tasks) a person is involved with on a weekly basis. There are flaws in this approach too, but at least I can see if they’re engaged in the work that team is doing. Again, none of these issues are inherently remote-centric and are just good management practices.

Problem 3: Remote meetings are hard.

I don’t feel that remote meetings are all that hard, with the rare exception of when we’re trying to discuss a complex abstract concept without proper visualizations.

Our experience is that short, focused remote meetings over a video call with screen sharing are very effective. Make sure you have a solid video conferencing tool. Our preferred tool these days is Zoom.

One suggestion I have is to avoid having a conference room with several people in it if part of the team is connecting directly. What happens is that those connecting remotely can’t hear everyone in the conference room clearly, which can be incredibly frustrating. A better experience is where everyone connects to the video call directly.

In many ways, I prefer remote meetings to physical meetings. When a remote meeting is done, we can get right back to work. Physical meetings, especially if you have more than a short walk to the meeting room, take more time out of your day.

Problem 4: Remote teams don’t have as much serendipitous contact.

I love what Jack covers here in this section. Being remote does indeed make this type of interaction harder but I think that’s a blessing in disguise. You have to be intentional about how you strengthen your teams through this sort of activity.

One observation that’s worth reinforcing is how this type of interaction is commonly incidental in co-located teams and that’s hurting those not inclined to interact with their co-workers this way. If you allow this interaction to happen naturally, some of your team will miss out. I’d expect that those not partaking for whatever reason will be less likely to be involved in other ways in their work life and more likely to leave the team as they don’t feel as connected.

To Jack’s overall point, running a remote team well will make your team healthier and more inclusive. Whether your team’s remote or co-located, you’d be wise to make sure you’re being intentional with how the team interacts.