7 tips for working well as a (partially) remote team
May 22, 2017
Back in the olden days of a whole year ago, when I first joined, Venture Stream was almost entirely office-bound. With the exception of one part-time rebel, we worked in the same physical location and communication was simple.
Then we went (partially) remote.
From zero full-time remote workers at the end of last year to 4.5 with another one due to join at any moment, has been quite the shift in culture. There are plenty of blog posts online listing endless app and software recommendations for working remotely, but the mental and management side of such arrangements is less discussed.
So here are my tips for making sure a (partially) remote team functions as effectively as a physical team, if not more so.
Obviously, this is the biggie. When your development team is working remotely, you can’t just wander up to their desk and take a look at what they’re doing. Open lines of communication and an easy way to check in regularly are a must.
For this we use Slack, which for the uninitiated is basically a group chat app with the ability to create different channels, integrate with various services and communicate both publically and privately, via both text and voice calls.
In the olden days, only our development team used Slack, but now that we’ve gone (partially) remote it’s become much more important to get the whole company on board because . . .
As a remote worker, especially one who hasn’t actually met us in “real life” yet, it’s easy to feel like an outsider. It might seem like an insurmountable task to make a remote worker feel like a real part of the team, but the first steps are simple enough.
Talk to them. Include them in conversations on Slack. As part of this, move some random conversations that would usually be held by shouting across the office into Slack so your remote team members get a chance to join in. Even if they don’t, at least they’ll get to know you a bit more by reading what you write and get a feel for the team dynamic.
It’s important to include remote team members in nonsense conversations as well as the essential, but dry, work-related topics. We like to talk nonsense too!
As a bonus of this approach, whoever is trying to concentrate in the office will thank you for not shouting your conversation over their head 😉
Real life meetups
Working remotely is not only viable, it’s becoming almost the norm in the tech industry. But there’s always something to be said for meeting up properly, getting a few drinks, and chatting about non-work topics for a change.
The logistics of this can be difficult with multiple remote workers since it’s most effective by far to get everyone together at the same time, but it’s worth the effort. You’ll always have one or two staff who just refuse or are too busy to communicate much on Slack, and a real life meetup is a good chance for them to have some interaction with the remote folks too.
As previously stated, when you can’t just tap someone on the shoulder and ask for a progress report keeping projects running smoothly becomes just that little bit harder. We’re still working on this area, but some of the things we’ve adopted so far are:
Daily standups on Slack – they’re not official “standups” as some would recognise them, but simply a daily update on what we’re doing, have done, and any problems getting in our way. As we do this on Slack we’re able to @mention anyone who we need help from, and our managers have a record of what we plan to be working on and can steer us as necessary.
Task management – Previously our team used a wide variety of task management tools based on personal preference, with only the most top-level tasks being tracked where we could all see them. This could potentially have continued to work for such a small team, but with the addition of more staff and especially since those staff are remote it became extra important to keep all of this in one place.
We settled on Teamwork Projects for task management, which we’re still somewhat getting to grips with. With the ability to use it for both tech and marketing projects, and even allow clients limited access to make bug reports, it’s given us much more transparency into what the rest of the team is working on.
A remote member of staff should never be made to feel less important than their teammates.
If there’s an important announcement in the office, let the remote workers know immediately. If everyone in the office is finishing up early to celebrate something, why would you let your remote staff keep working obliviously away?
If you have no problem letting your office staff wander off and chat in the kitchen for 15 minutes at a time, then a 5-minute delay in replying to your Slack message because they were off making a cup of tea shouldn’t count against your remote workers.
Just about nobody thrives in an environment where they don’t feel trusted, and for remote workers there’s an extra level of paranoia in terms of feeling like we need to prove our work output. If we spend all day thoroughly debugging a problem, will the lack of commit messages make it look like we slacked off all day? If we don’t tick off X number of tasks in Teamwork, will they think we just watched TV and had a nap instead of working?
A lot of this can be overcome with communication tools like Slack, but the core of it is trust. Yes, sometimes a remote worker might be away from their desk answering the door. Sometimes, just like an office worker, they’ll have less productive days than usual.
The best thing to do as a manager, or even a regular member of the team, is to trust your remote workers to get their job done the same way you would trust anyone else.
This is a bit of a weird one, but important to point out. Jealousy can creep in on both sides of a partially remote office arrangement, and it can get ugly fast.
Office workers can see remote workers as having more flexibility, as being trusted more than themselves, or even just as being lazy. Solution: If office workers are getting antsy and remote working has been successful so far, why not trial giving other people occasional work-from-home days? Another advantage is that they see how it really is, and it could help to make everyone more aware of any communication issues within the team.
Remote workers can feel left out of goings on in the office. Birthday cakes, special lunches, games nights etc. Solution: This is where inviting to real life meetups, not leaving them out of important information and generally treating everyone equally comes in.
Is it worth it?
All in all a partially remote team seems to be working well for us so far. There are always teething problems with such a big change, and some of them probably haven’t even become apparent yet, but our communication and task management skills have already improved dramatically. There are extra hurdles in the way of communication now, but on the other hand we’ve been able to hire talent that would have otherwise been unavailable to us. As with everything, there are pros and there are cons.
Now the only remaining problem is figuring out how to get everyone together in the same city for a drink . . .