Introduction: A Shift in Perspective
Majority of our team consisting of almost 100 engineers, spread across Vadodara, Pune, and Coimbatore, has been working remotely, since March 2020.
The last year has taught us many lessons on operating a (no longer small) company in a remote environment. We have struggled in some cases and have done OK in others.
The pandemic has forced us to critically look at our assumptions and rethink our way of working.
Looking back, I want to talk about some of the lessons learned managing remote teams in a challenging and productive year.
Picking the Right Tools
Managing Information Overload
Slack has become a critical tool for my work both at Jeavio and at our portfolio companies. As our team grew, our “general” channel became overwhelmed with friendly birthday greetings, company announcements, and other chatter. I also struggled to keep up with the rapid explosion of project-specific channels.
We used slack as an announcement system, a coordination platform, and a place for debate and discussion. This can easily lead to information overload. We need to take a mindful approach to pick the right tool for the job at hand.
Long-form communication might be best suited to email, asynchronous but time-sensitive communication to instant messaging, and discussions that may require building consensus are best suited to a quick, agenda-driven, video call.
Given different personalities and communication styles, each team must decide what makes sense for them. Either way, clear guidelines are required to keep from being overwhelmed and to keep information overload at bay.
Avoiding Document Debt
Poorly managed and stale information is as bad as having no information at all. As a new team member, trying to figure whether a document is relevant can be an enormously frustrating experience.
As an engineer, I have come across the concept of Technical Debt before, but Document Debt can also be problematic.
We pay a lot of attention to source control systems and Git workflows for source code. However, document versioning can be an afterthought. Naming conventions or folder hierarchies to figure out which documents are relevant.
A simple, effectively communicated document management process is essential to avoid document debt. Careful use of collaboration tools such as Confluence, Notion, Google Drive, or Dropbox can come to the rescue.
Making the most of Synchronous Communication
While video conferencing tools are critical to keeping things going in a remote environment, “Zoom fatigue” is a real problem.
Navigating different time zones, domestic responsibilities, and competing priorities make the time available for effective synchronous communication enabled by the likes of Zoom a precious resource. It is critical to treat that time in video calls with respect, to ration it, and to make sure that meetings have defined agendas and the participants have clear expectations. It is also important to record events like all-hands meetings so that they are available to the entire team in case they can’t make it.
The challenges of Asynchronous Communication
Before Zoom and slack, we had the humble memo and email. We now have wikis, code reviews, user stories, support tickets, and other written communication forms. To communicate well in this context, we need to use approaches that support clear, concise, and accurate communication over different mediums, usually asynchronously.
It is essential to have clear style guides and standards for code reviews, user stories, and support tickets. Teams must become used to writing things down while making sure things don’t go stale or generating an overwhelming deluge of information. A good rule of thumb is described by Preeti Somal at Hashicorp – “if more than two people need to know something, we should write it down”.
Collective Decision Making
Decision making involves building consensus, communicating clearly, and allowing space for discussions and disagreements. When you can’t have in-person discussions to hash out a complicated topic; the ability to have processes that enable sound decision making becomes vital.
Good decision making can be enabled by access to relevant information, good judgement as well as giving your team the agency to decide. While there are formal frameworks (like the DACI framework by Atlassian), just having a written decision-making framework is a good start.
The use of collaborative documents to record and make decisions is an excellent first step. The open-source community has been doing so using the RFC process for decades!
The Human Element
Transposing the patterns of office work to a remote environment does not work. People working from home will have different challenges. It is unrealistic for a manager to expect everyone to conform to a rigid schedule. Giving people the time to care for children or their family members during their working hours is essential.
Trust, then, becomes the most critical element in working with a remote team. A leader must learn to trust their team. Concepts such as Tobi Luttke’s Trust Battery are useful tools for a leader to think through how to build relationships based on trust.
Being fully remote also robs team members of meaningful context. Remote work can also amplify cultural boundaries. So it is vital to make ambiguous or implicit communication explicit.
Finally, there is a genuine danger of quieter colleagues suddenly falling victim to the “out of sight, out of mind.” Ensuring one-to-one meetings happen and giving even the least assertive team members a comfortable medium of communication is vital.
Conclusion: Here To Stay
I am writing this post in January 2021. At some point this year, we might go back to the office and leave remote working behind. But the challenges described above have also given us opportunities.
We now have access to a large and deep global talent pool. Our team has shown that it can adapt and be productive in different and challenging circumstances. While we will welcome the end of social distancing and the return of office camaraderie, we will also emerge with better tools, more effective communication, better decision making and more empathy for our team.