During the Agile Camp Bariloche 2015, there was a discussion session regarding working in remote teams, where attendees shared their experiences and lessons learned while working with distributed teams. The discussion lasted 50 minutes, was attended by 12 people, and I had the chance to drive it. It was a great experience!
Following you can find a summary of what was talked about.
Concept of “Remote Work Culture”
To be part of a team that is spread out, it seems it is useful for all team members to understand and incorporate a remote work culture. This refers to specific mindsets that although may be familiar, become critical when working remotely. We identified the following:
- Have a Plan B for connectivity issues. When you work in an office, it’s expected for there to be ways to manage connectivity issues because someone has made sure solutions exist. But when you work from home, only one person is responsible. For example, you may have a close relative who lives nearby, a bar, or have a second ISP. These backup plans should allow you, for example, to continue with a conference call even if there is a connectivity failure. The important thing is that whoever is working remotely should make sure a Plan B is in place.
- Personalization of people. In the event that the members of a team do not personally know each other, it’s common to begin to “depersonalize” the other. That is, you start thinking of someone as just an email address or a robot, which leads to even greater distance between team members. One way to deal with this is to make it a priority to put names to faces. For example, using a profile picture or holding conference calls with video. Neither of these take much effort, but they have a lot of impact on the human side of the relationship. Other ideas that were mentioned include a) that the team members share a 60-second video introducing themselves b) keep a Skype, Hangout, etc. session open permanently, ideally used with the camera. It is important when you hold a videoconference that you can clearly see the other person’s face to be able to see his/her gestures which are a fundamental part of communication.
- Communication, frequent visibility. It becomes essential that communication be frequent so that team members are in sync. This is especially important in cases where, for example, 5 team members are in one office and 1 is remote. The whole team should make a conscious effort to ensure that decisions and discussions reach everyone. For example, if those 5 people meet for a last-minute discussion, it would be helpful to call the remote team member or make sure whatever was decided during the discussion is shared.
- Transmission of the remote work culture. It is important that team members make an effort to spread the culture of remote work among all members, especially those who do not have experience working remotely. This is important both individually and collectively: it is likely that better results will be achieved if the team views remote work as something they want to see succeed, and that this obligation not lie solely upon those working remotely, but that it be the responsibility of each and every team member.
- Discipline regarding space and time. This can be especially important for someone working from home, and requires the person to organize his space and time so that he can separate work from his other activities. This will allow the team member to feel more comfortable both personally and with the rest of the team. The following tips are suggested:
- Dedicate a space in your home for work. Use this space only for work.
- Define fixed start and end times of the workday, including a lunch break.
- Get ready in the morning as if you were going into the office.
- Let others (customers or team members) know what times you will be available and respect those times.
- Be punctual for meetings. When working remotely, arriving late can cause negative impact, creating an emptiness which can affect relationships with peers.
- Don’t get blocked; always look for a “default action”. If a team member is at home and can’t quickly get ahold of other team members (perhaps due to a time difference or simply because someone is not answering), it is important to try to move on without getting blocked, because when working remotely, such blockages can cause the distance in the relationship to feel even greater (apart from the obvious waste of time). A practical way to handle this is by deciding alone what decision he will make, communicate that decision and continue forward, rather than waiting for a response from the other party.
A remote work culture is not something that is easy to adopt if one has never worked remotely. This is why the entire team should be involved in an adaptation process at the beginning where they will accept that certain things will change and where everyone can decide together to make it work.
To travel or not to travel?
We all agree that the trips help with team building and are crucial at the beginning of a project, or when team members have still not met in person. Then, once the project starts, the practicality of work trips will depend on each project. Some variables identified include: complexity, duration, turnover, and project value.
Don’t abandon pair programming
Consistently dedicating time to remote pair programming seems to be useful in improving the relationship between team members. For example, you can set a schedule for 30 minutes each day.
Recommendations for building a remote team
The following recommendations could be applied to all types of teams; however, they are likely to have greater impact on distributed teams:
- It is easier to work in remote teams with fewer members. The more people there are, the more complex it gets.
- Try to reduce turnover of team members.
- Try to make sure remote team members have experience/seniority. It is very difficult for a trainee to get started on his own without team members next to him.
- Work with people you trust.