Nov 30, 2018
I've been working partially remote for the last 3 years and although at times it's been challenging, it's mostly been a success.
My biggest remote working experience to date is in the Avocet engineering team where we work across four regions: UK, USA, Germany and South Africa with 50% of the engineers working remotely. As is often the case with engineering teams, the hiring happens where the talent is and with our tools being online via keyboards, we’re rarely AFK - but, we're often AFO (away from office).
This ability to work from any location is a major benefit of the technological age, however, it can only exist when communications are crystal clear and most importantly - efficient.
I've found several methods useful when trying to keep an engineering team in sync.
One of the most effective methods of communication is weekly video calls. This is a great opportunity to discuss current and upcoming affairs and usually includes what each engineer is working on, timelines of completion, upcoming events and anything mission critical.
It's usually beneficial to keep each call to around 15 minutes (where possible) and try not to deviate off topic as this keeps information fresh and reduces the chances of you forgetting something important. If you need to have a more specific chat about a certain subject, use a better-suited method of communication or schedule another call.
As working remotely can sometimes get lonely, video chats mean you can all see each other's faces (and dogs) and this allows you to feel like you're physically together with the team.
IM vs. Email
Whether it be Slack, Skype, HipChat or similar: IM is great, but it's definitely not the answer for all communications - especially in a remote team. It’s great for day-to-day conversations and informal chat, maybe the odd announcement, but it's very easy for comms to get lost in a channel or thread when employees are spread across different time zones.
And most annoyingly - IM is extremely distracting!
This is where email comes in. Personally, email is my favourite form of communication as it’s not instant and it’s a lot more formal. People tend to take more time writing an email because it’s critical to get your point across the first time around.
Most importantly, email can be used to send and receive mission-critical messages. Alerts, on-call schedules, monitoring stats, reports, etc. are all absolutely vital pieces of information and can easily be lost or overlooked if sent via IM.
Meetings can be great. But in order to keep them productive, I find it useful to enforce a small set of rules:
- Send an invite, including timezones, and have it accepted.
- Include an agenda.
- Keep them to a maximum - usually 30 mins to 1 hour.
- No phones or machines if not speaking.
- Always send out a recap - usually via email.
In an engineering team, it's good to only schedule meetings when a subject requires the whole team’s input. For example, discussing a new product feature, gathering requirements for a task, etc. This is extremely important in a remote team as it is imperative that each engineer feels included and has a chance to share their thoughts as it is much easier for non-remote engineers to have a face-to-face chat with each other.
If (and this is a big IF) a meeting needs to run across multiple hours or days, schedule regular intervals and always have a cathup on the previous session before starting agian.
Although technology has the power to connect us wherever we are, nothing beats face-to-face idea-sharing and discussions. Developer Summits are a great time for all of the team to get together to discuss workflows, roadmaps ahead as well as personal and team goals. Getting the whole team together is a much appreciated time of the year that helps to somewhat overcome the social impact of working remotely - and crack jokes with perfect comic timing, rather than relying on GIFs!
In summary, communication is the key to any successful and productive team. However, when it comes to getting the best out of a remote team it’s important to ensure that communication travels through the right channels. Hangouts, IM, Email, meetings and summits all have their place in the successful management of cohesion and efficiency.