I’ve been working remotely for more than 2 years in multiple roles both as an individual contributor and a leader. Most recently I have been remotely leading a team of 6; 3 based out of an office and 3 remote. As a development manager, I hired 5 out of 6 members on my team and was able to create the team culture from scratch. I’ve strived to created a culture that is remote-friendly and treats everyone as equals no matter where they are located.
Building a remote-friendly team is not just a random collection of things that ends up making remote work better, it actually forces a discipline and clarity of communication that makes your culture and organization stronger, leaner and more productive. If done well, adopting these things can improve the effectiveness even of traditional office-oriented teams and allows them the flexibility to optionally work remotely when needed.
Here are some guidelines I’ve followed to help to create a remote-friendly culture.
All important conversations and decisions are made in a medium where you can join remotely
If you’re in the office and others are remote, resist the urge to just have a quick huddle that excludes those who may be remote. This sort of thing kills a collaborative, inclusive culture and creates unnecessary walls and misunderstandings within your team.
Here’s some ideas of mediums the are open for remote people to join:
- Chat services, such as Slack or Mattermost
- Video conference calls, such as Zoom or Google Hangouts
- Project management services such as Basecamp
- Forum threads
- Blogs such as Automattic’s P2 WordPress theme
Project details are accessible anywhere, anytime
Project details such as epics, stories and bugs should be kept in a system that allows them to be formulated, refined, prioritized and tracked as the work progresses from anywhere. These artifacts end up forming an archive of the work that has been done. Some ideas of tools that you might explore are Jira, Trello, Basecamp or maybe Github Projects.
If you can access these types of project details from anywhere this equalizes all team members regardless of whether they are remote or not. It allows everyone to contribute and understand the process of how work is determined.
Some teams may have been accustomed to using physical artifacts such as a kanban board on the wall to track work. Although this has some benefits, it precludes remote team members from being first-class citizens.
Discussions and decisions from meetings are documented
Documenting decisions makes a place more remote-friendly, but it does more than that, it actually makes it better and more efficient for everyone. Always be capturing.
Video conferencing is available and low-friction
The team needs to have a way to sync up all together for team events such as refinement, planning, stand-ups, and retrospectives and also in smaller groups at will. This means making sure that there is some agreed software such as Zoom or Google Hangouts for doing so. If you have an on-premises part of your team, they need to have high quality and easy-to-use equipment in conference rooms. If it’s too hard to setup the equipment, that barrier may get in the way of impromptu meetings that need to happen and waste lots of time setting things up. If the video or audio is not high quality it can really degrade the experience for everyone.
Turn your video on
When using video conferencing you should encourage everyone to turn their video on. We all communicate a lot non-verbally through our facial expressions and body language. Capturing some of that strengthens the the human connections between people, helps build relationships and makes for richer communication.
You should construct a definition of what the core hours for your team are and everyone should know the expectations of when they need to be available.
A note on meal times: within the bounds of the work day, you should be careful, with rare exceptions, to not schedule meetings over meals within other people’s timezones. Allowing time to break for meals enables people to keep steady blood sugar, refresh their minds, stretch their bodies and be more effective. Meal time is a basic need and you need to be careful when working with a remote team to respect that.
To conclude, I think distributed teams can be amazingly effective and I reckon we will find that in the future we’re all working remotely. Putting these principles into place sets up your team for success long term.