Engineering Best Practices
Tips and Tricks for Remote Teams
I was asked recently how my team first established a functional remote culture, and realized that it started on the first day we were onboarded to the team – everyone introduced themselves via instant messaging, email, and phone calls. It set up a precedent from day one that this was a team who communicates regularly both for work-related and informal reasons.
Not having the luxury of re-doing the start of our remote work within Diligent, we now find ourselves trying to establish new cultural norms and best practices after the fact, without that initial introduction to remote communications. In an effort to keep your teams connected and engaged, the following is a framing of best practices and perspectives around remote work.
Building a Foundation for Remote Communication
The key to maintaining a cohesive remote team is rooted in being mindful that everyone on the other end of the network is a fellow human being. The work-related communications we share are only a small piece of who we are, and what is going on in our lives. We need to engage with each other as people, not work resources.
First, I recommend envisioning what your current communications with your co-workers would look like in person. Imagine, if you will, that you are working in an office environment, and there is one person who comes in every day, never says “Hello”, never has an informal chat… they just walk by your desk and make impersonal demands or ask work-related questions. They would not exactly be seen as the friendliest person in the office. It may be someone you can work with, but not someone you want to go to lunch with and collaborate on new visions with. They are not the ideal co-worker. When working remotely, we can come off as that kind of co-worker if the only time we reach out to each other is to talk about specific work concerns. We need to put some humanity into our interactions.
Expanding Communications: A Person-Focused Approach
When all communications are strictly work-focused, we don’t get an accurate pulse across team members and collaboration becomes more difficult and less productive. The following suggestions outline the best way to avoid this:
Use Slack for casual conversation – Possibly the most logical reason it’s hard for us to strike up a casual conversation with other remote workers is because we simply are not in the habit of doing so. It’s easy to feel as though you’re bothering someone when they are 10 or 1000 miles away working in a separate space. But sending someone a message on Slack is no more an interruption to their work than walking up to their desk in an office. In many ways, it’s less of an interruption, because they don’t have to look at it right away. Send slack messages to greet team members in the morning, to just say, “Hi”, and checking, and to brainstorm ideas. Once you start doing so, it feels natural to keep talking to your team, and informal conversations happen just like they would in an office. When a topic comes up in informal discussions that should be discussed in-depth by the team, it’s easy to transition from a Slack conversation to a more formal call and invite other stakeholders. Pull people in as needed, drop off when not needed, just like you would walk in and out of a conversation in an office break room. And schedule a meeting when needed, again just as you would if a hallway conversation in an office led to such a conclusion. I’d recommend two habits to try for a week or two:
Make an effort to say good morning to your team.
Create a team Slack channel specifically for chit chat, and have some fun when talking to each other. (This also makes it easy to say good morning, as you are saying it to the whole team, not putting one person on the spot.)
Don’t be too focused when starting a meeting – While we do want online meetings to be effective, we don’t want to turn our working relationships into robotic communications. When a meeting starts up, spend a minute just talking. In addition to building a cohesive team and getting to know each other better, it gives latecomers a chance to dial in without missing important content from the actual meeting purpose. Resist the urge to think of idle chatting on a meeting as wasted time – instead, think of it as team building. Also resist the urge to see someone who is late to a meeting as a problem – remember that just like you, they have a life going on the other side of the line.
Consider the personalities on your team — Be aware of who on the team is introverted vs. extroverted, social vs. analytical, and other such traits. If you get on a call with an analytical introvert and spend five minutes talking about how your weekend was, they’ll get annoyed. But if you get on a call with a social extrovert and do not talk about such things, then they will feel dismissed. In an office, these things tend to naturally balance out because the non-verbal cues help us all to know when people want to talk or not. Remotely, it takes some effort to know who you are talking to and decide exactly how much (if any) chit chat would make the other person feel comfortable.
Think about your team process – I know we’ve all put in significant effort to use effective agile processes. But processes that work when in-person do not always work as well remotely. For example, daily standups are easy in-person, because you can simply go around the room and share updates. Remotely, you need to try harder to avoid a hub-and-spoke pattern with one person moderating the entire team. I’d recommend leaning more into collaboration tools – let Jira and Slack handle the basic status reporting for a project, so the calls can focus on coordination between team members. Each team in a small to medium size differs enough that you’ll need to figure out your own details, but I do encourage all teams to talk openly about which pieces of your process may need adjusting to remain effective.
Don’t forget to use email – If you are trying to work through some ideas, and don’t mind the conversation moving at a slower pace, use email. It lets everyone read the conversation when they have time and respond fully. It also then provides documentation of the conversation and history to help bring more people into a discussion as needed, as well as document any decisions and directions.
Ideas and Best Practices for Successful Brainstorming
One challenge with brainstorming remotely is the lack of a shared space. We have no whiteboards – but you can work on the digital equivalents. Utilize online whiteboards or just have one person just open up a shared document and take notes for increased collaboration. Personally, I like OneNote because it lets me both enter in rich text as well as draw on the exact same page. Such solutions are not as good as a real whiteboard, but they can work in a pinch.
The other challenge with brainstorming is the need to let ideas flow. Because there are little delays in online calls, it’s easy to step on each other when talking, further discouraging people from sharing or causing people to focus more on finding a time to speak rather than listening to ideas. There are a few ways to combat this:
Raise your hand – Give a signal that you want to contribute. Non-verbal communications do work remotely, as long as cameras are on and people look at each other.
Write it down – Jot down your notes in a shared document or in your own files. This will help remind you to share it when a good break in the conversation happens, or at least to email the group when the call is done.
Invite people to give feedback. If someone has not said anything, ask them specifically to share their thoughts. Watch for people who may have started to speak and then stopped, and watch for people on camera who look like they are trying to speak. Invite them to share their thoughts. Work together to give people time to talk.
Watch the cameras. People will communicate what they think about what you’re saying non-verbally, if you watch.
“Yes, and…” – This is a practice that comes from improv, but works in business, to help build upon each other’s ideas instead of dismissing ideas.
One last word – We’re all different, so experiment a bit. My ideas are just one take on remote work. But I’d encourage all teams to try new things and discuss both within the team, and across team, about what is working and what is not working.
Finally, I recommend reading a couple key posts from LinkedIn, shared early in 2020, which cover quick practical tips on remote work: