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Effective Remote Teams

This is the second post in a blog serie about keeping the work efficient while working remote.

Right now there are a lot of teams around the world that are suddenly forced to work from home. Since most teams do not live together, that means that you might all go from sitting together in the same room to being spread out across the country.

Of course, that introduces some challenges for your "workplace" to tackle, but there are also opportunities in all this that might make your team more efficient when you're all back in the office together again. Here you can read about our CTO Eriks thoughts on effective remote.

Now, for some teams and companies this period is not a problem, since they worked fully remotely in the first place. And it turns out we can learn from them. As Erik mentioned, GitLab is an all-remote company, and they have a public handbook that lays out how they work. The handbook puts a big focus on culture and communication, because those are the cornerstones for effective teams, remote or not.

Here are some of my takeaways from their handbook, and other observations about remote working.

Hello, can you hear me?

First of all, the basics: do you have all necessary tools in order to work from home? Do you need a VPN? How is your work setup at home? Sitting on the couch with a laptop is, while comfortable short term, not the best for your neck and back. Then, do you have the necessary tools to communicate with your team when everyone is remote? Maybe you use Slack or Microsoft Teams for chat already, and then it's easy to make that the new remote hub.

A chat tool is probably not a full solution, since a chat log (or just the record of having had a call) is often not enough to store more structured content, such as documents. So this is a good time to look over the tools you have and see if they support a fully remote workplace.

You might use Office 365 or G Suite in your organization, but do you have a structure on how to use it so that every single person in your organization can find the information they are looking for? In this new remote environment, more things will need to be written down instead of communicated verbally.

Be transparent and open

At my assignment, we usually do mob programming, where we all sit around the same computer, solving tasks together. Doing that in the office is of course easier than doing it remote, but it is doable. We open up a Slack call in our public team channel, and use Visual Studio Live Share to code together on the same machine.

Having the call in our public channel allows anyone to stop by to listen in or to ask a question, just like you could in the office. We can pretty much work as normal in our mob!

Our daily standups are also just a Slack call across our teams, so we can hear what's going on in the other parts of our domain. Everything important happens in public channels, so it's easy to keep track of what's happening around the "office", and it makes it easy to contribute.

In general, try to avoid direct messages or closed groups. In Slack, you cannot search those groups and conversations, and everyone in a group conversation gets notification for every message, adding more noise to the signal. And if you happen to contact the wrong person, you have to start all over again.

Allow flexibility

We all function differently when working from home. Some of us like to maintain office hours so that we can be "off work" when those hours are done, while some like (or need!) to spread out the working hours over the day. Therefore, you might want to think about meetings in a slightly different way now. Would an asynchronous way of communication work instead? If you find yourself chatting back and forth about something, then yes, have a meeting about it. But try starting with a message and take it from there, instead of booking a meeting right away.

This needed flexibility might impact your normal ways of working. If you are mob programming in your team, but one of your team members need to work other hours, what do you do then? You hopefully have an organized backlog or a sprint board to take tasks from, and then it doesn't really matter if it's the mob or a single member doing the task.

Break it down

On the topic of backlogs, break things down into the smallest possible increment or task. When working remotely it can be harder to approach the large, looming project in front of you. By breaking that project down into as small pieces as possible, you can make each task approachable on their own, as well as making the relevant decisions smaller and easier to take. They'll also be easier to revert if needed.

By having smaller units of work, you open up for easier individual involvement, where everyone can contribute. There's less of a need for a consensus decision, while still allowing collaboration in the transparent way you work. Everyone can start on a pull request, and everyone can help finish it.

Take care of each other

Finally, it can be easy to end up feeling isolated or lonely in times like these. If you're a manager, you probably want to have more frequent check-ins with your co-workers. And if you're not a manager, don't forget to have the usual office watercooler talk! Have informal chat channels or calls, share your latest TV series discovery or that new recipe you tried. Or you can organize a remote pub quiz after hours.

One of my favorite things in the GitLab handbook is that they have a #thanks channel in their Slack, used to give praise to co-workers that have helped you. At Digitalent, we have a tradition of giving out digital X-cards weekly in a similar fashion to make recognition visible, as Jonas has mentioned in an earlier blog post. Getting a word of encouragement now and then can do wonders to keep spirits high.

Martin Söderberg

Lead Consultant at Digitalent

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