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Two years ago when someone mentioned remote work to me, the first picture which came into my mind was the surfing colleague on an exotic island not available because of the lack of broadband connection. My perception was, remote work can not be productive nor can it be efficient or fun. During my last project I learned a lesson which completely changed my point of view. I would like to share this lesson as well as the rules and tools our team used to overcome all challenges we faced working as a remote team. I’m really interested in your best practices. Feel free to add them in the comment section.
We started off with a cross-functional onsite team, whose mission was to build a new mobile product. Our main constraints were the lack of office space, meeting rooms and a very noisy surrounding. To sum it up: lots of disruptions for everyone. The reasons why most team members had been generally unhappy and stressed. Studies from Harvard Business School show productivity decreases in an open space office by 15 percent and showed a 32% drop in workers well being. Consequently that was not the best setup to build an awesome product.
Getting more office space or meeting rooms in a European city is usually no short-term solution and therefore not the answer to our problem. Our decision was to run a fully remote trial. Although I was very skeptical about it, I was open to learn and discover what would happen. Six months remote work, onsite meetings every other week (if necessary), a retro focused on remote work every six weeks was agreed. The trial never ended. From this point on we had been a remote team.
I have to admit I am very happy the team pushed me to try working remotely first. I still believe that 100% remote is probably not a solution for every team and every project but I think it is always an option worth considering and testing. I like the way Martin Fowler points out the benefit of remote work in his blog post about remote work: “A remote team may be less productive than that same team if it were co-located, but may still be more productive than the best co-located team you can form.“
12 Guidelines for Successful Remote Work
During our trial period we agreed on a number of guidelines. I’d like to share them, maybe they’ll help you setting up your own remote team:
- We work as a remote first team. – Everyone works in a separate location, usually from home, all communication happens online.
- If a team member is feeling uncomfortable or writing something down takes more than two minutes: Let’s talk. – Just ping the team or a team member and we meet in our virtual team room.
- Everything regarding requirements needs to be written into our issue tracking system. – We used a non persistent chat tool, so the urge to capture decision always existed. It is everyone’s responsibility to ensure we capture important information.
- We run all our team meetings 100% remotely – No meeting rooms if some people are together in the office (This setup would require special hardware and skills we did not have, so we stopped trying it.)
- We take the time to overcome the technical obstacles (like microphones not working). – Everyone in the team needs to get familiar with these things, it will become easier.
- We meet in person once a month for two hours to discuss our product vision and roadmap. – We started with a higher frequency but we felt it was not necessary. What we actually needed was the social gathering after the official part.
- We communicate through our chat tool (Slack) and hangouts. – We created quite a few chat channels (approximately 7) to structure our communication and to ensure we don’t overload anybody. We also had a substructure (threads) for some channels. It depends on every team what makes sense. I can only recommend to try it! Creating or deleting a channel is a matter of seconds.
- We run a special retro focused on remote work every six weeks – After three months we all decided remote is the new normal for us and we will stop running specific retros.
- Every team member who is afk/away for more than 30 minutes or if you are done for the day, let the team know, and tell the team when you are planning to be back. – This could scare people, but remind yourself product development is creative work, it does not mean you have to sit in front of a computer to make progress.
- On a call, show your face. – We tried to save bandwidth and turning video off during calls. But that did not work for us. The person with the loudest voice wins, that frustrated people and we started sharing video, so that there was another option to make people aware of what is going on in the team.
- Don’t let your team members wait too long, if possible respond quickly. If not let them know when they can expect an answer or who else could help. – A question or information could be key for a colleague to proceed with their work. If you are in the same room, this is easy to solve, remotely you need more rules around this.
- For everyone at home, go out, take breaks and make sure you close your computer and put away your work phone after finishing your work. – There is a risk in working from home, which is mixing your work and private life if you are not taking a real break. We were lucky we had some good role models who taught us how important it is to shut down your computer and e.g. not being available after a certain time.
After implementing these guidelines I experienced significant benefits which convinced me to adjust my point of view.
- Our meetings always began on time. We did not have to wait for people grabbing a coffee or waiting for a room.
- Our impression was that our team became less stressed (we never measured the stress level so we have no proof other than a subjective feeling.)
- Our communication improved and felt easier to manage.
- We had a lot more fun working remotely than in the office.
- All our conversations were very focused and to the point.
- The team velocity increased and we delivered more features
The Next Challenge: Different Time Zones
All of that sounds like sunshine and lollipops, and it really was. But after our team became 100% comfortable with working remotely, our tech lead put up another challenge. He had big plans following his passion, surfing: two months living at the beach in a different time zone. He knew the team had tight deadlines. So he committed to work, but on the other end of the world. Our first reaction was very different than when we started working remotely, the team just said ok, let us do it, we will figure out a way to make it work. And we actually did.
We did not have to change much, we adjusted the timing for our meetings, our developers checked in every morning to ensure they didn’t miss anything, and in special cases I answered some questions from a product perspective before I went to bed. Our colleague went surfing during the afternoon and came back working with us in the evenings (morning in our time zone). From a Product Manager’s perspective it was even better than just remote work. Issues I mentioned in the afternoon were fixed or developed and ready to check the next morning. This feeling of progress really pushed the team. It felt like we were going faster and faster…
Today, when someone mentions remote work I still think of the surfing colleague. But nowadays, in a very positive way. I am getting excited to work in a remote team again. I really wish we could transform into a way more remote world with the benefit of working in great teams and with happy people still loving to work but not overdoing it with ridiculous commutes or stressful open space offices.
If you are thinking of working remotely in your team I would suggest thinking about a remote first option. It does not mean that everyone has to work remotely, but the communication patterns will change more quickly and the change will be implemented earlier.
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