Making the Shift to All-Remote Teams: It’s Not Just About the Tools

You’ve probably read a few articles recommending collaboration tools like instant messaging (Slack) and video conferencing (Zoom) for employees suddenly forced to work from home due to COVID-19. These are great tools. But it takes more than a Zoom account to remain productive while remote, during what Gartner called “the world’s largest work-from-home experiment.”

It doesn’t have to be an experiment. Many engineering companies have been working in remote mode for years. Success depends not just on getting the right tools; it depends on how teams use the tools to work together. As Gartner points out, it is a chance to “seize the opportunity to bolster your policies — and prepare for future workplace and employee needs.”

You can find more detail about how to implement this kind of policy boost in our new e-book, “Making the Shift: Experts Share How to Rapidly Build and Scale Distributed Teams.” In it, distributed engineering leaders from Andela, Blackboard Insurance, and Percolate share best practices and lessons learned for teams going remote for the first time or expanding remote teams.

It Starts with Culture

For teams that going remote for the first time, it is important to establish consistent policies for communication and collaboration. It all starts with culture. “Generally, distributed employees don’t fail — the companies that hire them do,” says Christopher Jordan, Head of Engineering at Blackboard says in the e-book. “And most of the time, that comes down to culture and leadership. It’s important to have a culture that empowers teams and a willingness to change the way you operate.”

Ground Rules for Collaboration

When it comes to the use of tools like Slack and Zoom, it important to establish policies that will enable your team to use them strategically and consistently. Andela CTO David Blair recommends that all remote employees be on video for every meeting. “It cuts out a lot of wasted time trying to figure out who’s dialed in to the meeting or whether everyone’s ready. With video, you can immediately see when everyone is ready and can dive right in.” More on this in the e-book.

Continue to Build Culture and Relationships

Once your team is up and running, it is important to continue to build culture and strengthen relationships. This will be valuable when you begin to grow your team and add more engineers. The processes and traditions that you create will make onboarding new hires easier.

Creating and sustaining culture is not as difficult as you might think. You can replicate in-office rituals online. On-hands meetings can be more “face-to-face” when everyone is virtually facing each other on a screen rather than facing presenters in a theater-style office setting.

You can also personalize team meetings by inviting people to share personal stories like they would in a breakroom in the office. Melanie Colton, VP of Talent at Andela, recommends using ice-breaker questions to start meetings, allowing people to show their personalities and backgrounds. “Non-work banter is so important but gets left out among remote teams.” There are more tips from Melanie in the e-book.

Process and Practice

As your team grows, the processes, policies, and guidelines you establish early on will become second nature. Some of the exercises may feel awkward or forced at first, and it may be helpful to perform some practice sessions and laugh a little at the gaffs. But as the team experiences the value of the trust and accountability you build, they will embrace them and the productivity they deliver. Learn more in the e-book!

 

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