This article is a helpful guide on how to effectively manage remote teams for all those who work with distributed, remote teams. The article covers the topics of what the remote-first approach is, what the advantages and disadvantages are of working with such teams; what strategies and tools Astound Commerce uses to manage distributed teams.
What is the Remote-first concept?
Remote-first means working remotely is the default. There could be remote employees and those who work from the office, and both are 100% equal. The company provides employees with all infrastructure and environment/administrative support.
At Astound Commerce we have been working with distributed teams for over a decade. Our delivery offices are in Ukraine, Colombia, Slovakia, India, Bulgaria and Turkey. That means engineers assigned to the project can be from any of these locations, and teams are built of people from different countries, speaking different languages.
Working with and within distributed teams isn`t easy, and as of last year, many companies have faced this matter.
Let’s look at some pros and cons of working in distributed teams:
- More hiring opportunities. You are not limited by one location and can hire engineers with the required qualifications from any part of the world.
- Working from anywhere without damage to the project. Performance and team velocity stay on a high level.
- Flexible team staffing. You can engage any specialists you need, for certain types of work, from any office, when you need them. You have access to a complete pool of company resources.
- As the year 2020 showed us, remote-first teams have higher stress and risk resilience.
- Lack of transparency. Insufficient transparency of the processes, estimation, aims, and the contribution of each employee to the project and to the overall work of the company.
- Narrow communication channel.
- Less involvement in the project.
- Time difference inconveniences.
- Language barrier. At Astound, we set English as a communicational language for all the documents and official communications. It is convenient, as anyone joining the project or the company can easily access all necessary information. Fare to note; there are still some miscommunications because English is the second or third language for most of the team.
How to set the processes within remote-first teams?
A detailed description of all processes is essential for the remote-first team. It gives each team member a clear understanding of what the company and a team lead expect from them, where to find the answers to certain questions, and how to handle issues if they occur.
I just want to point it out and give a quick recommendation—try to standardize the tools you use, minimize as much as you can, and make a standard Jira ticket-flow for all the projects in the company. It is more convenient for team members and makes them more productive; as they switch from one project to another—all the tools stay the same.
Example: In Jira, the status “resolved” may mean completely different things in various companies and even projects. For some engineers “resolve” can mean the task is ready for testing, for others—the task is ready for a code review, or the task is completed and can be closed. There are many options that probably will be misunderstood and might cause issues. To avoid this, settle on one specific meaning for the “resolved” status.
To make everything work properly, you need to set a clear onboarding process. At Astound Commerce we pay close attention to onboarding. For every newcomer, we have a timeline, a step-by-step guide of what needs to be done/learned on the first day, second day, first week, second week, and month. Each new member gets a mentor who helps to go through the onboarding process. Usually, a mentor is not the HR or a Team Lead, but a colleague with the same level of authority, who has been working in the company longer. It may be a crucial thing, especially in given realities and in remote-first teams.
Example: If you are a newcomer, working in the office, every time you have a question — you can just ask a colleague sitting next to you. But if you are a newcomer working from home or any other place and you’ve got a question, who will you address? This is why we have mentors.
We use the same approach for every person joining a project. There is a checklist in Confluence with detailed info for every project that every newcomer must complete.
The checklist comprises:
- Coding convention for this particular project
- The list of team members on our side and on the client’s side
These well defined processes don’t only make the team members’ onboarding smoother, but they also give a project manager/team lead an understanding that if a team member has completed the checklist — they know most (all) of the information needed to start working on tasks.
How to build a team?
Onboarding is just one of the multiple tools used to turn an employee into a teammate. But building a team, instead of just a group of engineers, takes more steps and techniques.
- Even in the remote-first teams, we have the practice to meet for a few days in the office at any location (Kyiv, Vinnytsia, Uzhhorod, Lutsk, Chernihiv) to work together. It helps to build interpersonal relationships with teammates and to see a real person behind the picture in Slack or Zoom — a person with interests, hobbies, and not just the hard skills required for work.
- One-on-one meeting culture is another major part of building a team. It is a tool I use all the time. Regular one-on-one meetings help managers discover some hidden issues, pains, miscommunications, and any other things that team members would not share out loud and most likely keep inside.
- Project traditions and project merch. That can be anything from a printed t-shirt to a cup that each member of the team gets. It may seem like something not worth attention, but it helps create some kind of bond, feel yourself not just random engineers working on a task, but a team that is united and has common goals.
- Team building. At Astound, we have a budget for team building events on each project. The team decides where and how they want to spend the time: go to another city, engage in a sports activity, or rent a house in nature. We love trying original stuff, and it’s always up to the team to decide what to do.
Why is it important?
I’ve witnessed a lot when specialists working in the company on-site or in a distributed team (more often with distributed teams) felt themselves invisible: couldn’t see the ways to grow, or didn’t know the path to receiving a promotion. In most cases these people are likely to leave, having got an offer for a higher position with better payment from other companies.
To avoid these situations, we have a transparent promotion process:
- Every team member has a personal development plan, approved with the functional manager.
- When a specialist exceeds a certain level and feels like taking the next step, they can apply to the next available promotion committee. (We have them once every 6 months)
- After applying, they have to pass three interviews: tech, soft skills, and an English level assessment.
- Based on these interviews, a specialist either receives a promotion or detailed feedback with defined zones for future development. This feedback is used to discuss the next development steps with the functional manager and helps specialists to understand directions to grow.
Communication is important. We all know that – we hear it everywhere. But what is really important – it’s organized communication.
I know people who work remotely and communication in their teams is just chaotic. They spend a lot of time on meetings they do not need, meetings that are completely unnecessary, just because their managers told them to do so. That leads to a loss of time.
In our team, we have a set number of tools for each communication, which helps us not to squander our time. For official mailing we use emails; Slack — for instant communications, where we create groups we need for a project, separate groups for engineers; for video calls, we use Zoom. And, by video calls I mean video calls, where everyone has their cameras turned on, so you can see the people you are talking to, whether it is your colleagues or clients, which makes communication more efficient.
One of the key things to do after every group meeting — take notes. Write everything you agreed on: who does what and when. People may get interrupted during the meetings and may miss some important information. Notes help to follow up on all the discussions and agreements, so everyone has a clear idea of what’s next.
Summarizing everything written above — here are suggestions that may improve your processes. You never really know unless you try.
- Onboarding checklists. Once created, can be used on all projects. Just a few renewed lines required.
- Daily standup meetings with video. PMs and team leads are the ones who set an example. Start with yourself–turn on the camera.
- Small talk. Just 5 minutes at the beginning of the meeting, but it helps to break the ice. Once again, start with yourself, share something personal with your teammates.
- Meeting summary. Write a follow-up after every group meeting to make sure your team is on the same page.
- Standardize processes. Write a quick brief about how it all works now and then iteratively add/improve it.
- Transparent promotion process. If you have promotion policies in your company/project — your team members should know them.
- One-on-one meeting culture. One of the major tools to successfully run a team.
In order for remote teams to operate smoothly and bring results, the company needs to have a clear set of tools, instructions for projects and ensure equal conditions for all team members. For project managers, it is important to set up the correct communication and build a relationship with the team.
At Astound Commerce we’ve been learning how to conduct the work in distributed teams for years. This experience helps us now to create a healthy and productive environment for each member.
If you want to become part of our team, send us your CV. (or >> check out open positions in Astound Commerce!)
We want to meet you in person!