About the author
Nikhil Pal Singh is a repeat technical founder from Sydney, Australia with over 20 years of experience building software at companies like Lucent Technologies and Yahoo. Most recently, he founded TekTorch.AI: an innovation lab that helps businesses use state-of-the-art AI and ML to improve operations.
Over the past five years, Nikhil has been managing development teams of 15+ remote engineers.
Follow Nikhil on Twitter @techies
The COVID-19 crisis has left behind a trail of locked down cities and empty workplaces and has forced many organizations to adapt to having an entirely remote workforce rapidly. And even prior to the novel coronavirus outbreak, the practice of working remotely had already shot up 159% since 2005. Without the usual distractions of the office, developers working remotely can dedicate their focus on building great things.
However, despite the upside of having a distributed team, running an effective development operation composed of remote engineers presents a series of unique challenges that you may not have thought as much about when in a traditional office setting. And no matter how long you have been in the game, there’s always a learning curve when building a remote and distributed team. Here I discuss ten common mistakes managers of engineering teams make and how to avoid them.
Assuming a talented developer is also a great remote employee
A hard-working employee in a brick-and-mortar office environment may not always translate to a great employee in a remote setting. While some people do exceptionally good in a regular office environment, remote work is a skill that many people may not have worked on to develop.
When hiring, pay particularly close attention to traits like self-motivation, self-accountability, and of course, good work ethic.
Discounting the importance of culture
Culture is about shared values and goals, and while things like hiring for talent may be pretty straightforward, hiring for culture may not be so simple. It can be particularly challenging to build team exposure and a sense of camaraderie in a remote setting.
As the leader of a remote development team or department, be sure the importance of what you’re building, the value, and the company’s goals are clearly articulated and reverberated through the communication tools you have at your disposal.
Not communicating face-to-face
The biggest problem a distributed remote organization faces is the disconnect between the employees. While you can’t completely replicate the team-building impact of a F2F conversation, you can certainly try and bridge the disconnect.
Be sure to commit to using video chat as the preferred method of communication between teammates for specific meetings. For many development teams, moving from less personal mediums like text chat to video chat can be a disruptive transition, and some people will naturally gravitate to use less personal communication tools if the option is available. Doing things like explicitly calling out that specific meetings should be done over video chat, and including those access links in meeting calendar invitations, will remove ambiguity and help cement policy.
Too little communication (or too-much)
Proactive communication is the hallmark asset required by remote development organizations to succeed. Finding the right balance when communicating with employees can be a tough skill to learn; you don’t want the employees to feel neglected, nor do you want them to feel micromanaged.
Make it a priority to regularly reach out to your team to discuss things that aren’t necessarily status updates or new tasks. It doesn’t have to be just about work all the time. Having these conversations will arm you with the awareness and rapport to help your developers perform at their highest level.
Not knowing what motivates your developers
Finding out the motivation of your team members is often the difference between a happy and unhappy employee. People are different, and they’re driven in all kinds of ways. Some people may appreciate public, verbal affirmation during a team meeting, while others may be embarrassed by such a gesture. Some employees are eager to tackle additional responsibilities and learn new things, while some prefer to be more concentrated experts and stick to their work domain.
To keep your remote team happy and firing on all cylinders, you need to know what drives them. All you have to do is ask!
Using the wrong tools for communicating
Having the right set of tools for communication is imperative for messages to reach employees effectively. The tool itself used to send the message helps communicate the message’s intent.
For example, if you set expectations that company announcements will be sent via email and bug fix requests will be sent via an issue tracking ticket, the tool by which the message is delivered builds context.
Be sure to use a healthy mix of email, messaging tools like Slack, Loom, or Zoom, project management tools like Jira or Trello, and collaboration tools like GitHub and Figma.
Not having a plan in place
Consider creating a resource such as a crisis management “red book” or some other easily accessible reference guide to provide your remote employees with ways to deal with some common crisis the employees might run into.
Having structure and protocols like this in place will help your engineers take action with confidence and get urgent issues resolved.
Not adopting new technologies
Whether we are talking about scheduling, communication, data management, or information sharing, consistent and efficient use of technology can do wonders to keep your remote organization ticking for good.
It’s also a good idea to define and build in redundancies such as alternative communication channels, back-up databases, and cloud-based storage of essential information to avoid loss of info in the first place.
And most importantly,
Not learning from experience
Take the time to dissect and deliberate on any problem your remote developers may face. Always be ready to learn from experience and keep measures in place to keep the same problem from coming up again in the future.
I’ve found these to be some of the biggest, avoidable, mistakes development team leaders have made building productive and effective remote teams. I hope that with this information, you’ll anticipate issues that can come up when managing a remote development team and proactively address them.
There is nothing that can’t be resolved with a little organization, a lot of communication, an open mind, and a willingness to accept the change!
If you found this useful, check out other articles from Nikhil such as The 5 Best Tools for Remote Development Teams.
Be sure to follow Nikhil on Twitter @techies
Do it now, the time is now, not tomorrow not when that happens not when that finishes. Go get on with it and just do it.— techies (@techies) June 2, 2019