The MakingFun team. Photo taken in Bueno Aires, Argentina on October 24th, 2013.

My Experience From Working With Remote Teams

Retaining engineering talents have become more of a challenge in Silicon Valley. While the big players in tech have the dollars to compete for top talents, the little guys have been searching outside its realm. In the past five years, I have had the opportunity to manage a team of engineers outside the states and launched half dozen of products. It has been a rewarding experience because it taught me a handful of valuable lessons to successful management. In this article, I will share the two vital components that elevates the level of efficiency and productivity of your remote teams.

Manage Communication. Communicate Effectively.

First, excellent communication is an imperative ingredient to grab your team’s attention and focus. Having a remote team, communication often becomes a challenge because information gets lost in translation at times. Sure, there are great instant messaging tools such as Skype, HipChat and Google Hangout, but they quickly become unusable when the conversation is flooded with lines of messages. I often find myself discombobulated with the massive lines of messages flowing in, while I spent majority of my time reading through each messages to keep myself updated. The same problem applies to e-mail notifications. At one point, I received hundreds of JIRA and Github notifications a day given I was a watcher on every tickets and repos and it became unmanageable.

However, this experience enlightened me on the principle of communication. Team communication needs to be managed in order to be effective. It needs to have a standardized protocol for delivering information to each other. Otherwise, information can and will get lost. In my previous roles at various companies, there are guidelines we follow such as:

  1. Any features, bugs or tasks related discussion must happen in the project tracker. This provides a historical record for the others as reference in the future if necessary.
  2. Use chat clients such as Skype or Google Hangout for voice and video conferencing. During work hours, everyone is required to log in as it specifics your availability.
  3. Move any lengthy discussion to a private room with the appropriate parties. This way the main chatroom isn’t filled with lines of messages which are not relevant to the others.
  4. Use e-mail to send out meeting recap and actionable items. Since no one wants to read a tedious email, the content should be direct and precise.

Once these guidelines are in place and people started following them, our external and internal teams communicated much more effectively and the conversations were more well organized.

Build Rapport. Learn Their Culture.

Secondly, building a relationship with your team is an important touch-point to help you connect with them beyond a manager/employee level. It often becomes a challenge with remote teams since there is limited face-time with one another. In my opinion, the best way to build a strong bond with your team starts with a personal meeting. This means setting aside time and making personal appearances when necessary. Making trips to meet your remote team displays control and order. Needless to say, it resolves potential miscommunication and conflict by finding better ways to interact with one another earlier on.

In addition, I find that understanding the team culture is equally important. Teams from different countries may have a different working culture and office environment than us. For example, employees in Asia maybe less incline to voice their opinions when disagreement arises. Doubting a colleague’s opinion who is at a higher hierarchy can signify disrespect to the individual in the Asian culture. In other countries like Argentina and Uruguay, it is common to have an empty office until late the in morning because people stay awake during the night. Moreover, decisions are often made at the top, which means mid-level employees may not take request seriously from someone with the same or lower rank. Understanding these nuances is crucial because it articulates your teams’ culture and how they operate. In return, you create a better management process and efficient workflow.

Geo-location, time zones and language differences have always been a challenge when it comes to working with remote teams. But overtime, I learn that the keys to overcoming these obstacles come from building better relationships and communicating more effectively with your team. The result benefits a company greatly because remote team can reduce operational cost, create a longer operation hours and a greater accessibility to a pool of talents. These are commodities every startups in Silicon Valley dream of. At last, having a remote team also gives me a chance to travel more to learn about one’s culture and become a well-rounded individual in this cultivated world of ours.

Special thanks to Sophia Su and Martin Repetto for reading the drafts.

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