Your Team Just Went Remote…Now What?
For leaders, now is the time to act
Your team, like many others, probably started working from home in the past few weeks.
Fortunately, software development is possible anywhere on the planet. In fact, many technology companies have operated with remote teams for years.
The sudden switch to a fully remote team creates unforeseen challenges:
- Individuals are under tremendous stress from the daily news, school closures, and isolation.
- Team members may lack remote working experience and skills.
- People may need furniture or equipment for a productive home office.
- Collaboration via casual chats or hallway conversations can grind to a halt.
- Teams losing connection due to a lack of shared meals, coffees, and “water cooler” talk.
You can surmount these challenges with leadership and a concerted effort from the team. As the team ramps up, there are multiple benefits:
- Focusing on the work provides a welcome distraction from the constant drip of unsettling news. People stay grounded by keeping busy and maintaining a daily schedule.
- Collaborating with peers maintains connectivity and combats feelings of isolation. In this time of social distancing, coworkers provide an important source of interpersonal connection.
- Staying productive helps the company weather the coming economic storm. Seeing the development team continue to deliver increases morale and focus for everyone.
If your team is accustomed to working in an office, you can ease the transition by following these tips.
Needs of Individual Employees
The one-on-one meeting is an important tool for managing and coaching individual employees. In this unique time, it’s more important than ever to stay connected. Employees process daily news and stress differently. Listen patiently and show empathy.
Ask how much prior remote experience the employee has. Those less experienced need coaching to build effective skills and habits. More experienced people can provide mentoring to those who need it. Keep an eye out for those who are struggling and provide extra help.
Ask how you can accommodate the employee’s needs while they’re working from home. Some team members may volunteer valuable information about their living situation:
- If they live alone, social distancing can be isolating. Socializing with the team will be especially important to them.
- If they have kids, they are coping with school closures and increased parental duties. Tell them to step away from work whenever needed. Say that family noise, kids, and pets in the background of video calls is perfectly fine.
- If they’re caring for a relative, they have an added source of stress. Ask if there are accommodations that you or the team can make to ease the burden.
- If they are in a high-risk group for Covid-19, they may need extra assistance to safely obtain essentials.
Use the factors above to decide the frequency of your one-on-one meetings with each employee. While the team ramps up, touch base with everyone at least weekly. Some employees will warrant getting in touch with every other day or so.
Use video for one-on-ones. Studies have proven that body language is 55% of communication. This is a critical time to understand everyone’s level of stress and provide support.
The daily hello
In addition to frequent one-on-ones, say a quick hello over chat on a daily basis. This might be via direct message or in team channels, but be sure to check in. If you sense that someone needs to talk, reach out to them and propose a quick video call.
Home office needs
Working at home full-time is more intense than doing so on a periodic or part-time basis. Eye, neck, and back strain can result from prolonged computer work and poor ergonomics.
Touch base with each employee to assess any home office issues. How does their setup compare to a workstation in the company office? Find out if a monitor, stand, keyboard, mouse, headset, camera, or docking station would help.
Create a spreadsheet of the team’s equipment needs. Ask your HR or Facilities department for approval for employees to order what they need.
Remind employees of key elements of good ergonomics when working at a computer:
- Elbows, hips, and knees should all be at 90° angles.
- Wrists should be straight.
- Eyes should be horizontally aligned with the upper 1/4 of the monitor.
For more information (and diagrams) from the Mayo Clinic, see here.
Inform the team of your support for community-level volunteering. Empowering employees to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 builds morale for the entire team.
Ask employees to be transparent about how volunteering impacts work schedules. Track time spent in a centralized spreadsheet — you might be asked to provide the data later. (Alternatively, your company may have everyone enter it into the HR system.)
Set the right tone regarding work output — these are extraordinary circumstances, and flexibility is important. Be transparent about your expectations and provide accommodations that employees need.
Assessing a remote worker’s performance can be difficult at first. You need to adapt to not seeing work schedules and interactions in the office. For remote employees, measure the quantity and quality of their output.
Keep notes of your own observations, and seek peer feedback on a regular basis. Raise any concerns immediately and candidly.
Hiring and onboarding
If you have open positions to fill, don’t let Covid-19 slow you down! All new hires will start as remote employees, so gauge your candidates’ ability to ramp up as new team members from home. Ask them where the biggest challenges will be and brainstorm how the team can help.
Onboarding a remote employee isn’t easy, but you will be successful with the right approach:
- Plan on a one-on-one meeting every other day for the first month or two.
- Designate a mentor with a three-month commitment. They should touch base daily via video for the first month.
- Remote pair programming can be an effective tool for ramping developers up in the codebase.
Needs of the Team
Coach your team on the following remote communication techniques.
Less typing, more talking. When team members are distributed, it is easy to overly rely on email, chat, and pull requests. Actually talking, in real-time, can feel like a hassle. Coach your team members to resist the urge to overuse text. Talking over video is more efficient (saves time) and more effective (better communication). Sometimes it is best to say mid-chat, “let’s hop on video for a sec.”
Find out how many work-related ad hoc conversations employees had over the past week. If it feels like people aren’t connecting enough, encourage more reaching out over video.
Keep calendars up-to-date. Employees can configure their calendars with their default working time. Team members can also block out times during the day when they have non-work commitments.
Keeping everyone engaged in remote meetings can be a struggle. Effective facilitation is critical.
Show up on time. Engagement suffers when people wait for others to dial in.
Use video, always. This reduces the boredom (and the resulting multi-tasking) that comes with long conference calls. It keeps all-important body language visible. Team members might feel self-conscious about kids or family life in the background. Make everyone feel comfortable with a reminder that schools are closed. Family noise on video calls will be the norm during Covid-19.
Use multi-user collaboration tools. Use a virtual whiteboard for collaborative brainstorming or design sessions. Concurrent editing makes meetings faster and much more engaging.
- Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides for creating and editing.
- Trello for card/story/task creation, grouping, and sorting.
- Miro for distributed whiteboarding.
- planningpoker.com for story sizing.
Call on the lurkers to contribute. Introverted or less assertive team members tend to listen quietly without speaking. Draw them into the discussion by calling on them directly. This will keep them engaged — and they often have great ideas.
Teams must compensate for the loss of the office as the team’s social hub. The end of ad hoc chats, water cooler chats, and team happy hours means socializing must be intentional.
Encourage spontaneous banter. Chat about non-work topics, especially how people are dealing with all of the changes. You can encourage banter in team channels by going first or asking how people are doing. Your team might even set up a dedicated channel(s) — #watercooler, anyone (or better yet, #atthekombuchatap)?
Schedule video happy hours. Socializing over video isn’t ideal, but it’s much better than not at all. Schedule a happy hour early enough to avoid conflicts with family time. Encourage everyone to grab their favorite beer, or suggest a cocktail (or mocktail) for people to make. Use an online tool like icebreaker.range.co to break the ice — it might provide welcome relief from discussing Covid-19.
Working as a fully remote team is going to be a fact of life for a while — so settle in. With the correct techniques, you will be as productive, collaborative, and connected as ever.
Remember these tips:
- One-on-ones (over video) at least once a week
- Get into the habit of a daily hello over text.
- Address home office equipment needs.
- Support employee volunteering and track their time.
- Master the art of facilitating effective remote meetings.
- Encourage spontaneous online banter.
- Schedule virtual happy hours.
Keeping your team motivated and focused during these extraordinary times won’t be easy. As a leader, you have what it takes to be successful.