A guide to leading and working in distributed teams
Guest author Anna Szwemin is a Senior Software Engineer and a Team Lead at Conversocial, a company that helps businesses manage customer service over social and messaging channels, at a large scale.
13 MINUTE READ
Some say flexible and remote working is the future. In a world where people are less rooted to one place, want a better work-life balance, and most things can be done entirely over the internet or phone, 9 to 5 office-based work isn’t a good fit for everyone.
On the other hand there are those who say distributed teams are hard to manage or supervise, and that having employees spread across the globe spells the end of company culture.
While I can understand some of the worries expressed by those who prefer more traditional ways of working, I think we will begin to see more and more employees choosing to work from home.
Therefore if employers want to hire the best talent possible, they’ll need to figure out a way to make distributed teams work in their company.
Building experience in a distributed team
I’ve been working remotely for several years now, most of it at my current job with Conversocial. It’s a mixed environment with some people working in the office, and others doing their job remotely. During my time at the company, I’ve been managing teams, predominantly office based ones, without being physically present with them.
Over the years I’ve come across most of the issues often raised against remote working. Luckily, I’ve been able to solve them with the help of my employers and the willingness of my peers and team.
I’ll speak a bit more about how we overcame these challenges later. First we’ll examine some of the advantages of working in distributed teams. But before we dive in, it’s important to clarify the terms ‘distributed’ and ‘remote’.
A distributed team doesn’t actually need to have any members working from home, they can just simply be based in different offices around the globe. They can also allow so called flexible working, whether it’s with regards to core hours or allowing employees to work from home some days.
Fully remote teams are those that have no physical offices and everybody works from basically anywhere they want to. There are quite a few companies like this nowadays, in various industries.
Fewer distractions, more focus
Developers, specifically, are often drawn to working remotely. In most cases, coding can be done from anywhere with a good internet connection, especially for web developers, but even embedded developers can often work from their chosen location.
When you’re coding, being able to focus in an environment of your choosing, adjusting your tasks to your current energy levels, and being able to avoid office distractions are all very beneficial to producing quality work.
For programmers working in offices, you’ll often see them wearing noise cancelling headphones to help them focus. Being able to work from home makes it, if nothing else, a bit easier on their ears.
On top of this, there are many non industry specific advantages for employees working remotely: lack of commute, more family time, better work-life balance, better health, lower stress levels, and higher performance.
In the 2018 Stack Overflow developer survey, the opportunity to work from home remotely was ranked the 5th highest priority when assessing a job opportunity. This is significantly higher than 2017 and it’s expected it’ll be even higher in 2019.
The percentage of people stating ability to work remotely as their highest priority item was basically equal between genders, which is quite an interesting statistic. It’s often said that women are more likely to want to work from home due to family obligations.
I always found this assumption both untrue and not helpful to improving gender diversity at work. That said, if changing company policy to allow remote working helps mothers of young children get back to full time work, it can only be a good thing.
The survey also showed that remote workers are both more happy, and, on average, earn better salaries than the non-remotes. The second finding may seem counterintuitive to some, but the trend can be seen across the world (see below).
Advantages for business
There are also several advantages to hiring remotely for companies themselves. Not only can you have happier, more focused, more productive employees, but also you can:
- Save on real estate costs – With more people working remotely, less office space is needed, and we all know it can be at a premium, especially in large cities.
- Increased diversity, both culturally and across ages and genders – Once the location is no longer a problem, there’s no commute and the hours are made a bit more flexible, the pool of available talent becomes larger and more diverse.
- Hire the best talent, regardless of their location – When the company doesn’t need to limit their hiring radius to people who are able to commute to the middle-of-the-city office, it suddenly finds itself able to tap into a massively bigger talent pool. As the developers gain experience, they obviously also gain age, and their priorities are changing. Who once was a city dweller may now want nothing more than a countryside cottage and a bit of land. Or they may decide that now is the time to give this digital nomad idea a try. Or they may start a family and not be willing to commute for an hour each way every day.
- Possibility of lowering costs – This one’s a bit controversial, but it’s a fact of life that people in different countries have different wage expectations, which can, in turn bring some cost saving to a company.
- Less sick time – Offices can be the breeding grounds for colds and flus. People who work remotely are typically ill less often, due to both lower exposure and better overall health thanks to an improved work-life balance.
But what are the potential downsides?
With all that said, there are some possible disadvantages to working in distributed teams. As mentioned previously, we’ve hit most of the big ones at Conversocial and found good solutions for them, so here’s the rundown.
Problem: Lack of company culture
It is significantly easier to build and maintain close-knit teams and company culture with everybody in the same office. Even though there may be some animosities between the employees, being able to chat around the water cooler or grab a quick drink after work can do wonders to make sure everybody knows everybody else and that people feel like they’re working in a friendly environment.
At Conversocial, we’re split across two continents and have employees working both from homes and from offices. The more distributed we became, the more we started to feel like the great culture we’ve had started to disappear a bit.
We found however, that including regular get-togethers, making sure people jump on video conferences where we do things as a team and keeping our Slack chats active are perfect solutions to counteract this thinning down of the culture.
At the end of the day, you simply can’t go grab a drink together without some planning involved and it will always be a downside, but you can majorly counter any feeling of disconnect by paying attention to maintaining the company culture and making sure that one way or another people stay in contact, not just when it’s needed, but also purely for fun.
Problem: Lack of support
Not every person is able to work remotely without closer supervision, and employers often worry about the impact on their performance. For companies that are fully remote, they know already the kinds of people that can thrive in distributed environments and that can produce quality work without the need for constant looking over their shoulder, and these are the people they aim to hire.
For companies that are only starting to think about allowing people to work remotely or the ones that provide both remote and office-based options, it’s more about learning how to help their employees stay productive, wherever they work from.
As a general rule, you should only hire and keep employees you can trust. Even ignoring distributed work, if somebody requires constant supervision to get things done, they’re probably not the right fit for your company. However, if people who move to work remotely some or all the time don’t get a good support from their predominantly office-based company, they can become discouraged and their work may suffer.
The main things we found to help with keeping remote employees feel part of the company are ensuring good internet connectivity in the office and good setup for video conferences, helping employees with their home office setup, making sure they are included and informed of any decisions that affect them and jumping on calls or Slack chats whenever it’s needed.
As one of these remote employees and as a team lead managing the team remotely, I find the above sufficient to make sure I can do my work well and my team is not lacking support. There are also things specific for developers that can be done, like using good screen sharing tools, e.g. Screen Hero, to allow pair programming, remote debugging of issues etc.
Problem: Differences in working hours
Another issue that distributed teams can pose is the difference in working hours between the teams. Whether it’s due to geographical spread out of the team or due to allowing more flexible working hours, if the employees are working closely together across the timezones, they may get blocked, struggle to find good times for meetings and the communication may be impacted.
The key to handling time differences is preparation. In development teams, making sure that there’s always some cross over and doing a daily stand up at this time is allowing everybody on the team to know exactly what everybody else is working on and plan for it accordingly.
For reviewers and managers, making sure your coworkers are aware ahead of time about your working hours on a given day, treating any reviews or other time sensitive things as priority and making sure to check in at appropriate times of day, makes the work go smoothly most of the time. As with everything in life, it’s all about preparation and level-headedly handling the unexpected.
Problem: Onboarding junior staff
Distributed teams are not ideal for juniors who still need a lot of in-person support.
Whether your company is fully remote or just geographically spread out, it is usually worth making sure that any junior new starters can spend some face-to-face time with more senior developers at the beginning, as they’re learning more about the company and the technologies.
It’s also worthwhile assigning a mentor to your junior employees, who will be there for them, whenever they get stuck, whether it’s to jump on a call or a screenshare or just to help in a couple of sentences over Slack.
Getting management right in distributed teams
From the perspective of a manager of distributed teams, it’s more important than it would be in the office to regularly check in with your direct reports, make sure they’re not stuck, help answer any questions and assure them that any support they may need is just a question away.
It’s also important to help your team understand that struggling with something is not a problem, but struggling with something and not raising it with your team is. The sooner your team learns to be vocal about the work they’re doing and the issues they may be facing, the sooner you will be able to make sure any roadblocks are removed and your subordinates are able to focus on next tasks without frustration.
Hiring the right people
So, with all these possible challenges in mind, how do you hire the right people for your team, individuals that will be able to work well in a distributed environment and who you’ll be able to trust to get the job done?
There are several personality traits that interviewers can look for during the interview itself and employers can look for when considering whether a person should be allowed to become remote:
- Self starter – During the interview, are they forthcoming, help steer the conversation, seem eager and interested? When given a problem in the interview, do they proactively tackle it or are they looking for guidance? As an employee, do they need a lot of support in their day to day or are they moving things along themselves? Do they come up with initiatives, search for solutions and proactively reach out if they need any help?
- Responsible – Is their previous work experience indicative of them being reliant? Do they consider the right things when given interview problems? Do they seem overly unsure of themselves or overly ambitious? – both can lead to poor performance later on. As an employee, do they do the work they’re given on time and without prompting? Do they flag anything that may delay their work or cause them any issues?
- Able to self manage – When given a problem, can they break it down to steps needed to solve it, even if they can’t solve the problem itself? How do they envision their work day to look like? As employees, do they plan their time and work well? When needing to juggle several things, do they manage them appropriately?
- Outspoken – This is not to say they need to be the soul of the party or very extrovert, but they need to be able to speak up if they have a problem and make sure they’re not completely stopped in their tracks by obstacles. In any company, there will always be somebody there to help, but if they don’t ask for this help, they may ultimately struggle to move themselves forward.
Once you find the right people, and you manage them well as per above, then the rest is down to making sure everyone is aligned in terms of team and company goals and their work is appreciated.
If the manager doesn’t see their subordinates day to day, it can be easy to overlook their progression or struggles with work. But through setting good objectives, regular catch ups, and just paying attention, it’s not too hard to make sure all of your employees are treated equally, promoted where deserved, their performance addressed where needed and their needs fulfilled.
Even in the office-based teams, if the manager doesn’t pay attention to their employees and not treating them as their highest priority, it will cause issues and employee dissatisfaction. For remote managers, it’s just the same, it just needs this little bit of extra work.
Ultimately, whatever the pros and cons and no matter any internal resistance, in our globalised world, remote work is the future. If companies want to grow productive and happy teams and have the best chance of retaining their top staff, it’s something they need to seriously consider.