7 Best Practices Working With Remote Development Teams
If there’s one thing everyone can agree will feature in the New Normal, it’s remote working. But remote development teams, working from a variety of locations are hardly new in the world of software and digital product development. True, COVID-19 has forced most businesses to adopt remote working practices but some organizations (us, for example!) have a wealth of experience working in this way already.
At Boldare, we’ve worked as an agile organization, delivering product development through remote development teams (and almost always at a significant distance from the client company) for 16 years. When the pandemic hit, we were already equipped with a set of tools and ways of working that were perfect for the situation. In this article, we want to share seven best practice areas to help product owners, managers of development teams, and those working with external teams.
The challenge of remote working
The COVID pandemic has completely disrupted most companies’ business models, forcing them to adopt new communication and team working paradigms which are likely to remain relevant and necessary for the foreseeable future. And while a Stanford study from 2017 associated home working with increased productivity (up 13% compared to office working, at least in the initial phase) it also comes with challenges:
- Business during the pandemic – keeping the business afloat, maintaining performance, preparing strategies for longer term impacts.
- Business post-pandemic – digitally transformed, increased online delivery of products and services, in a world in which remote working is not only accepted but expected.
- The challenges faced by remote workings – firstly, the motivation, time management and work-life balance of remote workers; secondly, the need for organizations and managers to create a productive team environment.
It’s all about collaboration, communication and coordination and at Boldare, we’re here to tell you, the following best practices will help.
1. If one person works remotely, the whole team is remote
This first best practice is short, simple and essential. Even if only one team member is working remotely, the whole team will benefit from adopting remote working practices; especially around communication. If not, the rest of the team (the team-minus-one) might work together smoothly but that one remote worker might as well not be on the team. They may contribute but it’s from the outside.
For Boldare, this principle applies equally to a remote product owner. In the past, even if we had a dev team all working in the same office, we viewed the product owner as an indispensable part of the team and would agree remote working protocols up front, at the product discovery workshop (or any other workshop) at the beginning of the project. This would mean adjusting scrum events to the Product Owner’s preferred time zone, for example.
Of course, right now, every team is remote.
2. Get the right tools for your daily communication
If you or your team are used to working in the same office space, you can be sure that there’s a lot of high quality, informal communication that is being taken for granted. As soon as everybody is scattered to the four winds, it becomes apparent just how essential those casual projects and social interactions are.
Fortunately, there is no shortage of platforms and apps to help you with close communication at a distance. Here are the main team interactions and the tools that we use at Boldare:
- Team meetings: Google Meet.
- Conversations and chat: Slack; we rarely email internally, but obviously use it for business purposes as well!
- Document-sharing and collaboration: Google Drive, Google Docs, and Dropbox.
- Knowledge-sharing: Confluence.
- Organizational project management: Asana.
- Organizing software development: Jira.
- Group planning exercises, brainstorming, strategy sessions, etc.: Boldare Boards.
- Collaborative diagram-building and sketching online, etc.: Miro
3. Get the best from your teleconferencing and meetings
You’ve picked the right tools and technology for you and your team, but using them efficiently and in a way that truly boosts collaboration and teamwork can be a whole different challenge. And that’s especially true for your teleconferencing app. For a remote and dispersed team, this is their only method of communicating face to face and we all know how poor connections or substandard hardware can turn a team meeting into a disruptive and frustrating experience for everyone.
- Source professional standard equipment and hardware: in an office environment this includes microphones that can pick up everybody in the room and a wide-angle camera; in a working from home scenario, this may mean a sufficiently powerful laptop, a headset and a fast internet connection.
- Environmental noise and distractions: each team member may be working in a different environment (home office, kitchen table, garden shed…) but for video communication and meetings, everybody needs a space that is relatively free from outside noise, interruptions or other distractions, like noisy toddlers or attention-stealing pets. Regarding the background behind you - Google Meet offers a background blur feature that helps to keep some details of your home office discreetly hidden.
With the right technology and setup, you’re good to go. However, a virtual or dispersed meeting is not the same as a face to face meeting. In terms of meeting best practice and etiquette, the emphasis is a little different:
- Clarity on the purpose and outcomes of the meeting – With the reduced quality of communication and interaction, it’s essential to keep everyone focused and a clear agenda and timings is important. This is extremely important, taking in account so-called “Zoom fatigue”.
- Visuals – With everyone in separate locations, distractions are more likely; images, tables, graphs and other visual information helps engage everyone and keep them focused on the topic.
- Icebreakers – You may think everyone knows each other, but if the team is used to face to face meetings, the separation and unusual circumstances create a little ‘ice’ and one way to break it is to have a short, fun activity focused on the people present. We usually run a round of questions, called “check-ins”, during which everyone can say how they feel and what their expectations are regarding the meeting.
- Appoint a facilitator – Or ‘chair’, or ‘scrum master’… whatever the title and the role, it helps to have someone responsible for keeping both team and meeting on track.
- Slow down – Rapid conversations with multiple simultaneous speakers might work face to face but via teleconferencing it’s a recipe for chaos. As a ground rule, establish a few protocols around one person speaking at a time, how to flag up questions, and how to make a (valid) interruption.
- Everyone is looking at you – And each other. With a typical teleconferencing app, you’re all on display to each other, pretty much all the time. If anybody isn’t looking at whoever’s speaking, they’re looking at the other faces on the screen. Remember, if you yawn or stare out of the window, everyone will notice…
- Don’t multitask – Whatever the temptation to check your or messages email, don’t do it. It’s impolite, it’s inefficient, it’s distracting to others and it’s obvious (see the point above).
4. Be radical in your transparency
The shift to a dispersed business model often puts teamworking under stress: communication is more difficult, people aren’t sure what their teammates are working on, they may feel cut off from the organization… previous levels of openness and info-sharing aren’t enough in the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous circumstances we are in.
To overcome this at Boldare, we have long since adopted a policy and culture of radical transparency. For us, this means practically all information is available to everyone on the team: from the business’s financial and performance data to having fully open messaging allowing anyone to contribute. Likewise in our dev teams, each team member has access to all project information – our devs take an interest in design, our business analysts have input to prototyping, etc. When the pandemic forced the move to 100% remote working, it was a key factor in our making that move without loss of efficiency or performance.
5. A common language
Arguably, national boundaries haven’t been a barrier to digital product development for a while, with many businesses looking abroad for the best combination of skills, quality and price in an external dev team – for sure, here at Boldare, we are accustomed to working with clients all over the world, in a variety of time zones and cultures. With the surge in dispersed teams and remote working, multi-national, multi-cultural and multi-lingual teams are only going to become more widespread.
Which is why language is an important bedrock to remote development success.
To emphasize transparency, avoid misunderstandings, and ensure clarity of purpose and focus, decide on a single shared language for all communications, meetings, project documentation and notes, used by all team members. This common language should run right through the whole project, the foundation of your interactions and knowledge-sharing; in fact, if you tell a joke, it should be in your chosen language. In this respect, consistency builds relationships and removes barriers.
At Boldare, we work with our clients in English – every member of every dev team uses it, no matter what kind of communication.
6. The human factor
One potential pitfall with dispersed and remote working is that it becomes easy to see colleagues and teammates as avatars on a screen – relations may be friendly, productive even, but distant. Never forget that you’re all human, and as humans, any one of us might be having a bad day, feeling under stress or be otherwise distracted by ‘human concerns’ outside of the project. Something to bear in mind.
This can make it more difficult to ensure the ‘psychological safety’ of your team.
Psychological safety is essential for a high-performing team. With a sense of psychological safety, your team members aren’t second-guessing themselves, they don’t fear the reaction if they happen to make a mistake or a creative idea doesn’t pan out. Because a team with a sense of psychological safety sees mistakes and failure as lessons to learn from, and not reasons for punishment or disgrace.
Generating this sense of security is more difficult in a dispersed working environment – communication is inevitably less easy, with fewer casual interactions and if the above best practices aren’t implemented, the focus is likely to be on objectives, goals, instructions, course corrections and so on, with little time left to devote to people and relationships. And yet, the further apart team members are, the more valuable and significant those relationships are; especially in terms of impact on results.
7. The binding power of rituals!
After a time, whether you intend it or not, any group of connected people create their own rituals – a shared coffee break, a regular watercooler chat, in-jokes, shorthand comments that are immediately understood…
Rituals are powerful bonding agents, part of a shared work experience and a fundamental part of the team’s culture. So, it makes sense to take control of which rituals are established, and which aren’t, right? And that gives you the chance to be creative, setting unique rituals that help forge a unique team identity.
For example, at Boldare, we set aside a little time at the end of the week to complain. Just some space to let off steam about the things that have bugged you that week. No need to be constructive (though that doesn’t mean we’re insulting!), just get it off your chest, be heard, and you’ll feel better. For something more fun, we also have a weekly ‘magic question’: each team member chooses a question from the list – What superpower would you like to have? What is the bravest thing you’ve ever done? etc. – and shares their answer.
From time to time, we conduct the “magic question” ritual without time pressure, asking the question via Slack and allowing the team to share their thoughts in their own time, instead of within the confines of a video call. Also, we don’t want to make our rituals into obligatory meetings - the goal is exactly the opposite.
With just these two short rituals, we have a safety valve to let off steam, and a way to always be getting to know each other better.
In a world of remote working and dispersed development teams, introducing a couple of small rituals to your team’s week can help bring them together.
Remote work is here to stay
Remote working and dispersed teams are already an established feature of the new normal. And whether it’s your own internal dev team or they’ve been brought in from outside, your goal remains the same, pandemic or no pandemic: a high quality digital product focused on both user and business needs. For that, you need great teamwork and our long experience at Boldare tells us that in a post-COVID world, the above seven best practices will help you forge a team that delivers results.
For more new normal resources and information, check out our New Normal landing page