Click Engineering recently worked with a small startup who had most of their team in Perth but also had their developers in Melbourne. Faced with this, the problem had to be solved of how to get the best out of the team.
Working with a distributed team can be a definite problem, as working together in an office provides many opportunities to catch up on the day, identify problems people are having, offer advice, answer questions and generally build a good relationship with the team. And as team leaders and managers know, a good relationship with your team is a vital part of getting the best out of everyone.
When the team is located in the same office, it is easy to see if people are frustrated just by their body language. You probably take it for granted that you can spot this and go over and offer a ‘how are things going’? And you may not realise how much of a gift it is to cross paths with a team member in the kitchen or hallway and be able to find out how they are going any ask any questions they have. These are all golden opportunities for the team to ask for clarification on something, double-check a priority or just catch up over the weekend’s events.
So what if these opportunities are taken away from you? You will learn very quickly how valuable they are! When team members are working remotely, what should you do to get the best out of them?
If you don’t have any opportunities to have an impromptu catch-up with a team member, you will have to make one. Remember that if they are working away from you and other team members they are getting nearly none of the interactions that you generally take for granted. So schedule a simple phone catchup with them 2 or 3 times a week. You will be surprised how much difference a 30 minutes of conversation a week makes and the amount of valuable information that can be transferred. Also make an effort to schedule a less frequent team-get-together, say a monthly Friday afternoon tools-down session over a videoconference so that everyone gets to catch up.
While you and the rest of the team are discussing problems and making decisions, your remote staff are not getting any of that benefit. Some people may think it is acceptable to just send an update on the decisions made to remote staff, but that probably constitutes 10% of the useful information that was discussed. Make an effort to involve your remote workers in the discussion so that they do not feel excluded and the whole team benefits from everyone’s input.
Set Well Defined Tasks
While this post may imply that remote team members are a bad thing, there are also benefits. For a software engineer, it is a great opportunity to get in ‘the zone’ where everything just flows through the keyboard. It’s a great place to be, but you first need to achieve it and then need to sustain it. You can help achieve it by working together to identify what aspect of your product your team member is most passionate about. And you can sustain it by fully agreeing the specs of the task. If a task is not fully specified then questions and queries will be raised and this takes you out of ‘the zone’.
Share The Plan
All team members need to know where their work fits in amongst the overall plan. This is easy when you are working side-by-side, but when working remotely this is no longer trivial. So use on-line planning tools to make it easy for people to understand the whole plan and see how all the tasks fit in to it. With a little extra encouragement the team should also be updating their progress and so the question of ‘how is everything going’ can be answered easily whether you are in the office or working remotely.