How to Work Effectively with Telecommuting Teams
Working with distributed or remote teams can be hard. Here are some ways to make it almost easy
The problem with distributed, remote, or telecommuting teams
Nowadays, the concept of distributed teams is prevalent, especially in tech companies that are in the hyper-growth stage. It’s inevitable that in your tech career, you’ll have the opportunity to work with or lead teams across multiple time zones — and even countries or continents.
Over the span of my career, I have worked closely with people and teams from across different locations, including Edinburgh, London, San Francisco, Shenzhen, and Singapore. Pretty spread out, right? But it’s not as hard as you think it might be!
It’s a strange adjustment to make, though. When I was new to working with remote teams, I struggled. I spread myself thin across my many responsibilities as an engineering lead and manager. This caused my teams to stay late or come too early in the office.
The results included delayed deliverables, miscommunication, and misalignment in our collective goals, which caused further delays. All in all, it didn’t look good for our team or our company.
In this article, I use the terms “distributed,” “remote, and “telecommuting” interchangeably, because this post is applicable to all of these terms. You can find out more about the key differences between the remote and distributed here.
I would like to thank our Engineering Director, Andy, for sharing his “Guide to working with overly remote teams.” It served as the inspiration of these guidelines and tips.
To make working with distributed teams a little easier, we’ve developed some guidelines that proved efficient and are sharing them across our teams to help them deal with these situations.
Separate work streams for different sites.
Telecommuting teams can have similar work streams whilst minimising dependencies between different locations.
We are all in for collaboration, but for distributed teams, we’d like to have as much autonomy as possible for each telecommuting team or group of teams in order to reduce dependencies between locations.
Get to know your remote colleagues and build personal relationships.
Spending time with remote colleagues in person is often not possible, but if you can pull it off, it’s the best way to build a rapport among team members. If you have the chance to go for a business trip to spend time with your remote teams, then take it, because it’s worth the investment.
If meeting in person is not possible, at least make an effort to make one on-one-video calls with your remote colleagues, especially if you’ll be working closely together. There are a lot of options available for this, such as Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, and more.
Start by having an introduction conference call to break the ice. This helps kickstart the building of a good working relationship.
Negotiation and compromise should come from all sides, regardless of location or office size.
Different sides of the world will need to give and take. There are times when our UK — based teams will need to wake up early, or our Singapore- and Shenzhen-based teams will need to work late in order to collaborate effectively.
No last-minute changes or requests.
People will adjust their schedule either to wake up very early to jump on a call or to skip their dinner arrangements so they can join your negotiation call with your potential third-party solutions provider.
If you really need to change or cancel the meeting, give at least 24 hours’ notice. Your colleagues will thank you for giving them their time back.
Treat your documentation as part of your product.
When your team in Singapore is sleeping, the source of truth about your products and how to use your API will be its documentation.
Keeping your documentation up-to-date will make sure that your remote colleagues’ questions will be answered while you’re asleep on the other side of the globe.
While following these guidelines, we have learned these lessons along the way. These lessons helped us come up with a set of good practices that we have started putting into action.
Optimise for time overlaps
There will be cases where it will be impossible to compromise without taking a toll on people’s personal lives. One example is the dynamics between teams that are in different time zones without any reasonable time overlaps, such as the time differences between San Francisco and Singapore.
For such cases, it’s best to structure your teams and meetings in such a way that there is no need to schedule a meeting between offices that do not have any office hours that overlap. For example, schedule meetings and set work streams that are meant to be optimised between Singapore and London, then different meetings and streams for London and San Francisco.
Always default to asynchronous communication by making use of tools like Slack and Confluence, unless it’s really necessary to jump in a conference call for a meeting.
- Leave your questions in the relevant Slack channels before you go home, and check them the next morning. Best case is that you’ll have an answer the next day. A good case is when someone sees your question but doesn’t know the answer and mentions someone else who can help.
- Write a Confluence document of your plans with the breakdown of tasks. Share this document with your remote colleagues before you go home. Ask them to leave their comments on the document so you can check them the next day.
Lean coffee meetings
Use the lean coffee format for some of your meetings. Trello is the perfect tool for this, because teams will be dialling in. This will give your remote teams a chance to voice their opinions and vote on which topics to cover during your synch-up meetings.
It’s a better use of everyone’s time than getting stuck in an agenda that does not matter to the attendees. Limit the amount of time you spend discussing each topic and agree on the action items.
Pre-reading before meetings
Provide pre-reading materials before meetings. For example, share a Confluence page with a decision table before an important decision-making meeting.
Ask your colleagues to leave their comments with you in advance, if possible. This is more efficient than having people go back and forth to answer questions that could have been answered by pre-reading before the meeting.
Revisit your guidelines regularly, and revise what needs to change. What worked yesterday might not work today or tomorrow. What works for others might not work for you or your team. Above all, be flexible!