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Now that working remotely is cool again ...

As more and more tech companies face the realities of remote work for the majority of their team members, resources for successful remote working are popping up all over the web. I found this blog by Y-Combinator to be particularly useful, as it’s a collection of actual remote working best practices from a number of YC alums. There’s a lot of detail of here, including links to internal company guidelines, and I’ve outlined the ones more relevant for remote team work in this blog. In other words, when we get past the havoc wreaked by Covid-19, many companies will revert back to in-office, traditional work practices. However, many of the best practices created or enhanced during this period of forced isolation are relevant for increasing the performance of remote teams/locations, and that’s what I focus on below. As usual, please comment on what has worked best for you/your team/organization.

Culture and building trust

While working with geographically dispersed teams (countries, languages and time zones), I find that building personal connections and common working culture is one of the most challenging tasks to increase overall team performance. I’ve found that the following are particularly important to create an environment for common culture:

  1. Don’t underestimate the importance of periodic face-to-face get-together, especially as new teams are formed

  2. While there are many asynchronous communication tools to accommodate time and distance barriers, encourage and enable synchronous (meetings, one-on-one) communications via video, chat, or even simple voice calls

  3. Not all inter-location meetings should be focused on work - encourage remote happy hours, coffee breaks - things that give a chance for remote colleagues to build personal relationships

Here’s another good perspective on this by Wade Foster from Zapier: https://zapier.com/learn/remote-work/how-build-culture-remote-team/

Managing effectively remotely

Here, the advice and experience across companies is uniform: focus on results/objectives, and pace if you can measure it properly, rather than micromanagement or “clocking” remote team members. The most widespread approach is some form of Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), first developed by Andy Grove at Intel and then adopted by Google and many other tech firms in the Valley and beyond. It’s also critical to communicate often, and with purpose, and document that communication for future reference. Do give periodic feedback on performance, and take the opportunity, via regular team meetings/check-ins, to surface and address challenges or barriers faced by team members. While those organizations running development under Agile are now used to the “stand-up/sprint planning/review” cycles, others point out that the overhead associated with implementing full Agile is not worth the benefits. However, Agile’s focus on joint planning, creating and tracking discrete tasks, and frequent reviews is a good way to make sure that remote teams are effectively working towards common goals.

Remote collaboration, brainstorming and problem-solving

Most of us have been through the war-room, countdown to launch or even hackathon experience, where the team is huddled in one physical space and laser-focused on achieving a critical short-term goal. There is a palpable energy and sense of “we’re all in this together” as the countdown approaches and last-minute bugs and other critical show-stoppers surface and are dealt with. How can we create that same sense of urgency and camaraderie when teams are dispersed across two or more locations? Even beyond urgent settings, how can we make sure that projects which span across physical locations run as smoothly and effectively as single-location projects? The advice here is fairly straight-forward:

  1. Document collaboration - asynchronous communication tools such as Slack, as well as online collaboration tools such as Jira, Notion, Confluence and Teams not only facilitate consistent understanding of priorities and approaches, but also document approaches and decisions for future reference. In fact, this is an advantage over in-person meetings where key decisions are discussed and resolved verbally or on a white-board, and then not documented properly. Here’s some good advice from Shogun on how to use Slack effectively to make sure that asynchronous communications are prioritized and targeted properly: https://getshogun.com/remote-work-guide

  2. Use online brainstorming tools to create immersive synchronous brainstorming sessions which combine online whiteboards, video conferencing and an ability to tee up discussions/ideas for brainstorming - here’s a concise guide for remote brainstorming by Wade Foster from Zapier: https://zapier.com/blog/remote-brainstorming/; however, many companies use even more generic tools such as Google Docs or Microsoft Office 365 to facilitate joint collaboration and brainstorming

  3. Problem-solving is best done when team members are working together - while it’s hard to beat people sitting side-by-side, employing frequent video chats, real-time (near synchronous) chats and desktop/screen-sharing apps such as TeamViewer (www.teamviewer.com) can help to overcome distance barriers for both routine and urgent problem-solving tasks

So let’s hope that as this period of mandated remote work slowly passes, we will have learned from, and innovated through, many of the challenges of working effectively across distributed teams. As many of the YC alums have found, the benefits of drawing the best talent from across the world can outweigh the challenges of managing performance across borders and time zones.

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