Managing remote developers is a challenging task, although with all the tech tools and apps at your disposal it gets easier. Distributed teams come in all shapes and sizes with an ability to work from any location, so by default they bring on board the heterogeneity, flexibility and cultural diversity making them an ultimate source of innovation. However, in order to garner these benefits, you need to manage your team wisely.
1. Unimpeded communication
Remember the story about Robinson Crusoe, who spent 28 years surviving on a deserted island, completely unaware of what’s going on in the world? Well, that’s exactly how your team will feel if you fail to establish a comprehensive flow of information. In this pursuit, it is vital to use all the Slacks, Trellos, Skypes, Google Hangouts or any other communication tool you can think of to keep everyone connected.
There is not a single case of a successful distributed team, which doesn’t include effective communication. Take, for instance, Automattic—the distributed team that created WordPress.com. Their founder, Matt Mullenweg, likes to repeat these words: “I will communicate as much as possible because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company.” Since his team lives by this wisdom, they seem to be doing quite well.
Another example is a social media company Buffer. They’ve noticed that emails or Skype messages can get lost easily in a pile of the day-to-day correspondence. Hence, they decided to implement a policy of over-communication. Every team member keeps in mind to communicate clearly and to repeat twice without hesitation, because it’s better to over-communicate than to turn into Mr. Crusoe.
2. Time differences
When managing a remote team, don’t forget that your software developers are scattered around the world and across different time zones. In case you want to schedule a daily session when you’ve just finished your morning avocado toast with triple Frappuccino, just make sure that the rest of the team is not sleeping at home during that time. It can be useful to build a distributed team in the neighboring countries, so that the time differences become irrelevant.
3. Distance is a trust killer
When talking face-to-face with our friends, we might not realize the hidden benefits of such a simple process. It is not only because we are able to communicate without an involvement of the technological progress tools, but also because we gain an ability to rely on non-verbal communication subconsciously for building tighter bonds within a team. Whether it’s the genuine smile of a colleague, the confident behavior of a boss, or the calm gestures of a partner – they are essential for nurturing trustful relations.
When working in a distributed team, you might receive none of these clues. Whenever you see a “No video” sign during a Skype video conference, your inner distrust radar starts towering suspicions around that unknown person behind the screen. This is when a distributed team starts falling apart at the seams.
There is a good Italian proverb: “far from your eyes, far from your heart”. Indeed, distance is a significant obstacle for a trustful atmosphere within a company, as turning on Skype video might make a big difference.
Zapier, the company that builds software tools for connecting different apps, demonstrates a good example of trustful long-distance relations. They are true experts in managing distributed teams, having even written a textbook guide on the topic. They state: “We build trust by sharing status updates each Friday to make sure that everyone knows what’s going on; we also hold face-to-face informal meetings and have fun together”. It sounds like a good example to follow.
4. Guidelines matter
Having clear guidelines for the project usually helps with avoiding the never-ending story of edits, updates, clarifications, and edits again, which can turn a project into a mess. When it comes to managing a remote team of developers or engineers, you need to go the extra mile to make the guidelines as precise as possible.
Before your team starts working on a project, make sure that every team member understands its details, goals, and milestones, as well as the team’s role in the project’s success. A good practice is to include this introductory part in the onboarding process.
Apart from knowing the project details, instruct your software development team on the everyday procedures that are going to take place on your team. Such an approach can include clear distribution of responsibilities, thorough description of the reporting process, the daily meetup timing, as well as the contents of the feedback sessions. Use online tools, like Trello or Jira, to visualize the process and make it even more intuitive for your programmers.
5. Feedback culture
When working on a distance, giving feedback can become even harder in comparison to your regular in-house sessions. As we mentioned before, remote work implies certain challenges associated with building trustful relations. Without the trustful bond in a team, providing feedback can deteriorate into plain criticizing and making everything worse very rapidly.
With that in mind, make sure you explain your feedback thoroughly. Don’t just pop up as an abrupt “re-write the code” notification on your devs’ screens. Communicate your thoughts and concerns, while noticing and underlining the successful parts of their job. It is vital to provide strong arguments in support of your edits, also asking for their opinion. Feedback sessions will become more effective over time, as you create tighter bonds with your developers. Speaking of, meeting your programmers in-person could be a game-changer in building closer relations with a team.
6. Face-to-face communication
Technologies definitely rule the roost in our modern world. We now have robots that can dance, microchips that can be implanted right under your skin, and 3D printers that can create almost anything. But does any of this replace a good old communication over a pint in a pub? Not in the slightest. Face-to-face communication is still an important part of building a strong distributed team and there are no signs that it will change in the near future. So, plan a couple of trips to see your developers in person. As one of Beetroot’s clients, Upptec says, “The state of productivity requires inspiration rather than coercion, and it’s difficult to achieve it remotely”.
7. Every team member is equally valuable
Treating people equally should become a cornerstone of your distributed team. It’s easy to see how vulnerable and demotivated distributed teams might feel if they notice certain privileges in your attitude towards the in-house employees. Your main priority as a leader should be nurturing healthy working relationships based on equality, trust, and mutual respect.
Don’t let your team feel that they are missing something while not being physically present in the office. Here are three things that can serve as a foundation for equal, trustful relations:
- Appreciate your remote team’s work, listen to them carefully and act fairly.
- Bear in mind the time differences when scheduling meetings, don’t hesitate to let your distributed team pick a better time of the day.
- Let them know that you’re concerned about their issues and defend their position at the higher levels within the company.
Our experience in building long-distance working relationships have taught us an important lesson—a distributed team is a litmus test of your management skills. Being a good leader means being able to handle both in-house and distributed teams of developers, illustrators, nurses or literally anyone. When facing a problem with your distributed team, endeavor to concentrate your efforts on the three important concepts—communication, trust, and equality—and then sit back and watch your teams succeed.