How to Manage Remote Developer Teams
HR Tips Eli McGarvie
This is part four of Honeypot’s Remote Hiring Guide. Here’s part one: How to Source and Screen Developers Remotely, part two: How to Interview Developers Remotely and part three: How to Onboard Developer Teams Remotely.
Though it’s been a standard practice of developer work for years, managers still get nervous about remote work - especially when it happens suddenly. The path to remote work can be bumpy, meaning managers need to rethink their leadership style - you’ll have to say goodbye to those quick coffee chats and spontaneous meetings!
To curtail the nerves of managing a remote team, we’ve created this handy guide which’ll help you understand some of the best practices of remote management so you can effectively direct staff with confidence through the rocky and rough roads of transition - good luck!
We’ve broken down our management strategies into three parts; the first is about how best to communicate with your remote team; the second part is about online collaboration and how to best manage that plus some tools you might employ; and finally, we’ll share some great ways you can keep yourself and your team proactive and productive during this period of remote work.
Below is an outline of this article so you can quickly find what’s relevant to you - enjoy the read, amigo!
In a remote team, communication channels must be clear and organised. It’s easy to get lost in the brambles of online messaging, therefore it’s up to the manager or team lead to clearly define how communication will take place within the team and the wider company.
Since you won’t be able to tap your colleague on the shoulder or gather the troops for a quick team sync, you’ll have to re-think your typical communication strategy. Here are a few ways you can do that.
Keys to successful remote communication
You might have felt a stab of anxiety as your team members relocated to their homes for quarantine. The concerns of limited project control and invisible staff can stir a minor panic. Like many, you weren’t prepared for a crisis - but don’t worry, by implementing the correct protocols and expectations for remote workers you’ll be up to scratch in no time!
Accountability in a team is best established through written guidelines. This way, each member understands exactly what is expected of them throughout the day, week, month and year. You may have them recording hours, posting regularly, documenting their daily work - however it looks on paper, make sure to express it clearly and pin it as an accessible reference point.
You’ll want to know the ins and outs of what each team member is working on in order to track progress and plan deadlines. A quick way to secure transparency is to schedule regular catch-ups with the team, where you will be able to hear what everyone is working on and how each team member is progressing. With this, everyone will know what they should be doing and what the others in the team are also doing. There are also plenty of workplace management tools which help support team transparency as well, like Jira and Trello (more on these later!).
Managers can default to micromanaging when thrust into remote work. They can’t see their team or what is being worked on and so bombard workers with messages and emails calling for updates and reminding them of incomplete tasks. This behaviour will only frustrate your team and show a lack of trust. If you have implemented the tools and processes that encourage accountability and transparency, then you shouldn’t have to worry about what your team is doing every minute of the day.
Everyone has different ways of coping with change. Some of us scream into our pillows (me) while others shrug their shoulders and embrace the unknown. It’s important to keep an eye on your team members and see how the changes are affecting them as individuals. Encourage your team to be vulnerable with what’s affecting them and their concerns. Last I checked it wasn’t a crime to feel demotivated or disconnected. These conversations mean you can have a more targeted approach when addressing the team, and it’ll identify how you can best support and lead them through the oncoming months.
Remember, you’re the role model
This is no different from an office environment. How you conduct yourself in a remote setting will set the standard for your team. If you are late to meetings, or show a lack of engagement, in a weeks time your team will be doing the same. You need to be the role model (now more than ever) of how you’d like your team to behave. It’s not enough to just organise a weekly lunch session or a daily e-coffee, you have to check-in and be present, or those processes you try to implement will quickly deteriorate before your very eyes.
Best practices for remote communication
Here are a few points on how you can maximise the impact of your team’s communication tools, keep your team engaged, and ensure channels are clear and scrubbed clean of any pesky misunderstandings.
At Honeypot, we have 42 nationalities; this means that although we share internal comms in English, we need to be mindful that the majority of our co-workers are not native speakers and may easily misconstrue verbal and written comms. So if you are writing an email, keep it simple and to the point. For important video meetings, assign someone to take notes and ask them to share with everyone after the meeting.
Work out loud
We’re separated by some healthy distance (as you may have guessed), which means we need to be much more proactive in verbalising how we’re spending our time. I’m thinking of all those tasks and responsibilities which aren’t recorded or assigned on a Trello board somewhere, which could be anything from quick-fixes to last-minute requests - whatever it is, encourage your people to verbalise it. It’s as simple as dropping a line in the team Slack channel: ‘Hi team, I’m blasting through a heap of emails this morning, will be back working on X in the arvo!’ It will be a bit odd to begin, but the team will quickly sense the logic behind it.
Create communication guidelines
Since there’s more opportunity for distraction and miscommunication in our comms channels as of late, it’s a good idea to lay down a couple of ‘laws’ to help promote the effectiveness of how people communicate. These may be things like: don’t blow up someone’s chat with ten different messages when the point could have been communicated in one; or always assume good intent in tone, meaning if you get a blunt message or are ignored, don’t take it as a slight - assume they are busy and will get back to you. These types of guidelines help to remove unexpected situations, meaning more effective channels.
Consider their home life
You’ll have coworkers who don’t have a dedicated workspace in their home, they’ll be in their kitchen or lounge room, and others might have kids and parental duties to attend to during the day. These are factors which, before remote work, wasn’t your problem, but now is impacting how a team functions - especially with those little tykes running around and demanding attention. You’re going to have to accept that these ‘home’ problems are now yours also, and you’ll need to make some adjustments to how you work with those individuals facing these new work challenges.
Create Q and A sessions
There are thousands of decisions to be made each day, and many of them are actually made during informal chit-chats we have over coffee and between our desks. These chats are usually not so important to require a meeting, but can quickly fester into bigger problems if left unattended. A nice way to bridge this gap is to hold quick Q and A sessions (maybe an hour a day), where team members can jump on a call with you and have their concerns addressed in a few minutes.
When dealing with multinational teams in a remote setting, it’s best to repeat important points a number of times to ensure all people understand. A few extra seconds spent on a topic will save you the headache of course-correcting in the future.
Use pictures and video
When troubleshooting, we’d all rather see a screenshot or video tutorial than wade through a complex email. Not only is it easier to follow but it also saves a ton of time! So before you shoot off that next three-page email, ask yourself if there is a more efficient way. You can try screen recording with Screencast or Bandicam (or if you’re on Mac there’s Quicktime which is free), and for customisable screenshots, you can use Lightshot or an extension available from your browser.
Share all decisions
You are going to be making a ton of decisions through this transition and out the other side. Management decisions for the team or company-wide should be shared to ensure transparency and company inclusion. Emails are good for this, though you don’t want to be bombarding people with every minor update; best to create a corporate wiki where people can read and opt for notifications (Notion is great for this!).
A crisis means course-correcting; your commitments will change and so will your expectations. Something that wasn’t pressing a few weeks ago is now the most important thing for the company. People can quickly adapt to this, but if you’re course-correcting every week you run the risk of leaving your team behind. Each new direction means another break in structure and routine, breeding disheartened and demotivated coworkers. In times of turmoil, it’s incredibly important to re-establish a sense of structure, security and routine, and you can’t do that if you’re changing your mind week-to-week. Create a plan and stick to it as best you can.
Promote a video-first culture
To add a human element to the impersonal nature of remote work, prioritise video conferencing in the daily scrum meetings (or any meetings). This will help encourage active participation in the conversations being had and help to maintain your team’s culture over time. A video-first practice means that you’ll be able to observe non-verbal communication and keep tabs on emotional status and mood, which better informs team functionality and management practices.
Find new ways to motivate
Thanks to COVID-19, after work frothies are a no-go, same with rowdy office banter and our usual ways of unwinding. These times of social isolation will see a hit to your team’s motivation and the worst part is: those struggling seldom speak up. The best way to get ahead of a demoralised team is to regularly check in with individual team members (for 1-on-1’s) and always celebrate wins, however small. We like to have a bit of fun when motivating each other and use this InspiroBot which uses AI to create inspirational quotes.
Hold weekly hangouts
Since you’re out of the office those familiar characters kicking around the lunchroom can quickly become strangers. A weekly get-together will be a good chance to catch up and say ‘hi!’ to colleagues you don’t see regularly which keeps those inter-departmental connections strong! Workshops, trivia games, lightning talks, and demos are all great ways to use this time. But make sure organisers set an agenda and have moderators to avoid the descending chaos (or the mass exodus) of a group video chat.
Use a buddy system
If you’ve already got the system in place, bring it online! E-coffees, lunches or catch-ups are a great way to help people to socialise outside of their immediate team. For those using Slack, you may be familiar with the plugin called ‘Donut’ which pairs random employees for weekly coffees where they can discuss work, life or share a joke. Keeping people connected goes a long way in boosting morale and inclusion, and this is a simple way to do it.
Managing conflict remotely
Is someone throwing shade from afar? Sooner or later conflict will arise in the team and you’ll be forced to handle it - online. Your best defence is preparation, but as we all know that’s not always possible. Some things are just out of your control, for example, laggy internet, disgruntled employees, and hard-to-work-with clients. Here are a few things you can do to stop conflict gaining ground in your team.
Give emotional support
Abrupt change is likely to ruffle some feathers, so it’s important that you are present and actively listening to employee’s concerns about stress and anxiety (remember the 1-on-1’s mentioned earlier). Listen to their struggles and help where you can, and don’t just ask, ‘how are you doing?’ - it’s a question which naturally encourages people to reduce their feelings to one word, and doesn’t tend to elicit openness. Instead, you can ask tailored questions to their situation, for example:
- How are you finding your transition to remote work so far?
- What do you like, and not like, about remote work?
- How can I support you in this transition?
Once you’ve asked the questions, make sure to listen to their response. Always put the employee’s stress and concern front-and-centre of the conversation.
A common issue for remote teams is that there is rarely a conversation around what completed work exactly entails. You can eliminate vague work by having a list of project objectives which qualify each task. This way all members can clearly communicate when something is finished or is still in progress.
Create dedicated channels
There are a million different ways to share information online, which is fantastic for us impulsive types, but not so fantastic for documentation and project organisation. To curb the threat of crossed-wires and doubling up, create dedicated channels for each topic. This will mean everything is documented in one place, so you won’t have to comb through hundreds of email threads to find the info you are looking for, and you’ll pat yourself on the back when it comes to onboarding a newbie.
Hire good writers
If you’re doing it right, 90% of your remote team’s communication will be text-based, meaning you want your teammates to be strong communicators of the written word to help avoid misunderstandings and unnecessary grievances. So as you do make remote hires, make sure you assess them for their ability to write.
Provide regular feedback
Since it’s a transition period for many, you should be proactive in providing constant feedback to your team members. This will help them adjust to their new working environment and make them better remote workers. The way you share feedback is up to you; it might be through an HR tool, via call or direct message. Just make sure the serious feedback is done face-to-face (video call).
Consider cultural and language differences
Avoid a clash of culture by erasing vague and socially-nuanced messages which can easily be misinterpreted. You know what I mean - even a simple phrase like, ‘it’s fine’ can be read several different ways. Use punctuation and emojis to better translate your feelings through messaging apps to avoid unintended confrontations.
Deal with hostile people
It might be the case that you have to deal with a hostile team member or client - forget messaging! A video call is far better for these types of situations, they will become more self-aware and patient since they will be forced to see themselves. It’ll also be a time-saver; a two-minute call will clear up something that might take 30 minutes to communicate over a direct message.
Minimise surrounding distractions
Gently enforce some rules around where team members work and take calls. Nagging kids, pets, and loud work environments can upset the entire flow of a conversation or meeting. You don’t have to assume these incidents are common-place either. Exercise some patience but be quick to enforce those rules. It will be appreciated team-wide and reduce the emotional strain on your team.
Aligning a team working from different corners of the world is going to be a challenge, but one that is easily overcome by organised project management and a few nifty tools.
Remote project management will require you to up the level of planning which goes into each initiative. If you are a shoot-from-the-hip type manager, don’t be! Here are some steps that you can take to best leverage your next remote team project:
Scrum agile practices
Already using these practices? Perfect! Take them online and continue as usual. Scrum and agile methodologies will help boost flexibility and productivity in the team while fostering an environment built on honesty, accountability and trust. Many developer teams use tools like Jira and Trello to dashboard these practices online.
Make sure it’s clear to everyone who is working on what, and who is responsible for the assigned tasks. Avoid those open-ended conversations which usually end with someone saying, ‘yeah, we could do something like that.’ Everyone should be 100% sure of what they are working on and what you expect of them. The best way to do this is by assigning tasks, putting them down on ‘paper’ and communicating what you ‘need’ instead of what you’d ‘like’ someone to do.
Automate everything that you can - this is something that should always be at the front of your mind. Automation of processes will increase high-impact output from small and large remote teams. There are a bunch of testing and scheduling tools out there; take your pick!
Getting started guide
The first thing to do in the era of remote work is to put together a ‘getting started’ guide. As the team learns and gets into the groove of remote work, they will adopt methods for best-practice work. It’s highly advised to document this process and keep updating the doc as you all grow. This way if anyone new steps in, you can hand them the guide and send them on their merry way. And it’ll be a good reference point to come back to if anyone ever needs clarification.
A global team means different time zones which will inevitably cause communication barriers and scheduling conflicts. Different working times can block the progress of a project as people might be waiting around until others jump online. Get ahead of this problem by investing time into guidelines and documentation. That way if a question arises, the information is there. If it’s an issue with bugs, implement a system of filing bug reports so developers can move on and get to work.
Designate a leader
For teams working across different time zones, it’s best to designate leaders who can be responsible for making decisions and moving the team forward.
Scoping for tickets will be more tricky since you can’t just grab someone for a minute or two for a quick rundown. Jumping between stakeholder, project manager, and the developer is going to waste a ton of time. We find the best approach is to just invite the stakeholder to the relevant scrum meetings so all questions can be answered on the spot and no Chinese whispers occur. And they can easily leave the call once the issue is resolved, saving a lot of headaches from all sides.
This crisis has really magnified some weaknesses in our processes and management - for most of us, it’s a lack of preparedness. So let’s use this time (once you’re in the swing of things) to make sure we aren’t caught flat-footed. You can do this by investing and coaching the leaders who are below you to position them for success given another shakeup like this occurs. It’s a good opportunity to create a resilient and prepared developer team who can adapt with confidence.
With all the distractions of remote work, standards can drop. Be quick to address these standards promptly. It will enforce work ethic and remind team members to remain detail-orientated wherever they might be working.
The role of remote project management can be made far easier with the help of collaboration tools. Tools will allow you to monitor team progress, share feedback, track time, communicate efficiently, increase team productivity and so on. Here’s a list of some tools you may consider for your remote team:
Trello - “A Trello board is a list of lists, filled with cards, used by you and your team. It’s a lot more than that, though. Trello has everything you need to organize projects of any size.”
Jira - “One of the best software development tools for project management & task delegation for all agile teams out there.”
Basecamp - “is a real-time project management tool that keeps teams on track and organized with features like to-do lists, schedules, messaging, and file storage. While it’s not ideal for traditional project management tasks like resource planning and long-term scheduling, its robust feature set makes it a great addition to your suite of collaboration tools.”
Github - “A purely cloud-based collaboration tool for developer GitHub is a web application which and a cloud-based service which allows software developers to store, manage, and reuse their code. The way it has managed to serve the development teams located remotely is quite miraculous.”
Jenkins - “is an online application that monitors repeated jobs, such as software building projects. It is mainly used as a continuous integration system, as in building and testing software projects continuously. Jenkins is changing the way companies look at build management.”
Codingteam - “Coders can easily collaborate when writing their code through platforms like Codingteam. It offers a free ‘software forge’ that encourages visibility and collective code building.”
Mockplus - “is the most robust all-in-one product platform for prototyping, collaboration, and design systems. It not only helps you to create interactive prototypes for websites, mobile apps, desktop, and web apps faster and easier, but also gives you a more connected product design workflow that brings designers, product managers, and front-end developers to work better and together.”
Miro - “Scalable, secure, cross-device and enterprise-ready team collaboration whiteboard for distributed teams.”
Whimsical - “Communicate visually at the speed of thought – collaborative flowcharts, wireframes, sticky notes, and mind maps.”
Slack - “is a collaboration hub to replace email with instant messaging, voice/video calling and dedicated group channels for sharing information.”
Teams - “Microsoft Teams is the hub for team collaboration in Office 365 that integrates the people, content, and tools your team needs to be more engaged.”
G suite - we use G suite at honeypot to centralise all of our info. You can easily share documents and folders with other users and store everything securely in the Google drive to be accessed anywhere.
Office 365 - Microsoft alternative to G Suite.
Toggl - “Toggl is a simple (yet powerful) time tracker that helps you learn how much your time is worth.”
Time tracking Chrome extensions
Zoom - “Zoom is the leader in modern enterprise video communications, with an easy, reliable cloud platform for video and audio conferencing, chat, and webinars.”
Skype - “Free online calls, messaging, affordable international calling to mobiles or landlines and Skype for Business for effective collaboration.”
File sharing and cloud storage:
Dropbox - “is a file storage cloud. You are able to access your files anywhere, anytime. Even while offline you are still able to view them. Dropbox has great sharing features and works across every major platform.”
OneDrive - “Save your files and photos to OneDrive and access them from any device, anywhere.”
- 1 password - a tool which saves all the passwords you use to one place, and can be shared with teammates so they can get access to other business tools and platforms without chasing up the password.
Productivity is most often left up to individuals to manage, and while that’s all well and good, there are several practices teams can implement to make teamwork easier and more efficient. The good news is that developers are generally much happier and productive in remote situations anyway, so the tweaks you make will be less to do with social aspects (phew!) and more towards execution of actual tasks. Here are a few ways to ensure a higher level of productivity in your online workplace:
Email communication is a terrible medium for back and forth conversation and quickly becomes a major time-waster as you go searching through confusing threads. If you can’t write a tactful email, pick up the phone and give your colleague(s) a call. Save everyone the frustration of following up and double-checking.
Tools and tech
Investing in some of the communication tools mentioned above will certainly improve workflow and increase team productivity. We will potentially work remotely for several weeks so make sure you invest in the hardware and software for your team. An extra monitor can easily double or triple an employee’s productivity.
Since everyone has been working from home we’ve seen some strain for various internet providers - mostly because every man and his dog is watching Netflix! It may affect your internet connection which will mess with video calls, prolong download times, and generally slow the progress of all online work. A smart solution around this bottleneck is to sign up for a Virtual Private Network (VPN) which will encrypt your internet traffic and do wonders for your connection speed.
Encourage your team to get regular exercise. This could be one of the most important factors to influence your team productivity. If it’s a nice, sunny day, let those couch potatoes know they should take a walk or go for a jog before dark - walking from the desk to the kitchen isn’t going to cut it, sorry! Regular exercise is linked to increased happiness, mental health and creativity, and helps to decrease overall stress and anxiety.
Watch the DMs
Instant messaging is a fantastic way to communicate but absolutely stifling to high impact work. Get your team off Slack and other messaging platforms as much as possible. If something is urgent, call. Best to have set periods of time when everyone is reachable to avoid the onslaught of notifications breaking important focus.
Reward your developers
REWARD THEM!!! Seriously, celebrating the achievements of team members and rewarding them for good work is always going to increase productivity. In transition periods it will add confidence and value to your team, and it’s important to keep the morale up. For more on showing appreciation remotely, Read part 5.
Common blockers and how to combat them
Workplace productivity can be blocked by a number of external factors. But just because they are out of our control doesn’t mean we can’t find ways around them, or even use them to our advantage. Here are some of the usual suspects and a few suggestions for how you might combat them.
Time zone differences
As mentioned above, you won’t always be able to reach team members working in other parts of the world. Don’t let it be a drag on performance though, use it to your advantage! You’ll have people working around the clock on the same project and teams ahead of your time zone can review progress and assign future tasks.
The chances of burnout can actually increase as teams go remote. The lines between work and rest begin to blur, and you’ll see people quite easily push ten or twelve hours of work. While it sounds great for business, it’s a sure-fire way to ruin mental health and happiness within a team. Watch for these behaviours and ensure everyone is working manageable hours.
With no one over your shoulder you can quickly lose your morning replying to a couple of emails. There are a couple of great tools out there which allow you to track time spent to better manage productivity throughout the day.
All those badges, meetings and notifications will draw your attention away from any meaningful work. The best practice is to narrow focus to high impact work. How can you do that? Replace (some) meetings with emails, create daily rituals, work in a dedicated workspace and block out dedicated ‘do not disturb time’. Here are some tools you might suggest to your team which’ll encourage focus periods and block out distractions.
Give yourself some room to breathe! Back-to-back scheduling is a killer for team productivity.
Miscalculating deadlines will bring your productivity to a screeching halt. For the most part, we assume that we can complete tasks quicker than we actually can. When we miss that deadline, not only do we fall behind but it also demotivates us. Set your team reasonable deadlines so team members can work towards over-delivering instead of under.
Lack of access to information
‘Free and open access to information’ - that should be your team’s motto from now on. Ideally, you want to reduce the time and effort it takes to find information from co-workers. Even the simplest of questions that go unanswered can be major blockers to productivity and progress.
Yep, we all can feel the hit of social isolation. Probably more so for those extraverts in the team who love a good chat. The longer the isolation drags out the less “belonging” we feel within the company (especially if there aren’t many opportunities to connect with others).
Distractions at home
Kids, pets, family, construction workers - you name it, they’ll be in the background causing a stir. As a manager, you need to make some allowance for the team members with family or dependents, but try to encourage them to have dedicated workspaces where they can hide away from distractions and get to work.
Managing developer teams remotely
As research indicates, employees look to their managers for support and guidance during sudden changes and crisis situations. Your reactions and management style will trickle-down to those you manage. If you display stress and worry, they will react in kind.
The best way to approach difficult circumstances such as the COVID crisis is to boost team confidence, offer support (whether you feel it or not), and take up the challenge head-on with a sense of purpose.