The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally and permanently changed the way we work. While it's undoubtedly true that remote working was on the rise in the pre-pandemic world, the unique pressures of the last year have accelerated the move towards remote teams. Today, we live in a world where 16% of companies are 100% remote.
And of course, while almost any team can adapt to remote working, it's a more natural fit for some teams than others. Development teams were one of the pioneers of remote working, and for good reason - an eye-watering 41% of employers cite talent shortages as a primary issue they face when hiring developers. The requirement for focused and solitary work as well as collaboration also allows remote developers to thrive regardless of whether they're sitting in an office, a coffee shop, or some far-off location with a view.
What's also clear is that remote development teams are here to stay and will likely become the norm in the future. But how do you cultivate an effective, efficient, well-adjusted, and goal-oriented remote development team? Managing a remote team of developers isn't something you can leave to chance; it requires deliberate action and the right strategies and tools. With this in mind, we've created a helpful guide to managing remote development teams in 2021. Let's take a look.
What Is a Remote Team, and Why Are Companies Increasingly Deploying Remote Teams?
A remote team comprises people with complementary skills who work towards a unified purpose and performance goals, working from different physical locations. Typically, members of the remote team share responsibility for achieving established objectives. For example, in remote development teams, this unified goal might be a new software app or business solution, and the objectives would be specific development milestones.
It's important to note that while the terms 'remote team' and 'virtual team' are often used interchangeably, this is incorrect - there are distinct differences between the two. Remote teams are essentially traditional teams that are not tethered to one location. However, virtual teams consist of people with different skills brought together to perform a specific purpose or resolve an issue. Virtual team members often have different line managers, and their place in the team is usually temporary (the team disperses when the objective has been met).
But why are companies increasingly deploying remote teams? While the COVID-19 pandemic often dominates these discussions, it's important to remember that the benefits of remote working were already apparent before the need for empty offices arose.
Benefits of remote development teams:
Reduced office space costs - Office rent continues to rise, especially in cities.
Ability to hire talent from anywhere - Finding developers locally with the right mix of skills and experience can be challenging. Hiring talent locally can also be more costly because you're at the mercy of local economic factors.
Increased productivity - One study found that 91% of remote workers say they get more work done.
The Challenges of Managing a Multinational Development Team
Cultural differences can be a strength or a hindrance to remote development teams. Sharing culture and looking at things from a different perspective can broaden your horizons and usher more thought diversity into a team. Diversity of thought is a crucial aspect of problem-solving, which is vital in any software development project
However, sometimes cultural differences can make remote working more difficult. For example, some phrases and jargon might be common in one culture but not in another. This can lead to situations where employees feel alienated.
Cultural differences can come in many forms, including generational, ethnic, religious, and educational, and it's essential to be conscious of these differences to avoid friction. For example, in some cultures, religious observance involves wearing specific clothing items like a turban or headscarf, so a dress code that restricts headwear could be deemed non-inclusive.
Cultural differences can also impact communication and teamwork. For example, people from European backgrounds typically prefer a high level of eye contact and a more direct way of communicating.
Different Time Zones
Employees working across different time zones can create friction and even cause project delays. For example, suppose a remote developer is working on a task and gets stuck. They know that another team member could answer their question, but that developer is in a different timezone and will likely be sleeping. The only options are to disturb the team member during their downtime or to fire off an email that they will read many hours later.
Reduced Level of Engagement and Job Satisfaction
When working remotely, employees can often feel disconnected and unengaged from their wider team. One survey found that loneliness was the second biggest challenge associated with remote work for employees. When people are unhappy, they feel less motivated and are less likely to seek out communication and collaboration opportunities.
Slower Technical Knowledge Sharing
Developers often have to battle a large number of technical challenges throughout the software development lifecycle. Having all the team in a physical location can make overcoming this challenge easier because other team members are always just a few steps away. However, with remote working, sharing technical knowledge is often slower because team members don't always work at the same time or might be unavailable for video calls (which makes back and forth questions more straightforward).
Best Practices for Managing Remote Development Teams
Don’t overlook or ignore cultural and language differences. Try to be inclusive of cultural differences and allow opportunities to share culture. It's also an excellent idea to promote a unified team culture by sharing your company’s vision, mission, and values.
Implement an effective information system that includes a Source Code Management (SCM) system, issue tracker, etc. Version control is an essential aspect of a smoothly run software development project and can eliminate costly issues down the road. Deploying an effective information system needs to be a top priority.
Achieve “round the clock” efficiency when developers are in different zones. As a manager, you should know when your developers are working and when they are available to communicate with other team members. To reduce the impact of time zones, there should ideally be crossover periods where employees in different time zones can ask questions and update each other on progress without the need for a formal meeting.
Try to communicate the overall picture to your developer and, together, set clearly defined priorities. Instead of forcing day-to-day goals, set up week iterations and every month retrospectives. Agile software development is typically the favored way of doing things in 2021, and it's also a good fit for remote working. Why? Because self-organization and collaboration are key foundations of iterative development. Managers should encourage developers to be agile and continually familiarize themselves with agile methodologies.
Encourage team communication, knowledge transfer, intra-team calls, and make sure no one is ignored. Often, remote workers need a gentle push to encourage them to communicate. One way to foster a more connected team is to encourage small talk at the beginning of a remote team meeting. Those less formal ust and breaking down walls.
Prevent message overload. It's a good idea to create separate channels in Slack for different communication purposes. When developers are overloaded with messages they can become overwhelmed and distracted, pulling them away from the task at hand. For example, you could create a channel for dev discussions where developers can hash out important project issues. There could also be a channel for 'problem review', where developers note problems they want to discuss in an upcoming meeting. And of course, a 'just for fun' channel where workers can get to know each other better, share jokes, and engage in small talk.
Set up a meeting schedule preferably half a year or a year in advance. Consistency and structure are particularly important for remote workers. If developers know when they are expected to attend meetings, they can manage their time more effectively and meetings become much more productive as a result. It's also important to establish a clear structure for the meetings so that everyone knows what is expected of them.
Collaboration Tools For Remote Teams
There are plenty of collaboration tools out there, each with its own benefits. However, we can neatly arrange these tools into three categories; communication, project management, and documents/file management. Many companies go down the route of picking several tools to support remote working, which is a sound strategy. However, many of the latest tools satisfy all three categories.
For a remote development team to thrive, communication must be seamless and straightforward. Tools like Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Basecamp 3 empower employees to collaborate with their team members and take control of their work. Many of these tools also come with built-in document management features, task management capabilities, milestone tracking, and more. However, for larger projects, having a dedicated project management tool like Asana, Trello, Basecamp, or LiquidPlanner is the best way to go. And when it comes to documents, your primary concern should be accessibility. In other words, employees should be able to access the documents they need from any location, and the documents should be organized in a way that makes them easily retrievable.