Making remote teamwork work
How does remote teamwork actually work? Working together remotely has its challenges, but they are not as big as one might think from the cozy office of a co-located team. While the communication bandwidth of physical face-to-face communication still beats everything else, but modern technology and a few rules for online behavior can make up for a lot.
Get the tools and infrastructure
The central piece of software when working remotely is an appropriate communication tool. The three minimal requirements are text messaging, voice and video chat and screen-sharing capability. This functionality has to be there for peer-to-peer communication as well as for the whole team at once.
The tools supporting this are abundant: Microsoft Teams, Slack, Google Hangouts, Discord, Zoom1 are just a few.
Along with this make sure that all team members have a decent headsets and a webcam. Pay special attention to the quality of the microphone of the headset. Noisy chats are annoying and will make people think twice before calling each other.
Be virtually together
When working remotely together availability of each team member is key, so the team chat stays open permanently and response time to messages should be measured in minutes not hours. When starting to work for the team, announce that you’re at here now. Drop a “Good morning” in the common channel and sign off actively when done or taking a longer break. This helps to get a feeling of “who is around”.
Most tools support multiple channels, make use of that. Have some for serious, work related discussion, but do not forget the ones just for chatter and gossip.
When working remotely most discussions start out as text. This is fine, but whenever a discussion thread goes longer than a few minutes - especially when emotions are involved - switching to a voice call will usually solve the issue faster. This is especially true for 1:1 discussions. Build a team culture where it is natural for people to speak to each other often. This unfortunately becomes harder the farther the time zones of the individual team members drift apart, but even then, try to speak to each other as often as possible.
Pictures and movies
Turn your webcam on for calls. This is not just to bring the team closer together, but allows for more nuanced communication, especially for hotly-debated, emotionally laden topics. Start by saying “hi” and waving at the camera. Turn on the webcam stream whenever nobody is screen-sharing (as long as the bandwidth of the connection allows it).
A nice detail is also when people face the webcam directly as it helps with the illusion that people speak directly to each other rather than into a machine.
Share your day
Just because you’re sitting
miles kilometers apart doesn’t mean that you can’t do peer activities such as peer programming. Call for help when things go bumpy. Share the joy when you succeed in solving a tricky problem. Vent your frustration if things get messy.
Announcing in the morning “I’m working on feature X” and then shutting off until you log out is not what good teamwork consists of. Having frequent communication about how it’s going along unlocks the power of team-members volunteering their help to others.
And to not forget the fun side: take breaks together. Get a coffee, switch on the webcam und just hang out together frequently.
Training makes perfect
Working remotely together takes training and takes a bit of routine. Especially when doing it for the first time it can take a bit to get used to it. The best thing to get good at it is to just start doing it. Set up the virtual team-space and take a quarter of an hour with your team to run through the basic agreement of working remotely and get going. Take ten minutes each day to discuss what to improve and it will feel effortless quickly.
The list by no means meant to be exhaustive, it is just what I worked with in the past and found decent workable choices. ↩