Managing a Remote Working Team

During the pandemic crisis, many managers and team leaders are experiencing remote working for the first time, and I’m sure there are a lot of questions and concerns on their minds. Think of me as an agony uncle for your darkest fears on remote workers…

Dear Coding Daddy,
My team are a decent lot who really know their stuff. However, now they’re remote, I worry that they will be finding it difficult to track down any inter-team help they need. I’m concerned that they may spend too much time blocked, trying to get in touch with people who they could just wander over to in the office.

Miss De-av Manageur

Dear De-av Manageur,

The two problems here are “finding someone who can help with a thing” and “getting in touch with that person”. In the office, a lack of traceable contacts is often glossed over because people can just stand up and shout “who can help me with X?”. Well this is somewhat still the case in a remote scenario, as long as everyone is in the same timezone and there’s someone in the team who has an answer, but let’s consider this isn’t the case.

A live chat application is a must for remote working. Tools such as Slack or MS Teams are excellent choices. Something I have found helps is having a pinned message at the top of a ‘problems’ or ‘blocked’ channel which has the tags of every first point of contact in each external team. That will allow anyone to click that tag and start talking with someone who can help them, right away. It’s also a good idea to have a backup contact for each team as well.

The important thing to take away from this, is that something as simple as a pinned message can save time by making it easy for people to ask questions. It’s too easy in a remote scenario to try to answer something without help – communication needs to be encouraged and embraced.

Dear Coding Daddy,
I have a dozen team members working remotely and I need to run a retrospective. When there’s only one or two people working remote, it’s hard enough to get them engaged – how do I manage now everyone’s remote?

Dr Revu Werk

Dear Dr Werk,

Firstly, don’t panic – remote meetings can be surprisingly straight forward if you take some time to prepare the tech. I can personally recommend Miro and Office 365 – either of these will allow you to share a document and work collaboratively, which is key in a retro. Miro will also provide video chat, and although Office 365 covers this as well, you will have to work out yourself how you want to incorporate the different applications Microsoft provide. You may end up using a combination.

Secondly, have some fun with this. There’s nothing wrong with getting it wrong. The important thing with a retro is to get everyone engaged, so maybe have a social online meet before the retro, to loosen things up a bit. Laugh at the bits that don’t work, and celebrate the fails.

Difficulties integrating a couple of remote workers into meetings are common, but when everyone is remote, things get easier. The tech either works or it doesn’t, but it can still be engaging because everyone is in the same boat. Even if you end up sharing an Excel Online doc and just writing messages, it’s a start and the only way is up.

Dear Coding Daddy,
I can’t see my team any more, now they’re all “working from home”! How do I know they’re actually working?!

Mr Pani King

Dear Pani,

Let’s start with some team management basics. Firstly, hire people you think you can trust. There’s no point driving team members to work when they don’t want to – the work they do will be second rate and shoddy. Focus on the people who are actually willing to work and let the others fall away. Secondly, if you are planning work well, there should be stories delivered constantly; the fact that work moves through the board in one direction (and doesn’t keep coming back) shows that people are working.

So now you are focused on the people worth focusing on, think about how you can enable them to do more work, rather than how you can make them do more work. Generally, if a task can be easily completed in a couple of hours by one or two people, then it’ll be done pretty quickly. Problems arise when the task is going to take several days and involve a dozen different people from different teams, each with their own work to do. If you have this problem, then you aren’t properly controlling the flow of work – you aren’t breaking work down into simple deliverables and you aren’t keeping a check on cross-team dependencies.

For development work, sometimes cross team dependencies can be reduced by making sure other teams have completed their work before your team starts theirs, but it’s more common to find architectural issues at the heart of the problem. Teams built around different tiers, leading to domain logic being split across different systems – too many systems and we hit gridlock. This can be a harder thing to fix, as it involves introducing very different ways of working from what’s probably gone on before. When tackling problems like this – start small and demonstrate the success.

Dear Coding Daddy,
Some of my team have terrible internet connections. Others are managing with less than optimal hardware. The company VPN is also showing signs of overload. How can I help my team?

Ms Dia Lupp

Dear Ms Lupp,

If Maslow had considered remote working when writing his hierarchy of needs, he would have included a decent internet connection and proper video/audio equipment. Presumably, if you team members are working remotely but have poor internet, this is in some way forced and needs to be fixed while that individual is working remotely (such as in the COVID-19 pandemic). This means your path forwards is clear: get them a better connection. It’s quite possible these days to have a great experience using mobile data – the business could send a 5/4G data hub for business use. And if there are other hardware problems, send them something better. These one off expenses are vastly preferable to the ongoing expense of sub-optimal working conditions.

There is nothing more important than enabling smooth working conditions for your team. A remote experience can be rewarding, but it can also be isolating and unhealthy if not done correctly.

If you company VPN is struggling and it isn’t going to be upgraded any time soon, try not using it. This will likely mean you can’t use some of the business’ preferred software for collaboration, but getting your team to the point where they can work together is just step 1 – it’s the most basic of needs and can’t be ignored. If you find you need to use external tools which haven’t been approved, make sure to talk to your security team – you may have to police the content exposed in that tool if privacy and confidentiality is an issue.

Be nice

Ok, so that was mostly a bit of fun with a few obvious tips and hints. Maybe one of the most important things to realise about your remote teams right now is that everyone is stressed about the virus and what limits are being placed on their life. Don’t add to their stress, be a friend, be patient, listen to what they need from you. No-one is sat at home thinking how to get one over on you. Your team wants to work, help them to help you.

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