Working with Remote Development Teams

Over my career I’ve worked with a number of remote teams in different contexts. From this I’ve collected a few lessons I’ve learnt. Like the best lessons, some of these have been learnt the hard way.

The TLDR version is: working with remote teams is similar to working with any development team, with some additional challenges. You have the same issues as you have with other teams, just with the added distance caused by timezones, communication and culture.

This advice is based my experience of working with teams that have been split between multiple locations, offshore development contracts or remote teams. There are real benefits to improving the working relationship, even if this is a shorter term contract relationship on a fixed price contract.

If you share an office with your team, you won’t have to think about these things, they come naturally through daily contact.

1. Remote people are people too

It’s easy to treat remote people as though they’re just the service they provide. The distance makes it so much easier to treat them as just a service. You feed them jira issues/Trello cards/emails, and they deliver the work. Simple, right?

That’s not how you’d want to be treated. There are people behind the code (or testing). Don’t think of them as a machine that you feed work into and get a result.

Unless you’re a sociopath, you wouldn’t think this of people you see every day in the office. However when you have no face to face contact with people, it’s easier to de-personalise them.

You need to actively strive to understand who they are. What do they enjoy doing most? How do they like to be managed? Where do they want to go with their career? What do they do outside work?

You know, the kind of stuff you’d do with someone who works in the same office as you.

2. Actively communicate

The reality of the distance between remote and local teams is such an issue that you need to take active steps to bridge the gap. The area where this is most seen is in communication. You need to build in processes that help people to communicate. This can be a real challenge when working with developers as they’re not the most communicative people in world to start with.

Some ways you can actively build this include:

  • Have a standup (this is really a basic)
  • Schedule one on one catch ups with them
  • Use more personal forms of electronic communication. Video is better than audio, audio is better than chat, chat is better than email.
  • Use tools that make keeping in contact easy, eg slack
  • Foster a shared culture
  • Ask for their input as much as possible

Of course, the best form of communication is still face to face. So if possible, either go and meet the people of your team or have them come to meet you.

3. Include them in your plans

Communication works both ways, so you need to look at communicating to them what is on your mind. Tell them what is important to you, tell them where you’re going.

Again, if you all work in the same office, people often learn this without having to be told. They overhear conversations and hear the emotion in people’s voices.

If you need to hit a critical deadline, explain what the impact is if they miss it and ask them to surface issues early. If quality is important, then make that clear, and explain why.

It’s important to help them understand not just what you want to do, but why.

4. Understand the culture

While people are basically people no matter where they are in the world, the culture people live in has a big impact on how they see the world. This is often the culture they have grown up, been educated in and worked in. It shapes how they work.

While not everyone is the same, people from the same culture often have a lot in common. The culture they have in common might be very different to your culture. You need to work at this, as by default you tend to assume that people will approach things the way you do.

For example, as someone who has grown up in Australia, I tend to have a lower respect for authority than many other cultures. As a result I’m inclined to challenge people more senior than me. As an Australian, I assume that other people will challenge me when I’m wrong. In Asian cultures, authority tends to be much more respected. If I were managing a remote team in Asia, I’d need to be very careful to ensure I gave my team lots of space to give feedback and encourage it when it’s given.

Read up about the cultures you’re working with and be aware. One of the best questions to ask yourself is: What do they value (achievement, impact, family, education, status etc)?

5. Be Genuine

Be yourself. Don’t pretend to be someone else to try to build a connection with the team. You might have to moderate how you express yourself, but you should always be yourself.

You want to build relationships with the people you’re working with, and you’ll only do that if you genuinely show who you are.

Conclusion

Working with any team of developers is often quite challenging. Working with remote teams can make some of the challenges even harder. However with it can be a very rewarding experience, where you learn more about other cultures and your own biases.

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