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How to master the dynamics of remote developer teams

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The Covid-19 pandemic has forced the world to rethink its traditional ways of doing things. With shelter-in-place orders across the world and the inherent fear of being in proximity of a carrier, companies have been forced to carry on their work remotely.

Almost every technology company in the world has gone remote. Even the world's tech giants technology companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter have adopted remote work indefinitely. According to Global Workplace Analytics, 25-30 per cent of the workforce will be working-from-home multiple days a week by the end of 2021. This only shows that both developers and their companies need to adapt to a new way of working, one that’s radically different.

How can companies learn to master the dynamics of remote work to keep growing?

Communication is key

Traditional office space communication was simple. Modern offices are set up in a way that you can simply walk up to anyone if you want to talk to them. Doubts or short conversations are easy and get done quickly in an office, but the same can’t be said when working remotely. Various challenges might arise in a remote setup.

People might not be available on chat throughout the day. Added to that, giving the context of a topic on chat is hard as compared to an in-person chat. One way to ensure that communication doesn't break down is to have a common period of time throughout the day, where everyone is online & active. This way people don't need to wait too long for clearing up questions and decision making is not hampered.

The other thing companies need to get good at is asynchronous communication. People should be comfortable leaving messages and continuing with their work without having to wait for immediate responses. This can be achieved by setting guidelines on response times of emails and chat messages. For example, the maximum response time for a critical email should be twelve hours. Having this sort of a code of conduct will make people ease into communicating asynchronously.

Make meetings productive

Meetings in an office space are easy. You can gather a group of people in a room, brainstorm for hours, or discuss and debate on small decisions and get back to work. It works even if the agenda is not well defined, you can run over the stipulated time by a few minutes. However, this style completely fails when teams work remotely.

Meetings need to have clearly defined agendas and talking points. People should have the context of the meeting upfront so that time is not wasted in basic questions and answers in the meeting. This can be done by sending a short one-page note to everyone in the meeting well before it starts. In the case of a brainstorming session, ideas should be sent out upfront so that people can consolidate their thoughts and come up with good answers.

Upfront thinking and planning

When building new products or features, a lot of companies work iteratively. In the sense that they think and execute at the same time. Only 50 per cent of the thinking is done upfront and the teams get into build mode. From there, they iterate after looking at the actual product. This usually involves Product Managers, Designers, and Developers. They work collaboratively and ship products. While this works perfectly for some teams, it might not be the case when the same teams work remotely.

Iterations are a lot harder when working remotely since the feedback is delayed. You need to get on a call every time there is a small confusion or question about the design of the product. This slows the shipping cycle heavily. When working remotely, the thinkers need to iron out their thinking to the last detail. They should try to leave no room for questions. Documents should be well written with common questions already taken care of. Designs should already cover all possible cases of the lifecycle of a product. Thinking and doing a lot of work upfront will reduce the cost of communicating back and forth and enable teams to move fast while working remotely.

Enable autonomy

In an office setup, certain people make most of the decisions big or small. For example, the executive will take product decisions along with the product team. Engineering leads will decide the architecture and approach of a new product with their teams. However, this process might not work as smoothly in a remote setup. While the larger decisions will still lie with the leaders it is important that people should be able to make certain decisions on their own.

Enabling people to make their own decisions is key. This is not an easy thing to do and the leaders need to keep at it. During discussions, they should ask their team to come up with answers rather than giving them answers. Leaders should be more in a "review" mode rather than in the "do" mode. This will train the people in the team to think independently. Over time, this will tremendously reduce the need to depend on each other for making small decisions and teams will be able to move even faster.

Keeping the team motivated

When working in an office space, the enthusiasm of one person can rub off on others making the whole team gung ho about a project or a product. This is not entirely possible when working remotely. People are working most of the time, with no one to talk to. The need to keep themselves motivated on their own and it is easy for their motivation levels to drop if they're not conscious about it.

This is a really hard problem to solve but also an important one. Leaders should do regular check-ins with their team members to understand their enthusiasm levels. They need to over-communicate about the vision of the product. Having frequent catchups about the product, understanding what the users are saying, and reviewing past weeks in terms of numbers can help keep everyone in the loop and engaged.

Overall, all companies need to question their regular practices if something is not working. Relying and hoping that everything will work out on its own will not get them anywhere. The leaders need to actively work and look for what things are breaking and solve them effectively.

Udit Gupta, Head of Product, Zomato

Udit Gupta is an engineer by education & product designer by profession. As Head of Product at Zomato - he oversaw the food delivery product. It involved acquiring new customers through non-traditional channels, launching new product lines, and improving the overall customer retention of the product. Prior to food delivery, he also launched the Zomato Gold subscription product and led its growth to a million user customer base. Udit has been an early member of the Zomato team since joining it in 2013. In early 2020, he co-founded his own company with Akarsh Sanghi and raised initial seed capital from Y Combinator.