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Perfecting a remote playbook for developer teams

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(Image credit: Image Credit: Christina Morillo / Pexels)

Although we’re coming up on a year of pandemic lockdowns, developer teams are still navigating the new landscape for proper product delivery, feedback, and collaboration. At the same time, we’ve had to keep growing our teams remotely and attempt a semblance of normalcy for hiring processes and effective onboarding.  

With some of the tech giants planning to remain fully remote after the pandemic, companies like Google and Facebook have announced a return to a hybrid office/remote model. Smaller companies and startups can take note of how larger companies are dealing with recruitment as they determine core time in office vs. remote options. To do this, leadership needs a better remote playbook to ensure all teams and processes are flowing smoothly - and team members don’t get burned out. Here’s how to tackle that playbook which will be important for remote development teams, even if going back to a mostly in-office model in the near future. 

Codify your hiring plan

It’s time to rebuild a whole new onboarding and interview process for engineers. The employment lifecycle and onboarding must fit into a new model, which starts with revamping the interview process by focusing on how companies qualify technical candidates. Back when interviews were in person, whiteboards were the predominant way to have a candidate “show their work”, but the physical whiteboard is going away for developers during the hiring process. It’s a much better use of time to have candidates bring their laptops and use their own equipment vs. whiteboarding, and now virtual tools (and necessity) make it even easier to accomplish this. 

When thinking long term about a more flexible or fully remote office model after the pandemic, your first thought may be to hire development teams that are scattered across geographies, but more is needed to bring this goal to fruition. Even without technical staff working from home, you must provide all team members with support across geographies so they can be cross-functional within their own teams and support operations teams across the business. 

One way to begin implementing this is to formally work within localized regions for hiring to have teams within the same time zone, even in remote locations. Say there’s a bulk of your customers in Europe plus you have a central office in London, it makes sense to have your developer teams based around that time zone since it’s harder to collaborate across international teams for collaboration purposes. Support for customers/SREs can be based on-call coverage and reliability since they generally can work more independently, but developers don't need the stress of dividing attention to work across product lines in disparate geographies. It’s also critical to consider the legal structures required to support specific geographies, so it will be important to work with operations to align on which countries and territories will be supported.

New strategies for collaboration and problem solving

As part of your remote playbook, once developers get past the initial onboarding it is critical that teams are enabled to work together creatively. Once hired and building software, now you need to make sure processes are remote-friendly and establish where technical specs are stored for easier access. Likewise, other problems to solve include methods for sharing/collaborating across time zones, what the review process is for cross-team projects, and how teams should interact and operate differently than they were before the pandemic began. 

In light of work being done more remotely, engineers are missing out on casual project-related interactions with team members that happen organically at the office over coffee, or in the break room. This of course has been replaced with video conferences, but there’s a better way to make use of that time, especially because it is scheduled. For example, having teams come to each meeting prepared with architectural diagrams to screen share does the same job, but just requires some additional planning. Alternatively, brainstorming sessions can be held via Google Drive for shared note-taking and ideation. The key is to focus on preparing for the meeting and the right tools that will make that meeting efficient, then relying on a core organizer to keep everyone on track. If teams do the homework and share diagrams beforehand to bring something to the table, meetings can run smoothly and be just as effective. 

Along with more efficient meetings, team leads should make sure engineers actually have time to prepare for them and limit the amount of last-minute meeting invites sent out. Leadership and C-suite executives should all get on board to establish designated ‘no meeting days’ (which can even extend across the full organization), as Zoom fatigue for engineers cuts into dedicated “maker time” for writing code. Most people aren’t fans of back-to-back meetings and calls, but it can be easier for non-technical employees to use shorter time blocks between calls for quick emails/follow-ups. It just doesn’t work that way for productive engineers, who require large blocks of uninterrupted time to work without meetings. This is a crucial step, and should live on even if your team goes back to being mainly in-office.

Make time for team building/community

Beyond worker productivity, continue to focus on team building and creating a company culture that fosters growth, which probably led those talented developers to the company in the first place. Team building must go beyond a regular all-hands video call, since it’s easy to verbally encourage employees to get the social interactions they need, but may not offer the environment to support challenging projects or initiatives in any way. This will look different post-pandemic, but carving out time to building your community is critical and helps developers feel less siloed in a role that often drives this mentality

Some groups may not even have met in person ever before, so promoting social activities (across teams or the full organization) will help bonding. Some virtual ways to do this is to encourage those with a shared interest in gaming to join a multiplayer game with other team members, or prompt new employees to join a Slack channel meet and greet where participants can not only socialize but earn gamified points for big holiday prizes as well. Whatever the strategy, putting institutional support behind these initiatives with management team buy-in is what will make this happen successfully. 

It’s certainly been a tough year for developers who are missing the daily in-person collaboration that helps to build great products. With this playbook in your pocket, you can ensure your teams stay agile, connected, and even have some semblance of social interactions through the end of the pandemic, when you can decide what type of office model works best for your company. There’s no one right answer, but speaks to how each organization is strategizing long term for how to attract the best people, enable collaboration, and build a company culture and spirit within and outside of core office spaces.

Matt Pillar, VP of Engineering, OneSignal

Matt Pillar is the VP of Engineering at OneSignal, where he leads the engineering team in building the next generation of the company’s customer messaging and engagement platform.