Enough time has passed now for some key lessons to be learned about empowering remote engineering teams to do their best work. Here, we asked the best in the business how they did it.
While remote work was an important topic before the COVID-19 pandemic, the abrupt change from viewing remote work as the future to an immediate necessity caught many companies off-guard. Being forced to go from a familiar office setting to suddenly being completely remote has proven challenging for some, but it doesn't have to be.
Last year, I had the opportunity to interview three industry leaders to talk about managing successful remote teams. By quickly adapting to global, distributed companies, they had plenty of insights to share, with a particular focus on engineering organizations.
Build remote-work structures
It’s important to be intentional about your organizational design upfront. Take the example of a co-located organization and how a lot of thought goes into what is inside of a building: how the elevators work, what the office spaces look like, and even the connectivity.
“As much rigor and intentionality needs to go into your virtual organizational design,” Darren Murph, former Global Head of Remote at GitLab said.
On the other hand, many companies have shifted to remote work as a necessity, but they maintain an “office-first” working mindset. While this is passable and can work, it's not ultimately taking advantage of the key benefits of a virtual atmosphere.
GitLab takes a remote-first mindset by using its own platform to collaborate. This provides a single source of truth, which can be compared to the central hallway of an office, where all work is funneled through. By making sure that everything is as visible and transparent as possible, teams are better able to collaborate across the entire organization.
That platform is just a tool though. The real goal is to find ways to eliminate silos and encourage virtual collaboration.
Murph told a story where he once had a Chief People Officer ask him, “How do we make our meetings better?” And his response was, “Make them harder to have.”
He recommends having as few meetings as possible. With this mindset, a better approach would be to use a tool like GitLab to gather consensus asynchronously, and then reserve synchronous time for meetings to make decisions. As your team gets more distributed across the globe, and time zones become a greater issue, being able to collaborate asynchronously becomes all the more important.
At LinearB, we’ve started our own centralized communication tools – such as WorkerB and gitStream – and shared them with the developer community. These make it possible for every developer to be in sync with pull requests waiting to merge or just waiting open for some kind of review, providing an added layer of asynchronous coordination.
Build, protect, and maintain a live collaboration space
When the traffic monitoring company GigaSMART went remote, the leadership team had to grapple with questions about how remote working would apply to different departments.
Having had some remote employees around the world already, leadership knew the value of collaboration and keeping people in sync that weren't in the main office.
This gave VP of Engineering, Chris Downard, an idea. In order to create a similar atmosphere, similar to an office that constantly has movement and conversation, he created a perpetual virtual chat room called Coffee Talk, with a Zoom meeting that is constantly running. They created a bot that posts a reminder about it every morning with a link to the Coffee Talk, inviting people to join.
If everyone eventually leaves, all of the breakout rooms close. However, the first person that joins again will usually create a new list of breakout rooms, and these for the most part center around ongoing projects, with a couple of rooms dedicated to larger ongoing projects.
There are rooms for all the committees that meet regularly, such as architecture, backend, and frontend. There are also a couple of breakout rooms that simulate small conference rooms in an office, so people can quickly jump in and collaborate, or pair on an immediate task. There’s even a room dedicated to the design team, if they want to jump in and collaborate and pair.
This provided the team with a “named space” virtually, and as LinearB users, they tracked the metrics around their performance, finding that the first week after going remote, the company numbers actually went up. This was a direct result of the collaboration that was instantly established.
These Coffee Talks sessions continue to be used for stand-ups, retros, and planning breakdowns, as well as production, and troubleshooting if there's an outage, where one of the breakout rooms is turned into a command and response room.
Handle company business with a remote-first mindset
Equinix is essentially the largest data center company in the world, with offices in 200+ locations, with some offices serving as hubs for the data centers themselves.
For Shweta Saraf, former Senior Director of Engineering at Equinix, “Better way Wednesdays” (their name for no-meeting Wednesdays), was one way of converting a lot of meetings to async.
For example, the team started a monthly business memo, which captures the state of business along with key achievements, challenges or blockers, and the KPIs and metrics, which goes all the way to the senior leaders.
This practice cut down on meetings and reduced the occurrence of the same information being repeated in different formats or through different levels of abstraction to people in the company.
For companies where office culture is very strong, with most ceremonies happening in-office, it has been a steep learning curve adapting to working completely remotely. Equinix engineers found themselves questioning former agile ceremonies, such as stand-ups and retros, and asked if these can be done asynchronously, or if they require a meeting at all.
The teams at Equinix found that for sprint planning and retro meetings, these needed to be done in a meeting setting, but stand-ups are up to the specific team, where some teams love to get together and others do this asynchronously. For a quick stand-up, many teams do this over Slack.
The key differentiator for Equinix is in being remote-first versus just remote-friendly. This means that they make sure that even as a developer in another country, they are able to participate meaningfully. This is fine-tuned based on the mix of the team and allows them to establish the practices – where some even use tools like LinearB and other scorecard metrics, which enables the teams to align on whether they are going in the same direction, and where a course correction is needed.
What we’ve learned
The interesting thing to note from all of these companies that weathered the remote-work storm, is that many of these practices are applied in some way or another at all of these companies.
Whether it’s respecting work and focus time, being intentional about creating the right communication and collaboration culture for your company and team, and ensuring the right tooling is in place to support these policies and practices.
If you want to engineer a great remote culture, you need to create an environment for your teams to be able to collaborate frictionlessly, get up to speed and consume important information asynchronously, but also maintain some semblance of a team atmosphere and culture.