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Remote work works fine if...

Sébastien Dubois / April 14, 2020

13 min read

One thing that I think many enterprises, executives and team managers will realize through this crisis, is the fact that having 80–90% of their employees working remotely is indeed possible and works fine (pun intended), (with some adaptation time).

For many years, I’ve been a strong advocate of letting people work remotely more than 1–2 days per week, but have constantly faced bosses with rigid views of what “work” means; until I became my own boss, that is.

A special team

For many of those, “work” means getting together, to the same place, most of the time, seeing each other, talking to each other and probably more importantly, being able to keep an eye on what others in the team are doing.

Some managers are insecure with the idea of not “seeing” what their teams are actually doing and feel like people whom they can’t see are probably on holidays, having fun.

As an ex-manager & team leader myself, I have had a strong belief that teams that are well organized don’t actually need much oversight to move forward efficiently.

The current situation forces everyone to do what most organizations did not want to allow, out of fear. The good news for the world is that it just works. Organizations adapt, people adapt, everyone adapts.

Those who didn’t believe in remote work (much or at all) now see that there are ways to efficiently collaborate remotely: tools are available to make it possible like VPNs, online backlogs, video conferencing tools, virtual meeting rooms, text-based channels, document management systems and (maybe more sadly): e-mail is still working.

In the future, organizations will also get better tools for everything, including for holding better meetings, but that’s still in the making (and yes, meetings do still make sense, to some extent).

But tools are only a small part of the story. For a remote workforce to be functioning, there are things that make a big difference, explaining why some organizations have trouble now and why it seems so natural for other ones.

In this post, I don’t want to discuss the obvious advantages of remote work for remote workers, but it’s still useful to mention some of those: better work/life balance, more focus and attention, less commute time thus less pollution, more freedom. And the list doesn’t stop there…

Instead, I’ll focus on what organizations and teams need, whether they’re collocated or distributed.

What teams need most…

As a manager, whether my team was working on-site or remotely didn’t change much. I was willing to let everyone work remotely 5 days a week. But this statement was true only because I had put the following in place:

  • A shared vision
  • Team cohesion
  • Fun
  • Empowerment, autonomy and trust
  • A shared, prioritized and fully estimated backlog
  • Time tracking
  • Focus on continuous improvement
  • Empathy
  • Open communication & transparency

These points are actually paramount for any team but a fully remote team can’t be efficient without these.

Let’s discuss each…

Shared vision

A shared vision is paramount for any team, whether it works remotely or not.

If your team doesn’t know where it needs to go, it’ll simply go nowhere. You need to create a vision together of what you plan to achieve together, why and in which time frame.

Everyone in the team needs to be aware of what the goals are, why they’re important, how the team as a whole is going to reach those goals and how long it will take.

If the team doesn’t know the goals, doesn’t understand their importance or does not believe in the planning, then forget it, you won’t get there. You’ll get somewhere, but probably far off-target.

Shared vision isn’t created out of thin air; you can’t just invite everybody in a meeting room to dictate the plan. You need to co-create it with the team.

If your team has devised the plan and believes in it, then you’re good; everyone will do its best to achieve what they’ve planned together. On the contrary, if you’re the pilot and you’re the only one with the map, then you can’t have a shared vision, forget it.

That’s my first advice. Create a shared vision, have trust in your colleagues, whether their experienced or not. If you’ don’t like the plan, then discuss, put your arguments forward and explain your point of view, but never force things your way just because you can. Ideas have value on their own, not because they’re forced upon people.

As the saying goes:

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

Team cohesion

A tight-knit group of people is way more likely to achieve great results than people who just happen to sit next to each other because they’re told to.

Team cohesion is not necessarily easy to achieve as it depends on many factors; one of which being the management/leadership style.

As a manager/leader, you should strive to put everyone on the same level. What you need is a “we” spirit, not a “me and I” one.

Team cohesion is the DNA of a strong team; it is what determines how the group collaborates, how much everyone is going to be invested and how effective the individual contributions willl be.

Team cohesion is the basis of team spirit.. It is something you can influence, but there a magic part to it, linked to interpersonal relationships and social backgrounds, which you can’t control much about.

Team cohesion is created or pushed towards by valuing and listening to everyone. There’s no “elite”, there’s no “boss”. There are colleagues that all need to be able to speak freely, that all need to be listened to and that have valuable insights. There’s no shaming, no blame game to play. Also, conflicts need to be resolved constructively.

A team that’s able to stay strong and “as one” when things go wrong is an extraordinary team.

Fun

If we’re going to spend a good part of our active lives “working”, work better be FUN; otherwise what’s the point?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to think about work like a chore, like something that doesn’t mean anything and is slowly killing me. I personally find it much more interesting to think about work as something interesting that I’m doing and that brings me knowledge, ideas, new relationships and pleasure.

For this to be possible, team work has to be fun. And I mean the work, not only the environment. Having pretty colors and plants is really nice to have, but the team’s DNA should include pure F U N.

We’re there to work and we’re going to achieve awesome things together, but we’ll do it in a fun way.

That doesn’t mean that we’re going to party all day everyday, but we will make our best to lighten up the atmosphere and forget about the useless “seriousness” of work. We need to make things entertaining and keep connected to our inner childs.

Great work can be achieved while having tons of fun. And if you don’t agree, then please don’t get into management or quit asap ;-)

Empowerment, autonomy and trust

A solid team doesn’t need constant guidance. If the group knows the goals and the current priorities, then they can be left alone until they need the group’s opinion on something.

A team leader shouldn’t assign (push) tasks to team members. Rather, each team member should be able to decide him/herself what to work on next, in the best interest of the group’s goals.

For this to be possible, you need to trust your colleagues. Let them decide what to work on, how to work on it and trust that they’ll do their best.

Also, don’t impose stupid rules like “you have to do this alone” or be done by xxx. Let your team self organize, decide on what’s the best approach to deliver. Don’t impose stupid/needless “sync” meetings either. Let the group self organize.

If the team thinks that a mob programming session is necessary, then so be it. Okay it costs, but maybe it’s a critical piece that will benefit from the whole team’s vision.

Each team member needs to know that he/she is fully in charge of what the day will be made of.

Empowerment and autonomy can be scary for some people though, so you need to be aware of the different “profiles” of your team members. If someone needs more guidance, then try and pair him/her with other colleagues.

A shared, prioritized and fully estimated backlog

The “clock” of the team is its backlog.

Having a shared backlog is of paramount importance for a team. Even more so for a remote one. The backlog and the reporting around it are the heartbeat of the group.

As a team leader, I couldn’t care less about seeing something behind his/her desk, looking at some screen. That never told me anything about whether someone was doing actual meaningful/valuable work.

On the contrary, keeping an eye on the throughput of the team through the backlog’s lens always gave me a good idea of how the team was doing.

The backlog represents everything that the team could do next, still needs/plans to do, is doing and has done before.

It’s both the future, the present and the past. From it and through analysis/reporting, you can determine trends, actual pace and forecasts/projections.

For this to work, the backlog needs to be kept up to date and fully estimated. And not estimated by you, but by the team as a whole. If you estimate alone, then you’re not trusting your team and you’ll be wrong most of the time. If the team estimates, then you’re empowering and trusting the group, but also giving them responsibility to “hold their word”.

Project plans almost never make sense at first, but when created as a team, maybe it has more hope of being achievable!

Estimates should be set in ideal man days (days in which there are no interruptions, where everyone can concentrate fully, having access to everything they need to work on the task) or in story points.

The advantage of story points is that you can adjust over time more easily and past achievements will make it easier to provide better guesstimates.

When you have a self-organizing team and, if the backlog is prioritized correctly, then it is really simple for everyone to know what to work on: pick whatever’s next in the list! Again, team members pull the work themselves, you don’t need to push it to them.

On a day to day basis, approches like Scrum, Kanban and Scrumban (combining Scrum & Kanban) are particularly effective to support team work. If you need to learn about those, then I can only recommend to read Henrik Kniberg’s books:

Regarding prioritization, the general advice is to focus on maximizing delivered value, not output. It doesn’t matter if you close 10K tickets a week; even a single one can be enough if you’re delivering value to your company/business/project/clients.

Time tracking

It is important to have initial estimates and to later be able to compare those with the actual time/effort spent. So you should push your teams to track the time spent on each task.

Don’t misunderstand this point though. The goal of time tracking is not to see how “active” everyone is; that still doesn’t mean anything. What matters is how distant the estimates were, compared to reality.

This will help the team improve the estimates over time, based on past experience. If a task of a similar size/complexity took X days, then probably that this new task will take a relatively similar amount of time.

Do track time spent and review with the team, but don’t dwell on the past or use that to blame or compare people. Use time tracking as a means to improve the way the team works.

Focus on continuous improvement

Nothing can be perfect on the first try. Iteration makes perfect.

Teams are no different. You experiment things as a group, reflect and adapt. Everything that a team does benefits from iterative improvements.

It’s important to take time every now and then (e.g., every 2 weeks) to look back and discuss things that went right, that failed and to share ideas about how to move forward more efficiently.

Whatever it is, your team needs to discuss things openly and to think about what could be better.

Once again, the goal here is not to blame, but simply to try and get better over time.

Empathy

Another important aspect, I believe, for a team to be strong and tight-knit, whether there’s a crisis or not, is empathy.

Without empathy, I think that it’s hard to have a true team spirit in a group. If you don’t feel the pain of others, then how can you be present and helpful for them when they are in need?

If a colleague struggles, then he/she needs to be confident enough to tell you about it and not expect you to disregard the difficulties, mock him/her or anything like that.

When someone on a team needs help, that person should get help right away, no matter what.

Open communication and transparency

Managers and team leaders need to be transparent about what happens in the organization. If only the team leader has time to participate in meetings with other teams, stakeholders/clients, then he/she needs to share what’s been discussed, the directions taken or the ideas that are currently being discussed.

If there are yearly plans in the making, then don’t keep your team members out of the preparation. This point goes full circle, back to the shared vision. There’s no such thing if you make then plans on your own.

Sometimes, team managers/leaders keep information to themselves, as a way to limit the cognitive burden on colleagues or to keep them from worrying, but most of the time, this only develops a culture of secrecy where team members feel like they’re not entitled to access information. This creates distance, disengagement and hurts the team as a whole.

Information is key and communication is paramount for a group to function correctly. How can your team align with the business strategy if it isn’t aware of the directions? How can it feel engaged if it is kept out of the “important” discussions/decisions?

But it doesn’t have anything to do with remote work?!

Indeed. All of the points I’ve made in this article have actually not much to do with remote work per se.

Can you guess why?

It’s simple: because great teams are awesome, whether they in the same room or working remotely! The place where you do your work as a team has little to no importance if you organized and are able to work as a group.

Seeing each other is awesome and matters to keep people connected, but seeing each other IRL is not the only way, and it doesn’t impact team work all that much.

We have Slack/Discord/Zoom/Skype/WhatsApp/Telegram/etc/etc/etc and even email… (I’ll write a rant about mails another day!).

If you want to see and talk to each other, there’s no problem. It’s there, it works. Don’t worry about making remote work work. It does already.

Instead, worry about creating #awesome teams.

That’s it for today!

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