Sleep in late. No more traffic. Save money by cooking your lunches at
home. No more pants! Working remotely sounds pretty great, but it’s not
for everyone.There are quite a few nuances to working remotely that you
don't discover until you actually start doing it. Depending on your
company culture and the processes in place, issues might arise that are
either detrimental to your success or mitigated well.
I’ve had the privilege of working from home for 4 years now. At my
previous company, I started off in house with a team of 10 developers.
After a year of working, I moved cross country and transitioned into a
fully remote position within the same team. It wasn't until I resigned
and joined a fully distributed company called Digital Solutions (DS)
that I started to realize how team structure and processes affect remote
This blog post is a mashup of observations and comparisons between both
companies. I use my perspective of being both a remote worker on an in
house team and a remote worker on a fully distributed team to share some
insights into how to build a more inclusive environment for remote
workers. I'm going to go over why you shouldn't stop doing standup,
the importance of working together to make sure everyone feels apart of
a team, how choosing a communication medium will help foster inclusion
with remote workers, the reasons why DS chooses to use pair partners,
why you should use outcome based management, and finally I'll talk
about my experience with yearly meetups and why they’re important for
Standups are more important than you may think
At my previous company, we had a standup every morning at 10AM, but it
wasn’t until I started working remotely that I really appreciated this
morning ritual. This was often the only time that the team was
together as a group. I considered myself lucky to be on a team where our
standups quickly devolved into chatting and joking around, but many are
not as fortunate. As remote workers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of
not getting enough socialization. As embarrassing as it is to say,
sometimes standup was the only form of human interaction I’d have all
day. If we didn’t have our standup, I would be completely in the dark.
One of the downfalls of remote work is that it’s easy to lose your
social skills. However, there are ways to mitigate this and make remote
workers feel more in touch with their team.
At DS, we have a few team norms in place that mitigate isolation. In
addition to a daily standup, video calls and Slack messaging, we use
pair or mob
for our work. We also have an hour-long team learning once a week in
which all teams across DS join a video call and learn something new, or
solve a problem via mobbing. If you have remote workers on your team,
understand that whole team meetings and getting more face time should be
done frequently to help remote employees stay in the loop and ward off
Don’t put your team members on an island
As I transitioned from in house to fully remote at my previous company,
I took on the additional responsibilities of being a scrum master. I
flew in a few times a year to help plan releases for my team. It was
interesting to see how work was planned and passed down the pipeline
from client, to business analyst, to developer; user stories were
created and fleshed out by our business analysts and then put into our
backlog. Every few months when we planned a release, it was my
responsibility to assign these backlog stories to every team member.
This got tricky because each developer had their own product or chunk of
the system that they typically worked on. We were all on the same team
but oftentimes worked on completely unrelated work. Employees in the
office often complained that they felt siloed, but it was easier for
them to run into coworkers around the office. For myself, this issue was
magnified tenfold. There were no opportunities to run into another
team member, no opportunities to walk by someone's desk and whiteboard
about a collaborative solution, no opportunities for someone to read my
code outside of formal code reviews. This created silos of knowledge,
and ultimately led me to feel as if I was on an island with the only
source of water being daily standup.
Without the proximity of coworkers to enable organic knowledge sharing,
it’s important to put processes in place that mitigate this slippery
slope. At DS, we utilize Kanban with a work in progress (WIP) limit of
one. Work is then moved forward as a team - as one single unit. That
means no matter what role you have on the team, you are mobbing on the
same work item as the rest of your team. It’s important that we all
share the same knowledge across the team, but more importantly, this way
of working reinforces our team dynamic such that no one feels like they
are working in a silo.
Communication is hard, so choose your medium wisely
I recently flew to meet in person with my team at DS for a few days. I
noticed myself making fewer social faux pas than when we video call
day-to-day. Being able to read each other's body language made it far
easier for me to communicate. This is a downside to remote work that
needs to be addressed properly. When remote, certain actions such as
cutting each other off and speaking out of place become glaringly
obvious. Lets face it, communication between humans is difficult. It is
hard enough in person, let alone when you are forced to communicate
virtually. At DS, we try to mitigate this downside by getting as much
facetime as possible with each other; that means cameras are always on
when we video call, but this is certainly not a norm across companies.
When I was working at my previous company, getting people to turn their
camera on during a video call was like pulling teeth. Comparing the two,
this simple act makes a noticeable difference in how I feel about my
team. Seeing someone's face when you’re talking to them not only makes
it easier to communicate, but you truly get a sense of “I’ve seen this
person recently.” Assuming you all don’t hate each other, you feel
closer to your team when you see them more often.
With that being said, we’re not all social butterflies and it’s
unrealistic to be on video calls all day. If I just want to ask a single
question, do I really need to spin up a call? Instant messaging
applications such as Slack and Microsoft Teams fill the void when video
calls aren't a good choice, and they are integral to teams working with
remote employees. At DS, Slack is our primary method of communicating
outside of video calls. This method of communication encourages us to
chat informally with each other across a broad range of topics. Instant
messaging apps promote “happy accidents” that wouldn’t have otherwise
occurred on a more formal communication medium. From sending silly gifs,
to having serious conversations about technical architecture,
board-based instant messaging applications encourage team bonding and
psychological safety, which according to Google is the number one
driver of team
Contrast this to my previous company, where the primary methods of
communication were email and Skype for Business. We did not have a
centralized chat board for our team. If members of the team wanted to
communicate, they had to do so directly using an email or a Skype ping.
I felt this made communication much more formal. This poor choice of
communication medium left me feeling like there was an easy opportunity
to bond with my team that was simply missed.
Will you accept this rose (to be my pair partner)
At DS, our software development methodology is XP, or Extreme
Programming. Entire articles could be devoted to this topic, but I want
to address this in the context of remote work. One of the main tenets of
XP is Pair Programming. This is where two developers work together at
one workstation on the same code. For us as remote developers, this
means two developers on a video call where one developer is sharing
their screen. One developer “drives” and the other gives instructions
and suggestions. I believe this practice is of such significance to the
success of remote workers, I would love to see it become adopted more
broadly in the industry. Aside from removing the feelings of isolation,
there are numerous more benefits to pair
but they are simply out of scope for this article. Pair programming is
the main reason why I joined DS. I understood that if I were to be
pairing with another developer most of the day, I would never feel like
I was an isolated unit, as I had felt at my previous company. But as you
are probably thinking at this point, pairing with someone for sometimes
up to 6 hours a day can be cumbersome.
If you’re going to incorporate pair programming, then it’s critical to
make team-fit a priority in your hiring process. This is probably
obvious to some, but if there’s a candidate that fits well with the team
and I can see myself pairing with them all day, I’d be much more
willing to sacrifice on other boxes, such as their technical skills.
This is exactly where pair programming really shines - learning.
Everyone on the team starts to learn from each other and you enable
junior employees to take advantage of the numerous benefits of
mentorship. They’re drinking from the firehose every single day. It's much more
difficult to drive behavioral changes than it is to teach someone new
coding paradigms. To bring this back to remote work, when you’ve chosen
team members that all get along, pairing with them for the majority of
the day no longer seems daunting, it’s something you look forward to,
because it feels like you’re hanging out with a buddy and doing work
together. I can honestly say that I love working with each member of my
team, and I know that was not an
So what would you say you do here?
I was initially skeptical about accepting a remote position at my
previous company. I had heard that these positions were not given out
easily, and that senior management was very skeptical of remote
positions. I was told they felt that people who weren’t in the office
were likely not working as hard. Not only is this inaccurate, but it’s
not an effective way to manage your employees.
Luckily, my manager at DS is outcome driven. Markers like customer
satisfaction and defect rate are more important than time spent coding.
Remote work can discourage management by misleading metrics, such as
hours worked. Without the ability to see when employees are coming and
going, you’re encouraged to look at different data points and think more
critically about which of those are good indicators of success.
Don't forget to rendezvous with the mothership
During our recent in-person gathering with members of DS, I felt like I
really bonded with my teammates. A couple of my best memories from that
trip were spending time with a few of my coworkers, bourbon in hand,
discussing philosophy at 11pm, and looking around the table at dinner
time and seeing that everyone is engrossed in conversation and having a
genuinely good time. It’s times like these that you reflect on and feel
like you’re a part of a team. As a remote worker, it’s easy for me to
forget just how important it is to spend time with each other. Video
calling only gets you so far. If you have remote workers on your team,
or are a fully distributed company, don’t forget to plan meetups
throughout the year for everyone to bond.
Perhaps more nuanced than you thought?
I feel fortunate to have worked for two drastically different companies.
To be honest, if DS had turned out to be a similar experience to my
previous company, I'm not sure that I would continue to work remotely
in my career, but that certainly wasn't the case. My time at DS has
shown me that you can have an amazing experience working remotely so
long as you adhere to certain principles and processes. Given my two
perspectives, I was able to observe which processes had an influence on
my happiness and feeling of inclusion on the team I was on. I hope the
lessons and observations I’ve laid out here can help you become a more
happy remote employee, or drive more remote employee satisfaction at
your own company.