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Making Teams Effective At Remote Work

On my quest to make my teams effective at remote work, I went through a boatload of content. Articles, podcasts, courses, videos, everything that was relevant, I consumed and annotated.

I reviewed 40+ resources about effective remote teams so you don’t have to. Here’s my takeaway.

Unsurprisingly, all the content offered by GitLab is brilliant. They really know what they’re doing, and the quality of what they put out there has been top-notch so far. I also didn’t want to use only them as an example, so I went out of my way to find other companies, and other examples of success to form an opinion that would be as objective and as realistic as possible.

After reviewing 40+ resources, spending hours absorbing and summarizing them, and boring my friends and colleagues about it, I thought I’d put everything into a nice little package to share what I’ve learned with others. This is what his article is.

The article is geared towards managers on how to adapt teams and organizations to become effective at remote work, and not so much on how to be a more productive individual within a remote setup.

If you’re an individual contributor, you will find interesting ideas in this article nonetheless, and also ideas on how to convince your manager to help your team and organization be effective at remote work, so read on!

To create the right environment for organizations and teams to be effective and successful, the topics you must cover are the following:

  1. Be explicit about which ‘remote’ you pick
  2. Set a culture of remote work from the top
  3. Embrace an async-first mentality
  4. Adopt management by objectives
  5. Don’t let individuals choose their WFH days
  6. Recognize the need for meaning and bonding
  7. Organize for physical and mental health recovery
  8. Adapt all the supporting organizational processes

The rest of this article dives into the details for each of those topics, and at the very end, I am sharing all the useful resources which I’ve come across.

Finally, note that this article explores all the main ideas and concepts for effective remote teams and organizations. However, it doesn’t cover how you would plan a transition and then execute this transition. I will cover this aspect in a future article. Join my email list to be notified when it comes out.

1. Be explicit about which ‘remote’ you pick

Remote can mean many things, as there is an entire spectrum of remote work setups. From no remote, hybrid-remote, and the way to remote-first and strictly remote.

In addition to that, hybrid could mean that some employees are always onsite and others always remote, or that all employees are some days of the week onsite.

Hybrid setups are the most difficult of all models of remote, because it means there is a constant state of two tiers of employees, some that are onsite, and some that are remote, which complicates the communication models.

If you’re not leading an entire company or division, chances are that you won’t have any influencing power in terms of which model of remote you’ll have to deal with in your work. Be aware that if you end up in hybrid mode, there are some traps to it, and there are things that can be done at the level of a team to make everyone’s life easier. The GitLab class on Coursera has excellent information about that.

2. Set a culture of remote work from the top

To be effective at remote work, the entire organization must breathe and live remote. Having a remote mindset has to be at the very core of the organization and at the center of how everyone approaches their job.

The only way to reach that core is to ensure first and foremost that the values of the organization are aligned with enabling people to be effective at remote work. This set of core values and the cultural expectations of the organization are not something that’s going to happen bottom-up: it has to come from the leaders of that organization.

Of course, if your team or organization is part of a larger organization or company, then it won’t be possible, and neither would it be recommendable, to set an entirely new culture for your team or organization. Instead, you have to embrace the already established culture, and tweak it so it can work at being remote.

There are three values that are absolutely necessary for effective remote organizations: transparency, trust, and accountability. Without those, remote work won’t be effective, and employees won’t feel a sense of belonging and meaning.

If you’re looking for other values to add to your culture plan, and you want to feel inspired, check out this massive reference of company values across 160 corporations.

You can also check the culture and values pages of successful companies that are working remote, which at this moment in time includes GitLab and Coinbase:

3. Embrace an async-first mentality

Synchronous vs Asynchronous

When working remotely, one has to distinguish activities that are happening synchronously from the ones that are asynchronous. So I’m going to define both terms here.

Synchronous means that participants are all present in the chat room or call at the same time, and are interacting live.

Asynchronous means that participants are interacting in the chat room or document at different times.

Single source of truth: your handbook

The first key aspect of making remote work effective is to encourage asynchronous communication.

This requires a culture of documentation, and in particular, of having a master document that can be accessed by anyone at any time without having to interrupt anyone or wait for anyone’s timezone to be up to have a video call.

This central documentation serves as an entry point to keep all important cultural and process information about your organization.

GitLab refers to that as their Handbook, and their culture of transparency even pushed them as far as making their entire handbook publicly available on the internet: GitLab Handbook. Other companies also share their handbooks publicly, for example, Basecamp and Remote.com. Find more examples in this list, and also this other list.

You don’t have to roll out a handbook for your entire company: if the company is too big and it would be too much trouble or process, then use whatever room and flexibility there is within your organization to roll out something at a local level, or even at your team level. Focus on your span of control and on what you can change.

Beyond your handbook, you then have to document all processes and decisions so they can be consumed async, and without having to talk to someone synchronously (either in-person or via a call).

Over-communicate

When working remotely, it’s easy to miss important information. So if there are important changes or important events happening, it’s best to over-communicate them, to make sure they reach everyone.

Beware that overcommunication can also backfire: the increased noise can become either stressful or disorienting. It can lead to individuals shutting off a whole side of the internal comms so they can keep the cognitive load to a reasonable level and keep doing their work.

Work iteratively

Another important aspect of async communication is the ability to work iteratively. Approach your work in terms of iterations and milestones: get the first milestone done in a draft state so that you can already share it with collaborators and they can start working on it in their own time, without having to be in synchronous time with you.

This means your organization should encourage a culture in which people feel comfortable sharing half-baked documents and drafts that will likely contain mistakes.

Think twice before meeting

If a question or topic isn’t urgent, then think: could this meeting just be an email? Could this DM just be an email?

If the topic really needs to be a meeting, then make sure there’s an agenda for the meeting, and that meeting notes are shared afterwards. And if the meeting can be recorded and consumed by others afterwards, in their own time, that’s even better.

Optimize synchronous time

Synchronous time is the most precious time you have, so you must make the most out of it: use this time for social bonding and building relationships, and also to clarify any misunderstandings that may have happened over emails, messaging, or shared documents.

For example, in meetings with many attendees but in which only a few participants are talking (ex: quarterly business reviews, all-hands, etc.) it’s not useful to make everyone just sit through that session. They’re not interactive. So what GitLab does is that they record it and ask everyone to watch it in their own time, and then a live session is scheduled for the Q&A, which is interactive.

Another example is that instead of doing a video call with many participants to start a project, it’s more efficient to start by sharing a document that serves as a starting point to summarize the ideas and goals, collect comments and feedback on the document, and only when comments have been collected, do a video call to resolve the misunderstanding and whichever comments remain open.

4. Adopt management by objectives

In remote setups, there’s no way to verify that people “show up” to work, or that they are actively working and not watching Netflix. Some companies are using monitoring software on their employees’ computers to track that they are working, which to me sounds absolutely abhorrent.

In a healthy culture, there is enough intrinsic motivation and work ethics that employees would care about their team and company and would still work even if nobody was “monitoring” them.

For this to work, there needs to be a basis of transparency and trust, and on top of that, a clear mission, vision, and clear objectives. It’s similar to military doctrine: some units will be cut off from central command during the battle, it’s expected. So how do you make sure that even those units remain able to operate in coordination with the rest of the forces even though they lost communication: you make sure they understand the mission, and that they’re able to make independent decisions about their own actions during the battle.

The type of management that works well in a remote environment is management by objective, that is to say, there is an overarching objective that the company wants to achieve, and then sub-organizations are setting objectives that deliver against that company objective, and then this cascades all the way down to the teams and individuals.

With objectives clicking into each other at every level of the organization like Russian dolls, there is at least some guarantee that individuals are going to work on things that are aligned with the company’s objectives and best interests, even if they are not working in the same collocated office or in the same time zones.

There are ways to set objectives, including SMART goals, Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), and many other objective setting frameworks.

How to implement those frameworks within the context and culture of your team or organization is beyond this article.

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5. Don’t let individuals choose their WFH days

For companies that go hybrid, there is always the question of which days of the week should people show up to the physical office.

In his piece published in the Harvard Business Review, Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom made a strong case that it’s a bad idea to let individuals choose their WFH days. His point is that you’d end up with some teams not being able to ever meet in person because individuals would prioritize their own best interest over being flexible to meet colleagues once in a while.

Apple, for example, went the opposite route: they decided to make the WFH days a company-wide policy. Their employees will come into the office on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, with the option of working remotely on Wednesdays and Fridays. This isn’t great for capacity, because they have to pay for empty offices on Wednesdays and Fridays, but at the same time, they maximize collaboration across teams by having everyone collocated on the same weekdays. I’m not sure what this does to their employee morale by restricting autonomy, at the same time I’m not totally familiar with their working culture.

A solution that’s more of an in-between, is to let teams decide which days they will work in the office together. That way you get the best of both worlds: there is flexibility for individuals to negotiate within the boundaries of their teams which days of the week they should all be in the office together, while making sure that those days of overlap actually happen.

There is criticism of the hybrid model: some people say that having to show up to the office a few days per week is preventing employees from relocating to totally remote areas where they could have better living conditions and a lower cost of living. At the same time, not all employees want to work remotely. Companies with many employees face the dilemma that they have to deal with people who have widely different preferences, and they have to find a compromise that works for everyone.

6. Recognize the need for meaning and bonding

Work is more than just earning money.

Work is also about getting a sense of meaning, feeling useful and needed, connecting with like-minded people, forming social bonds, personal growth via the learning of new domains and new skills.

But when switching to a remote setup from a colocated one, a ton of the byproducts of working on the same location are lost. I wrote an entire article about how remote work broke the foundation we had about work.

One that’s obvious is that by going remote, there is less opportunity for the random coffee conversation that also serves as a way to maintain connections between colleagues who don’t see each other otherwise, and to create social bonds over shared interests other than just work. And through that, employees end up feeling more disconnected and lonely.

So it’s important to organize regular events just to socialize around non-work topics, even play online games together, as a way to create bonds with others. One thing that works well is to book a recurring time slot where everyone knows that the time will be used as a social moment, and then they can choose to join if they’d like to.

And it’s no big deal if only a few people turn up: the time slot is there for anyone who needs it. Those who don’t need it might end doing something else, and that’s totally fine. Making it a mandatory thing would feel forced and would defeat the purpose.

Finally, if company policy and geographic distance allow it, it’s also good to have at least a few moments of in-person social gathering, just to create that stronger sense of connection that one only gets when meeting in person. For a company on hybrid mode with a few days per week in the office, social time is de-facto taken care of.

But for companies that are full-remote, it’s different: if everyone is in a single metropolitan area, then doing monthly meetings in a park or in a café would work well. For companies that are fully remote, then doing something once every 6-12 months would make more sense for the obvious reason of saving travel costs and travel time.

7. Organize for physical and mental health recovery

The sedentary lifestyle of sitting at a desk for eight hours per day takes a toll on the human body. Just as the lack of separation between work and life takes a toll on the human mind.

With a remote setup, it is critical to have a plan to support people with physical health and mental recovery. Check my dedicated blog article on how to deal with mental health in a remote setup.

In particular, there’s a portion of people who have a very hard time being comfortable with video calls, due to something called “Zoom fatigue,” defined as tiredness, worry or burnout associated with the overuse of virtual platforms of communication, particularly videoconferencing (Wikipedia).

If you’re a manager, then you have a responsibility to help people create a structure in their working day, so they know they can take breaks to rest, they know it’s okay to block time for lunch, and then know they can reach out to you and other managers if they feel drained or exhausted, or for any other reasons. I also wholeheartedly recommend that you check GitLab’s dedicated page about burnout, isolation, and anxiety in the remote workplace.

In terms of physical health, it’s also good to share information around proper ergonomics, have access to good quality office furniture, so on and so forth. Again, I recommend GitLab’s page on productive remote workspaces.

8. Adapt all the supporting organizational processes

Running a healthy team and organization isn’t just about keeping a tight backlog and pushing commits.

There’s also how you onboard your new hires, what process you follow to nominate, review, and promote people, and also how you move teams internally, what time of learning and development training is available, and so on.

All these processes might need a rehaul once a team or organization moves to remote work, and those things are generally forgotten behind after the move, until an employee survey uncovers that people are disgruntled and about to quit. My advice: don’t wait for that employee survey to show the effects, be proactive and make sure that those aspects of a well-running healthy team and organization are under control.

If you’re a manager in an environment that has both full-onsite and full-remote contributors, then you also have to be aware of the bias for colocation: at least one study found that WFH employees had a 50% lower rate of promotion after 21 months compared to their office colleagues. It’s a huge gap, and one that you have to adjust for if you want to maintain a sense of fairness if you want to keep all employees engaged.

And finally, the hiring process also needs to change: if the culture has shifted to a remote culture, and if the work requires more that people can show initiative and autonomy, then all of these traits have to be assessed during the hiring process.

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Resources

Resources from GitLab

Resources from Coinbase

Company Handbooks

Burnout, mental health, and ergonomics

WFH days and equitable experiences

Zoom Fatigue

Remote team events

Published inLeadership and Management

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