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The hard truth of running a remote team and how to adjust

The purpose of this “memoir” is to aid in your research to quantify and visualize the actual current models based on my experience as your favorite “guinea pig”.

As always I will not bore you with theory and specific methodologies, because there are better sources out there than me, but I will mostly focus on the practical side and how that relates.

Now obviously this is not focused on the contingency plans of working remotely because you cant work from the office anymore, as I am sure that you are already doing it, but mostly on actually making remote teamwork actually be productive and work.

Alright here it goes, let me help you figure out the realities of this remote team concept.

The theory

I was recently reading about the formalized concept of cross-functional product teams and how that would work by adding another variable, which is fully remote enterprises. A lot of theories out there but I will not bore you with the details. The concept is simple, you try to get a lot of things done with a lot of people from different departments and all you need to do is plan, communicate, and document. Sounds simple huh? LOL.

Just for your reference here, in case you are somehow landing here lost, these are some getting started sources:

  1. Wikipedia link on cross-functional teams
  2. Atlassian agile coach definition of the Spotify model

I am sure that there are other models out there, simpler or more complicated.

The practice

The unfortunate reality of working remotely with a team that has not chosen to work remotely, to begin with, is a little harsher.

Starting from the top:

You know how they say that you should not eat where you sleep, bear in mind that in these stupid times, most of the people rent, and they rent smaller apartments that they would want to. Especially if you are living in a big metropolis where it’s impossible to live in anything more than a studio apartment for two. As such, there is no actual “proper working place” — it's just the table that you eat. Adding to this the fact that there may be a kid in the house being homeschooled through zoom, makes it even harder.

This is just the truth, some people can not work on their own, and no matter how much of a “collaboration tool buffer” you put in it just doesn’t work. Some people are not flexible and adding that variability of work conditions is that extra that messes everything up.

Office life is an escape(I mean in this reality I guess —Before you report and block me if I would have written this in 2019, Cephalonia, this cute island in Greece, is an escape, but whatever, look at the image below), a predefined place where you work, have water cooler chats, dress up and whatnot.

Myrtos Beach, Cephalonia, Greece — photo taken by yours truly. A pre-pandemic vacation.

Some people like it, it’s a way of life and has been for their all professional life.

Let’s be realistic, all the above-mentioned points, even the beach in Cephalonia, are things that people like to do. Asking the alternative means that you want them to change.

Changing in the workplace is a fairly standardized subject. If you have gone through business school it is part of the curriculum. For example, look at this awesome HBR article about “The Hard Side of Change Management” written in 2008, which still applies 100%. I remember this because I was in school when we were doing HBR cases regarding it.

How do you handle change in layman terms you ask? Easy, change stuff in small milestones, commit to it and integrate it on the day-to-day work (not just on top of it) but this is another topic.

The solution

If this doesn't make sense to you, you should try playing Dark Souls — it’s an outstanding game to unwind, chill and relax — then you will definitely understand me.

Or for the normies out there, get good at planning. You just to have plan ahead and understand what it means for your planning. If you are working with the dev team have a vision of where this product is going, or if you are working with a sales team, have an idea of your target group and how you plan to approach them.

Now this, put it in writing as other people need to know about it.

However you do, in a Gantt chart, in a whitepaper, scribbles, visual boards — do it so other people can read about it. I mean most likely you will create a confluence page about it and they have some great templates.

I know that you know who works with you (i.e. your colleagues) but you have to define who will actually have time and/or prioritize your project's task over their own backlog. You will need that plan and you will need to figure out who you will work with.

In small teams where you have just 1 or 2 team members is more of a when they will work with it rather than who, but in medium, to large companies, you have to approach almost anything that you do cross-functionally.

These people will help you review your approach and obviously give feedback on the next step

This plan that you had in the very beginning + input from the actual professionals that you will get should.

At this point, you need to formalize some sort of process on how you plan to implement the product of the project, technically or operationally. Setup an MVP, basic control points, and whatever you think is necessary.

Sometimes this is the hardest part. You, your team, the externals, and everyone else needs to know how you plan to communicate, formally and informally.

Your team needs to be able to communicate in an asynchronous manner (think: asynchronous API calls — this is how your team should be able to communicate with each other)

Sometimes in fairly standardized processes, just email channels are okay, but in today's projects, I have noted that it tends to be a bit on the slow side.

In my view you should one way or another:

  1. Get a slack or team's channel rolling and add all these people in
  2. Introduce a kanban board to handle tasks
  3. Set up a confluence page to handle documentation and the necessary references
  4. Add your plans Gantt charts for everyone to see
  5. Set up recurring video calls to discuss statuses or whatever you need to discuss.
  6. Add an informal flare (I like Friday beers or Thursday coffee — digitally obviously) where you can bicker.

If you are reading this that means that you are either dealing with managing the project or you are stuck somewhere in between.

Owning the process means for me:

  1. that you must know the WHY’s of the project. Why you are doing this or that; Why you are approaching it in this way; Why you have these people in the team etc etc
  2. that you listen to the experts. If you think you know better, you are wrong. Let me put it this way, even this post that I am writing needs to be changed and adjusted — at the end of the day, I am just a random guy on medium that can be completely wrong :D
  3. that you not only listen but also learn how people in your team actually work. Disregard the old mindset that people must do their job. You need to support them so they not only do their job but also do it well. So grab a coffee with them (a digital one — remember social distancing and bla bla)
  4. that you will provide a risk-free culture. You know how people express themselves in meetings and do not treat the communications like an email. This will bring conflict, which unfortunately you will need to embrace and use to adjust and make things better
  5. that you will commit to whatever you are saying and doing and that you will be able to contribute to the project.
  6. and last but not least that you will recognize the effort and say thank you. When you are doing everything online, people tend to feel left out. Communicate with them that they are doing great.

Things change, plans change, documentations change, people leave and new people come in. Maintain the documentation, prioritize the backlog of your project, add risks to the project AND formalize responsibility. It’s all fun and flower tills someone messes up. Btw, for me, the RACI matrix is the one that has everything.

I know that you have read this and a lot of people are preaching it, but think of it this way, when whatever we spoke on step 1 does not make any sense anymore, don't you think that you need to adjust what you did on step 1 and reflect it other steps?

Just reflect with your team, and adjust processes of products when they stop making sense. Obviously, formalize the adjustments.

That’s it.

See? Wasn't it easy? Haha — joking.

Remember what I noted in the beginning, that all you need to do is plan, communicate, and document. After reading all my bickering isn’t it all that I talked about in fancy project manager-ish terms?

Jokes aside, I would love to hear your thoughts and experience actually. This is a tough subject and especially in these hard times, it can be even tougher. No one is perfect.

I do stuff, especially digital stuff. Currently leading a great team to revolutionize payment streams. Do you need more? Go to gjermani.com

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