I have been working in IT for the last 14 years. During this time, I have worked in several different companies—some were small startups; some were giant outsourcing companies, ranging from six to over 4000 people. I worked remotely for 11 out of 14 years. Six out of nine were remote-first companies. And, five out of those six remote companies hired people from all over the world.
All in all, I have a wealth of experience working in remote companies, and I want to share it with you. Let’s dive into a few best practices when it comes to a remote-first mindset at your company. I’ll cover the following:
- the most significant aspects when managing remote teams
- how to work effectively with international teams
- how to compensate for the lack of live communication
- areas in which remote work outperforms office work
Throughout the article, I will provide tips & tricks that we use every day at 11Sigma and Stoplight.
Communication in distributed teams
Let’s start with the most fundamental thing: communication. Communication is important both in remote and non-remote teams. Misunderstandings result in wasted time for the team and wasted money for clients. Effective communication is the key to reducing development time.
Keep in mind that we often deal with complex technical problems, which can create even more of a barrier to proper communication. Even people who speak the same language find it difficult to understand each other when it comes to complex business logic.
To improve communication across global, remote-first teams, here are the best practices to keep in mind:
Implementing Clear Communication Practices Across the Board. Yes, this is a simple but essential hint. Guide your team to speak clearly and structure their thoughts, especially over a virtual setting. Offer them time to give a talk or write an article about recent technical problems they solved if they are not the type to speak up regularly in meetings. Alternatively, encourage them to talk about a new tool that can solve current problems more efficiently. At the end of the day, even writing documentation can also improve their communication skills.
Encouraging a Culture of Facetime At Stoplight, we always encourage our remote-first teams to have their camera on. It will often make communication more open and create a stronger culture of connectedness knowing you’re interacting with a real-life person. But it’s also good to balance ‘zoom fatigue’ and encourage less screen time if employees are feeling burnout from being on all the time.
Be mindful about cultural differences. People from different regions might have slightly different styles of communication. Some people might be oriented more towards a distanced, formal communication while others are way more open. At Stoplight and 11Sigma, we have people from the USA, Poland, Croatia, Ukraine, Hungary, and Russia. The key to success is mutual respect and one common goal.
Leave room for fun – completely formal communication can become dull or intimidating. Leave room for fun. We all work on serious problems, but we are all humans – we like to joke and to have fun. Consider creating a #channel for memes, cats, and random jokes. Such channels will help with venting, building relationships between peers, and taking a mental break. At Stoplight, we also make an effort to host monthly, virtual happy hours where we have structured games, team-building exercises, and time to connect with one another on a deeper level. In addition, we host a weekly ‘small hands’ update where we cover everything from company highlights, progress, the team wins, and culture-building topics such as everyone’s high of the week.
Texting vs video-calling
Both written and spoken communication have their pros and cons. The question is when to resort to which?
For example, when I want to brainstorm a new big feature with my engineering team, I prefer a video call. Similarly, when a new team member joins, it’s handy to introduce them over a video call and supplement their onboarding with written documentation.
For everyday questions – texting in tools such as Slack may be a better option because it’s less disruptive and gives people room and time to reply.
For instance, if the question is highly technical, an engineer may need a few minutes to answer. Using Slack, one doesn’t have to respond instantly and can provide a more detailed, thought-through answer.
For myself, I usually use the following rule – if a problem cannot be solved on Slack in 15-30 minutes, it’s time to talk in person.
Regular Cooperation / Collaboration
At Stoplight, we run daily stand-ups to catch up and plan our day. We have fortnightly sprints, planning, and backlog grooming sessions. We have a retrospective meeting after each sprint. And, of course, we have unplanned meetings where we can discuss any technical/product issues that require additional discussion.
In addition to standard formal meetings, remote companies can have informal meetings and activities. Here are some examples:
- One-On-One – Such meetings allow you to share your work impressions to voice your expectations and prospects for the future. At the same time, you receive feedback from other people, their advice, and wishes that will help you improve yourself. Such meetings should be informal so that people do not hesitate to share any thoughts, even if they are not exactly what the management wants to hear. Otherwise, such meetings are of little use. We have regular one-on-ones at stoplight.io and 11sigma.com. Everyone understands the benefits of such meetings and therefore do not hesitate to share their feedback.
- Company trainings – these are an excellent opportunity to learn something new. On the other hand, when people have about the same questions and difficulties during the training, it is a great opportunity for them to cooperate and solve them together. At stoplight.io, we have company-wide training sessions to improve our security, marketing, and creativity skills on a semi-regular basis.
- Virtual happy hours – Choose the game you like. It could be classical Bingo, Something In Common, Settlers of Catan. Unleash your imagination, come up with a cool game and enjoy your happy hour.
- Remote coffee breaks – who said that you can\’t have remote coffee breaks. I suggest such meetings include 3-5 people, no more. Someone writes in a dedicated Slack channel, "I’m going on a coffee break, who wants to join me". In international teams, such conversations are very interesting. We love coffee breaks at 11Sigma and even use a dedicated "donut app" that helps us to schedule coffee breaks and suggest some fun topics to discuss.
- Temporary department switch. For instance, an engineer moves to the support service for a couple of days. Such rotation may help the engineer to get to know colleagues from the support department better. He or she sees the work of the support department from the inside resulting in a better understanding of the support processes and needs of the department. From my experience, it’s often that after such a switch, engineers come up with great ideas for improving cooperation between departments.
- Company Hackathons – Have you ever taken part in a Hackathon? Think about hosting a Hackathon in your company. The main difficulty here is that the hackathon takes time. The company must be ready to spend three days for the Hackathon ideas to be completed. Here’s an example from my experience. The company organizes the hackathon twice a year. The condition of the hackathon is that all ideas must be related to the company’s product. In such a case, the company does not spend three days but invests. Many of the hackathon’s ideas have been fully implemented in the next few months. The coolest thing is that anyone can come up with an idea. So, for example, at one of the past companies, I worked on a chatbot for the support service. Another time we made recommendations for each client based on similar proposals. In short, it was super cool.
Here are some tools we use at Stoplight to help with collaboration and communication across our global remote-first workforce:
- Communication – Slack & Zoom
- Project management – Notion, Github & Zenhub
- Documentation – stoplight.io – yes, we use our tool to manage our documentation
- Brainstorming – Miro
- Design – Figma
Handling time zone difference
Another challenge that remote teams may face is time zones. Companies have varying rules for time overlapping. Some require a full working-hours overlap with the headquarter. That is, all employees work in only one timezone. But in most cases, companies require only a partial overlap in time, which is enough to discuss and settle all issues. The partial intersection is the preferred option, in my opinion. This allows people to work on a regular schedule.
Usually, three hours is enough to discuss all current issues. I would even say that pure communication time usually takes an hour or two for developers. But sometimes it isn’t easy to plan meetings where several people are present to suit everyone. So, for me, three hours of overlapping is fine.
Work hand-off is something to pay special attention to. For example, if two team members from different time zones need to collaborate on an issue, try to provide all necessary information before signing off. Do not postpone it. Otherwise, you risk making your colleague wait another day before making progress.
I think organizing work for two time zones is pretty straightforward. Especially if you have a three to four hour overlap, people may need to change their daily routine a little to adjust to the main office, but otherwise, they work in a normal schedule, without having to work at night. In fully remote companies, there might be no "main office" at all, and therefore it’s a matter of establishing overlaps, practicing effective hand-offs, and focusing on communication.
It gets tricky for 3+ time zones but is still manageable. It becomes impossible to overlap so that someone does not work at night. How to organize work in such a team? In this case, teams are organized in such a way as to minimize communication with two distant time zones. The schedule is shifted towards the head office working hours. So, for example, if the head office is in San Francisco, the team in Sydney would start working a little earlier, and the Warsaw team would start working a little later than usual. At the same time, communication between the team from Sydney and Warsaw is minimized. Such companies usually divide departments into different time zones. For example, the development team might be in Warsaw, while the support team in Sydney.
At Stoplight and 11Sigma, we work in two time zones since our teams are primarily based in Austin, Texas, and in the European Union Therefore we cover more time to provide support. If something goes wrong for European clients, the 11Sigma team can always fix it during their day. If issues happen to US clients, our colleagues in Austin will always back them up.
When I worked in the office, I spent an average of an hour getting ready and traveling to the office per day. If you calculate how much I spend per year, 250 * 2/24 = 20 days. 20 days is a lot, so you can see why I am a fan of remote work. Add in the extra time spent with my wife and two kids, and remote work allows me to have the lifestyle I’m seeking as both a professional and in my personal life. Being a part of a remote-first company, I know how to build my day effectively and efficiently to get my work done.
I’m proud of the work we do here at Stoplight and 11Sigma, and it’s exciting to be a part of a company that is truly pioneering the world of remote-first.