The other day, I realized that I have worked on geographically split software teams for the last decade. I didn’t set out intending to do so. When I got my first job out of college as a software engineer, I thought being in the office was non-negotiable. If you ask company recruiters, most say in no uncertain terms they are not looking for remote employees.
But the reality on the ground is that many software companies end up letting most full-time engineers work flexible hours, from anywhere. Yet few companies acknowledge or advertise this explicitly. You can’t get this opportunity by asking for it in your interview, but after you are in the door, the opportunity arises. There are a few ways this happens.
Software companies with heavy on-call burdens, like Amazon for example, end up with an unspoken but widespread assumption that people can work from anywhere because they are working all the time. Since most engineers are contractually obligated to be on-call, and emergency issues arise at all hours of the day and night, these engineers start working remotely out of necessity. Soon, whole teams realize there is no barrier to working where and when they are most productive. On any given day during my tenure at Amazon, maybe half of my teammates weren’t in the office when I was.
I’ve worked for several startups with surprisingly similar team environments. At one, people preferred to work at nearby coffeehouses with outdoor porches that made it easier to work while smoking. At another, unreliable wireless bandwidth in the office drove people to work from home out of necessity. At another, almost every person employed there lived in a different time zone, because this startup needed a very specific set of skills that happened to be scarce at the time.
Later I went to work for Rosetta Stone, which had three offices when I started, and grew to six offices when I left . Most of the teams I worked on ended up having people in at least three office locations, and as many time zones. Only one of the four bosses I had during those years worked in the same office as me. Not only were the teams geographically split, but once a team is split across two or more time zones, for all practical purposes, this team is also working flex time hours.
These teams all worked well together. No matter where and when we worked, everyone still was accountable for meetings and deadlines. I never felt particularly disconnected from my team, and I had rapport with and support from my bosses.
Today I work for Pedago.com, a startup company that is geographically split and has been from the very beginning. It is the most productive team I have ever worked with.
Geographically distributed teams can work. How? In my experience, there are five key principles that make all the difference.
1. Shared chat room where all team communication, questions, updates, and banter happen
I’ve used Skype, IRC, and HipChat for this — there are many viable options. In a geographically split team, showing up to the chat room is the same as showing up to work. Conversely, not showing up to chat is like not showing up to the office, with the same professional and social side effects. Knowing everyone will be in one place means you always know where you can ask questions if you have them. And if you are ever away and need to catch up on team discussion, there’s a nice transcript of all the debates, conversations, and decisions the team made while you were away that you can easily read to catch up.
2. Shared “online” hours
These are the hours everyone is guaranteed to be available in the shared chat room. No matter how scattered the team is, there will always be some set of hours that work for everyone. Everyone is assumed to be available during these hours, and if any person can’t make it or needs to leave to run errands, they are expected to notify everyone.
3. Short daily video check-in meetings
If your team uses Scrum as its project management strategy, these are just your daily standup meetings. It makes a huge difference to see peoples’ faces once a day, if only to remember that they are human beings in addition to being demanding product owners or cantankerous engineers. The visual feedback you get from face to face conversations helps facilitate complex discussions, amplifies positive feedback, and the subconscious pressure to announce a socially acceptable level of progress helps hold everyone accountable.
4. Teammates need to be aggressive about helping and asking for help.
However tempting, no one should ever spin their wheels when stuck. Teams should declare that ad hoc pair programming, calls, and hangouts are a part of their team’s working style, and developers should be aggressive about picking up the phone or screen-sharing whenever they get stuck or need to ask a question.
5. Everyone on the team needs to buy into these rules.
No exceptions. If even one person refuses to get in the shared team chat-room or doesn’t feel like showing up to the video check-in meetings every day, these strategies won’t work for the rest of the team. Everyone on the team has to buy in, and in particular, managers and team leads need to lead by example, being disciplined about leading discussions and disseminating information only in the team’s shared forums.
But how do you know people are working if you can’t see them?
Simple answer. The same way you know they’re working when you can see them: you talk to them about requirements, check in on progress, look at what they deliver. If you are a technical manager, you monitor deployments or skim the latest check-ins. Software management really isn’t very different with distributed versus in-house teams. The secret to success is still the same: clear direction, well-defined, prioritized requirements, and carefully managed execution.