How to Bring Your Remote Software Team Closer

Globalization pulls many IT specialists out of the office to seek better opportunities and challenges beyond corporate environment. In 11 years, from 2005 to 2016, the number of people who work remotely on corporate projects has grown to over 80%. While some go to free floating and become freelancers, the others choose to work on offshore projects and commit to client's success remotely. The benefits are obvious: 69% of all remote employees claim they're more productive when they work out of the office and 75% of remote specialists say the timeliness of their work has improved.

In their turn, companies can now reduce expenditures on office space maintenance and the number of billable hours within their in-house software development teams. Yet, the greatest advantage businesses can enjoy thanks to virtual or remote collaboration is the ability to source IT talent from multiple sources and geographies and save their overall software development budgets.

According to a Harvard Business Review publication, remote workers are more engaged due to the following reasons:

  • There're many in-house IT teams where managers or tech leads don't have any substantive face-time with their team members. They use email, not a face-to-face conversation, as a primary means of communication even when they're sitting less than 50 feet away. In case of a remote team, many tech leads or outsourcing managers feel pressure from top management to prove the value of this collaboration model and, thus, are eager to communicate more frequently in voice to make sure remote employees aren't lagging behind the core team or project schedule.
  • Absence makes people harder to connect. So when you have a remote employee whom you never meet in the office, you want to make an extra effort to stay connected and have a productive relationship. Many IT leaders admit that taking a few minutes to chat about what's happening in your remote colleague's physical world before discussing tasks / issues at hand makes a big difference in maintaining a positive connection and keeping your remote specialist motivated.
  • Virtual or remote team leaders usually make a better use of innovative tools compared to in-house team leaders. In order to communicate with their far-flung teams, they have to use a lot of tools for videoconferencing, instant messaging, voicemail, email, tasks / issues tracking, etc. As such, they become proficient in multiple forms of remote communication and are faced with more challenges that make them stronger leaders.
  • Virtual team leaders make better use of their precious time. Every day they have to remove distractions so that remote employees can better focus on "togetherness". As such, they tend to maximize the time their teams spend together by inviting remote employees to visit their office, have team building events, teleconferences, etc. This also helps improve employee morale and keep them encouraged and engaged.

Intersog has been building remote teams for our clients since 2005 and has generated a solid body of knowledge on how to best manage such teams and gain the best value from a virtual collaboration.

Here's our list of 5 recommendations on how to bring your remote team closer.

1. You need an arsenal of collaboration tools

The absence of access to required information is the biggest pain of many remote and virtual teams. Each team needs to have own set of tools to bring remote employees closer. You should have tools put in place to cover videoconferencing, project collaboration in the real time, time and issue tracking, project management, etc.

But first and foremost, you need to create rules for each tool use case. For instance, it's much faster and more convenient to discuss an urgent routine question in a Skype / Viber chat or in Google Hangouts than using email or IP telephony. All key project stages and milestones should be managed in a shared project management system and easily accessed by respective roles.

Second, all tools should be integrated as much as possible. Pay attention to API availability and other integration options while choosing tools, not after this.

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At Intersog, we're using the following tools to manage remote communication with our North American, Western European and Middle East clients.

  • Videoconferencing:
    • Skype and Google Hangouts for quick chats inside distributed teams;
    • IP Telephony (Call Centric and other tools) for conference calls with client's PMs and management;
    • GoToMeeting for webinars, app demos and conference calls that require real-time cross-border collaboration
  • Email system: corporate Gmail
  • Project collaboration:
    • Atlassian Jira for issue and project tracking (create user stories and issues, plan sprints, distribute tasks across distributed software teams and more)
    • Confluence for teamwork (receive / provide / manage feedback, create notes, file collaboration, stay in sync between desktop and mobile, etc.)

These are just some of the examples of tools we use on our remote teams. On some projects clients want their remote staff to use their corporate systems and we always configure teams with consideration of client's tool preferences.

2. Responsibilities should be distinguished and clearly designated to respective people

Some of the remote team workflows can be rather non-transparent and managers can go for months without noticing gaps in the employee's knowledge and skills. Also, it can be quite problematic to get an objective report about the current state of affairs. To avoid this, create templates for typical tasks and projects, describe all project steps and appoint responsible team members. This will help rookies learn your project rules more quickly and allow the rest of the team to better understand what stage the task is in and who's responsible for its completion. 

By the way, mentoring is a great and useful practice when it comes to remote staff management. Get one of your team veterans to take care of and be responsible for introducing a newcomer to the project and overseeing their tasks.

3. Build informal relationships

On the one hand, it's great to have your remote team fully focused on their project tasks instead of chatting about how they've spent a weekend. On the other hand, the lack of informal communication won't drive productivity and increase morale.

In a remote or distributed software development environment people don't go to lunch together, don't play board games and don't discuss the latest news over coffee. As such, you need to make something up to develop interpersonal relationships within your team. Gamification can help a lot here! You can build a web portal where your offsite or offsite + in-house developers would compete against each other in contests and quizzes or play online games and hold matches, and get points they can later convert into money or other benefits such as an extended holiday, a paid course to boost skills, a ticket to a cool IT conference, etc.

To build informal relationships within clients' remote teams we host in our R&D centers globally, we hold regular monthly and quarterly events such as Hack-n-Tell (knowledge and lifehacks sharing), have launched an employee portal with gamification features, engage them in tech writing contests, reward them for contributing their code pieces and re-usable components to our Code Library, etc.

4. Hold regular team meetings to make sure your team is on the same page

No secret that software developers don't like meetings and remote specialists don't like them even more. However, when you work away from a core team, you can lose sight of some project aspects pretty easily. Therefore, regular team meetings are required apart from Scrum and standups. They can be monthly or quarterly and should be used to discuss team's general progress and make sure the team has a shared vision of the project goals. You can also use such meetings to reward your best achievers and help slow performers improve their work.

5. Personal qualities can be more important than work experience

Do you also laugh each time you open a vacancy and see in the job description all those buzzwords such as "go-getter", "initiative" and "dedication"? In many cases they make no sense, because they're almost impossible to assess during an in-person interview and they don't always matter for teamwork success. However, these qualities are extremely important in your remote developers and can sometimes be more important than work experience and skills.

As a matter of fact, you can't use the same practices when hiring for in-house and remote jobs. Make sure to prepare special tests and put in place a well thought-over vetting process to verify the candidate before making them a proposal.

And how do you manage your remote teams?


Vik is our Brand Journalist and Head of Online Marketing / PR with 11+ years of international experience in IT B2B. He's also a guest blog contributor to Business2community, SitePoint, Journal of mHealth, Wearable Valley and other IT portals. You can contact him directly on LinkedIn.

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