Remote Working

The Art & Science Of Remote Working

Waracle
2nd April 2020
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https://waracle.com/blog/remote-working/the-art-science-of-remote-working/
The Art & Science Of Remote Working

David Hay is Head of Extended Reality (XR) Technologies for Waracle: As a manager at Waracle, remote working is a key part of my job, and has been for a long time. I love working remotely – and despite how everyone’s feeling right now (given where we’ve all found ourselves because of the current health crisis), remote working can be a super-efficient, highly effective way of doing your job – all it takes is a bit of planning, a touch of flexibility and a few very handy digital tools!  

The team recently asked me to share some of my insights around remote working – what it’s really like, how we manage to stay efficient and effective, and a few tips on the tools of the trade. If you’ve suddenly found yourself working remotely and are feeling a bit out of your depth, let me reassure you – you’re not alone, there are a ton of advantages and benefits to remote working, and there are lots of tools out there that are going to help you nail it like you’ve been doing it for years (even if you’ve never worked a day at home in your life). Ready? Let’s dive in … 

An intro

Our team manages a large body of work for Waracle. My job is to communicate with key project stakeholders across these projects, overseeing all activities, covering project resourcing and managing risks, issues and decisions across multiple separate teams. 

A huge part of this process involves ensuring that all team members have what they need to perform their jobs effectively, raising and resolving issues with the client as and when required. We currently have over 50  people on the team and we’re going to be on-boarding three or four new recruits in the coming weeks, so it’s a really exciting and interesting time for us. 

Getting Started With Remote Working

When we started the current project, our entire team could fit in one meeting room. We had two iOS developers, two Android developers and a tester. One of the Android developers was remote for the most part and would only actually visit the office once a week. 

“With over 50 team members, communications are now far smoother than when we had only 5 people working in the team”

Initially, there was quite a slow introduction for me to the virtues and ways of remote working. What’s incredible is the fact that communications now are far smoother across the larger team than they were when we had only 5 team members.

One of the first things we learned was to be ‘remote-first’ – so meetings happened online rather than in the room. Once that switch happened, we were able to start scaling up at speed, adding more members to the team who could perform at a really high level on a remote basis.

It’s not always been perfect; the first developer we on-boarded was based in Spain and we’d often forget to invite him to meetings – or there would be an impromptu but relevant Slack chat and we’d later find out that some team members had been out of the loop. We quickly had to accept that, like learning anything new, there will be hurdles to overcome – but that’s half the fun. Everyone’s always thinking ‘How can we make this work better, faster or more efficiently?’ – and somehow, some way, we always do …

Remote Working & Expanding Recruitment Opportunities

Once we’d got up to speed and processes across our distributed teams were running smoothly, we were able to start thinking about expanding our reach to include more widely distributed team members that had the skills we’re always looking for but can’t always find in our physical location. 

When the current health crisis escalated, we were able to move the entire company to a remote working model overnight with maximum efficiency and minimal disruption, and it doesn’t feel like a compromise. Remote represents the optimal way for us to deliver maximum value and efficiency for clients, something that’s become increasingly important across the digital sector, and which we’re likely to see become the norm for many companies looking to be more agile, flexible and prepared going forward.

“This is fundamentally a conversation around work/life balance, new ways of working and challenging more traditional, more dominant forms of thinking around how things should be done in order to maximise productivity”

Remote at its core is a conversation around work/life balance, new ways of working and challenging more traditional, more dominant forms of thinking around how things should be done in order to maximise productivity. 

At the end of the day, team members that have a good work/life balance of both are more engaged, productive and inspired – the ripple effects of which can’t be underestimated. Being able to deliver optimum output inevitably impacts positively at the client-side – but it also impacts positively at our side in ways we hadn’t envisaged. We’ve enjoyed a larger pool of talent to support complex projects, productivity gets a boost, and we get vastly distributed input and insights from all corners of the globe which can drive creativity in really unexpected ways.

On a broader level, and as a worldwide phenomenon, remote working is being driven partly by the fact that innovative tools and technologies are allowing us to operate in ever  more remote and productive ways. And it’s not just down to the tools – broadband infrastructure has evolved significantly in the past decade and the proliferation of cloud-based software architecture continues to drive the ongoing shift towards more productive ways of working and operating remotely. 

“It’s technology that’s driven and enabled this shift, but it’s real people who choose to adopt it and there’s now a realisation that we don’t need to spend hours on the train every day and diminish our work/life balance in order to deliver our best work to the customer”

There’s a growing understanding that we don’t have to conform to the traditional status-quo and old-school, outdated working practices. We don’t need to be in a physical office to do our best work and deliver what the client wants and needs. There are some businesses now that are completely 100% remote like DuckDuckGo and Baremetrics, GitLab and a whole bunch of companies who deserve immense credit for being early adopters in the shift towards the remote working movement. They continue to prove to the rest of the world that it works, that it is possible to operate as a fully distributed enterprise and to flourish and grow.

It’s technology that’s driven and enabled this shift, but it’s real people who choose to adopt it and there’s now a realisation that we don’t need to spend hours on crowded trains or sitting in traffic every day in order to deliver our best work to the customer. I think it all just magically came together – the onset of new technologies and a shift in organisational culture and working attitudes – to enable skilled people to work from wherever they want in the world without compromising on quality or a sense of togetherness across the team.

Remote Teams For Increased Productivity

There are a number of ways remote teams deliver increased levels of employee satisfaction and productivity. Firstly, in a remote working context, the distractions of regular office life are all but gone, meaning that you’re able to apply laser focus to whatever task you’ve been asked to perform. Some people do miss the ‘people’ factor – I don’t get to do the water-cooler catch ups for example, or to shout out across my desk for an answer to a question that someone in the office might know – but it’s also my experience that you get used to that. I can send a shout-out over Slack for example, or Skype a colleague to talk directly to them if I need to. Digital tools have made things a lot easier in terms of working remotely – it’s no longer about just email.

We manage all of our communications via Slack, and in terms of managing the daily stand-up, it’s a simple case of working with each member of the team to establish what happened yesterday, identify the most important focus for the day ahead and figuring out any potential hurdles that might prevent us achieving our goals for the day. We’re able to work through each Jira ticket quickly and efficiently and this enables team members to consistently perform to the best of their ability.

Giving people the autonomy to make their own choices in relation to how they can perform their best work is so important. Allowing people to set their own schedules for the day enables them to be happier and more productive. 

To give you an example of this, I used to work in an office for a previous company whereby the office was kept at the perfect ambient temperature to melt a toffee penny! So you’d walk into the room and think, I’ve been on colder beach holidays than this!. Working remotely removes all of those barriers; people can wear what they like and be comfortable in their own surroundings based on their own unique and individual requirements and tastes. There’s a whole plethora of incremental benefits that arise from working remotely and it’s generally all focused around workers autonomy and working in ways that enable them to be as productive, efficient and happy as possible.

How To Motivate Remote Team Members 

Measuring productivity can be a difficult thing, whether you’re managing teams remotely or not. In my experience, one of the most important factors here – and a key element to consider in terms of generating successful outcomes –  is to trust people to do the tasks they’re assigned to do. 

“I’m mindful to avoid always focusing purely on productivity and output”

I’m mindful to avoid focusing purely on productivity and output. So rather than agreeing that an individual task should take, say, 3 hours to complete and checking in on the team member who’s responsible after 4 hours to get an update on progress, my approach is to leave team members to their own devices and trust them to always deliver best results, and it works. People tend to do their best work when they’ve got the autonomy to do so and when they’re trusted to perform in their own unique way. 

Keeping in mind that our business is software development and delivery, it’s all task-based, so there’s always a clear indication of the list of things that need to be done, the order in which they need to be done and who’s tackling each task. It’s very systematic and easy just to work through things in a linear fashion. Outside the realms of the stand-up meeting at the start of each day, there’s no actual need to communicate on things unless people encounter an issue or have specific questions. So in terms of autonomy and working effectively with team members, it’s just a matter of enabling them to crunch through each task to deliver best results. 

Avoiding Distractions When Working Remotely

Of course, when all is said and done, working remotely does have its own unique challenges and it’s important to be aware of them. There’s always the possibility of the cat wanting to sit on your keyboard, or the dog barking at the delivery guy, or the kids running around screaming – not to mention the temptation to keep opening the fridge to check for the third time that you really did eat all the pizza. Most of us agree it’s crucial to set up an actual workstation – whatever that looks like – to avoid distractions.  Creating a quiet, dedicated workspace somewhere to ‘prep’ your brain to sit down and do some focused work. It’s fundamentally about having control over your own environment and doing things in your own individual way.

Cultivating Employee Loyalty Via Remote Working

Cultivating loyalty is all about flexibility and trust. There’s a strong family-first ethos and philosophy at Waracle so if the kids have a performance at school, or it’s sports day, or I need to go to the doctors for something, I’m able to do whatever I need to do to strike that balance. It’s just a case of letting people know what I’m doing, maintaining frequent communication and making others aware of my movements. Providing team members with the flexibility and freedom to do the things they need to do, as opposed to the things they want to do, enables them to organise workflow around their daily lives, and in my experience, it makes for a happier, more productive work environment.

“The key thing to focus on is treating employees as people and not constantly measuring their output and productivity”

There’s an old-school perception in some workplaces that if you’re not constantly in the office, running up and down the stairs all day, you’re not actually working hard. This feels so outdated now and totally counter-intuitive when it comes to modern ways of remote working and increased productivity. The days of people sitting in an office 12 hours a day and working into the evening just to appear busy, will soon become a thing of the past. A more autonomous approach might seem counterintuitive to many businesses at first but over time, the benefits will start to show themselves. By treating employees as unique individuals with different lives, needs and ways of doing things, we can generate increased levels of trust, creativity, productivity and yes, even a love of work!  

The Best Tools & Technologies For Working Remotely

Slack is the key element to how we work remotely at Waracle. We use the tool to manage all channels of communication, both with the client and all of our team members – and with the multiple  projects we’re working on I’d be absolutely lost without it. 

Having a single platform like Slack, in which everyone can seamlessly collaborate, manage workflow and ask questions at any time is indispensable. We integrate Slack with Jira, so we have a clear list of tasks that need to be undertaken, and without getting too technical, we use BitBucket where all of the code goes for approval, and BitRise, which is where the code is submitted for each new build of an application.

Bottom line? Slack represents so much more than just a simple instant messaging platform, it’s basically like the right-hand side of my brain and everything I need to remember and know sits inside the platform and acts as a central hub of all development and project management activity. It’s amazing how outdated email seems now.

Other essential platforms for our teams include the likes of Zoom and Google Meet – both great for meetings. It’s been really interesting over the past week or two having video chats and insisting everyone activates their cameras so you can see each other and laugh about their surroundings, what their slippers look like or their unkempt facial hair.

In all seriousness though, the structural element to remote working is crucial. Having structured routines and rituals when working remotely keeps everyone on their toes and helps avoid free-fall. It can be all too easy to forget to jump in the shower or comb your hair before joining a video call for stand-up so knowing when meetings are happening and planning your day according to these keeps the structure and routine our brains like, and also means we’re not lying on the sofa eating pizza for breakfast when the call comes thru. 

Remote Working & The Art Of ‘Being Visible’

One of the points our CEO recently raised was that as a line manager of a large team, it’s essential that I’m broadcasting all of the time. For example, if I didn’t log in to Slack for a full day and people were wondering where I am, it could cause issues.  Human beings like to know what’s going on, they like structure, certainty, and to know that there are key individuals who are present all the time and on-hand to support when they’re needed – even if it’s just to say good morning and let other people lead the conversation. 

This means that a very large part of that communication is already taken care of and the team can lead the way with all of the required communications. All of my project managers are in a dedicated Slack channel, so we can quickly work through the top priorities for each new day, minimising fuss and just letting people get on with their jobs. 

Top Tips For Effective Remote Working

  • Things can get a little bit crazy and hard to manage when you have more than 7 or 8 individuals on a video call, especially if everyone on the call is expected to communicate. I’d recommend that if it’s just one person delivering an update or monologue-type information then it should be communicated by email rather than video.
  • Generally speaking, we find that everyone should mute themselves when they join the call – it can be hilarious (and occasionally embarrassing!)  when you can hear people talking to their dog and they don’t realise they’re unmuted. Some of my top tips would be to join the call, maybe say hello or mute yourself quickly, and wait for people to attend and only unmute yourself when you have something to say that adds value to the call. 
  • Also worth mentioning is that you never know if your background noise might be driving people mad. It’s important to be self-aware and take steps to ensure you’re minimising distractions at your side when you join a meeting.
  • There’s an art form as to how to interrupt someone else when they’re mid-flow during a virtual meeting. You generally need to signal to people that you’re revving up and you’re about to say something. 

The key thing is to make sure that calls are managed democratically, enabling people’s voices to be heard in equal measure where applicable and not letting individuals run away with monologues. Keep it short and snappy!

Conclusion

There’s a good reason why remote working is becoming so popular for companies of all different shapes and sizes – getting remote working right can lead to increased levels of productivity, creativity, innovation, loyalty and autonomy. I’ve seen remote working encourage innovation across the board, but it starts with each individual armed with the right tools to shape their working day in the unique ways that allow them to produce their best work.  With the right tools, processes and structures in place, we become empowered. And in turn? Businesses will find themselves transformed into innovative, future-focused entities. If you’d like to learn more, tell us how we can help, and let’s get the conversation started!