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COVID-19 Has Changed the Rules of Work: Moving Teams to a Distributed Workplace

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By Ben Dolmar

Director of Software Development

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Amid the COVID-19 global pandemic, companies across nearly every industry need to learn how to maintain business continuity under restrictions like social distancing while sharply reducing or eliminating physical employee gatherings. Many corporate offices have temporarily closed, leaving employees to pack up their laptops with instructions to work from home.

For over a decade, Nerdery has distributed its work among teams split between offices, work-from-home and client sites. We’ve learned a lot about developing software when you can’t rely on proximity to build team cohesion and alignment. Along the way, we capitalized on several principles that leaders can use to shape their work-from-home models.

CULTURE SHIFT

It’s tempting to start a discussion about moving to a distributed team structure with an inventory of tools and processes. However, that focus misses some of the more critical challenges that teams must overcome when switching to a distributed model. Instead, the principles that drive success are linked to cultural conditions within your organization. Teams that can manage each of these challenges will succeed; and, those that can’t struggle. Here are what we consider the top four cultural principles that drive success:

  • Making Work Visible
  • Creating Collaborative Working Spaces
  • Aligning on Roadmap and Goals
  • Rethinking Communications

MAKING WORK VISIBLE

Understanding what people are working on, whether they’re running into issues, and whether it will be delivered on time, requires discipline from both team leaders and members. The widespread business practice of “management by walking around” doesn’t translate to a distributed environment. You can’t just walk over to someone’s desk to see how their work is coming along or check their body language for visible stress. Additionally, using someone’s time sitting at a desk as a proxy for their effectiveness has never been a particularly useful approach. The goal should be to make the outcomes of work transparent and trackable.

The key to making work visible is to break it down into small enough discrete testable tasks; no one on the team should go more than a day or two without being able to move a task into their done column. Establish a public system of record for tasks waiting for completion, tasks in progress and completed tasks. When the tasks are well-groomed, this will provide leaders with the confidence they need to form an accurate work status picture.

Additionally, this is an area where tooling makes a difference. Look for these key features in an issue tracker:

  • Visible to and editable by the entire team
  • Indicates who currently has responsibility for a given task
  • Preserves history of the work done on the task
  • Allows and retains task discussion details

Numerous products in the market meet these criteria — from JIRA to Github to Trello or something as simple as a shared spreadsheet. Select one that works for your team and culture. For expediency, you can always start with one solution then pivot to something more robust later.

Further, make sure you include time boxes (e.g., two week increments) during which the team takes time to demonstrate their completed accomplishments. These social proofs help create a culture of accountability and focus. They’re reinforced when team leaders create regular daily check-points in which the team can surface and discuss issues.

To keep teams operating efficiently, each member must ask for help from others if they run into trouble on a task or project. Even in a shared physical space, it’s easy for a team member to spin nonstop on a problem in isolation. Even for (maybe especially for) talented people, pride and ego can cause them to invest too much time before reaching out for help. These behaviors get amplified in distributed working environments. To fight those habits, create an environment which supports team members asking for assistance.

CREATING COLLABORATIVE WORKING SPACES

Physical office layouts that allow unplanned meetings, unplanned white-boarding sessions, and visible artifacts of the work done tend to foster collaboration and improve results. With the right mix of technology tools and cultural tenets, companies can come close to replicating physical office space experiences and benefits through distributed work-from-home teams. Whether you’re in an office or a member of a distributed team, the core operating tenets are the same:

  • Everyone should contribute and offer feedback regardless of job title and position
  • People should engage in ways that are most comfortable for them
  • Tools should ensure the team shares the same context

First, team leaders and members should have access to tools such as Miro, GSuite and Office 360 to create and share assets that can be collaboratively edited. Screen sharing is a priceless feature for these discussions. Want a simple solution? Point a camera at a whiteboard and let your team member lead a conversation, make a to-do list and share the work. Each of these tools also allows you to make edits in real-time so your team members can see what’s added to a document or other asset, and offer their ideas.

With many team members creating new assets or checking out existing documents to make additional edits, it’s essential to establish version controls early on, which helps a team identify the one source of truth (most current) for every asset. Any system that relies on renaming files by appending dates, version numbers, or the word “final” will fail spectacularly. Instead, create a single document and rely on your tools to allow you to compare versions or track changes.

Additionally, create a dedicated place that allows team members to raise questions or bring attention to ongoing project issues or challenges. Tools such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, or an email distribution list are easily employed to support these functions. The goal is to have a lightweight method for asking for help from your team without needing to address them individually.

ALIGNING ON ROADMAP AND GOALS

While team members work to create and deliver smaller components of a software project in incremental phases, it’s crucial to align the work with the company’s overarching strategic objectives. Make sure teams have visibility into goals and how they affect key results.

If your teams are employing agile methods to develop and deliver products, it’s also helpful to create themes to organize your sprints into more cohesive groupings of functionality. This will help ensure that the output from each sprint is measurable and visible to the product’s users and is building to a unified customer journey.

In order to drive ownership and autonomy, make sure your team has visibility into key metrics and outcomes such as conversions, response time, uptime and crash rates. This helps everyone better understand how their work is affecting business outcomes while simultaneously building team pride. We also found that official SLAs (service level agreements) help set expectations for work that gets delivered.

Lastly, ensure all documents or assets detailing your roadmap, goals and reports are readily available to anyone on the team in a shared space.

RETHINKING COMMUNICATIONS

Without proximity to coworkers, companies transitioning to distributed workplaces must rethink how employees communicate across teams without losing the benefits of face-to-face communications. Today’s tools like Zoom, Google Hangouts and Skype help, but they can’t always overcome challenges like conducting synchronous meetings with team members three time zones away. However, leaders can record video messages where they can be viewed on-demand.

Also, keep in mind that video chatting is often better than voice-only because participants can easily read body language and react accordingly. When conducting video chats with individuals or groups, be deliberate with pauses because of micro-second lags that typify the medium. This pause gives participants a chance to jump into the conversation and provide feedback.

For informal communications, set up coffee dates with random coworkers or use quick video chats with individual team members for spontaneous check-ins, even if it’s just sharing a funny story.

Keeping the team on an even communication footing is critical to building a collaborative environment. One place we have seen significant friction is when the majority of a team collocates and only a few individuals work in a distributed manner. In those cases, it’s often better to have the team act as though it’s distributed even if members could use their collocated facilities. For example, by calling into meetings from their desk rather than going to a conference room. This is less of an issue now because almost everybody has moved to working from home, but as offices reopen, it will likely become an issue, again.

MOVING TEAMS TO A DISTRIBUTED WORKPLACE

The move to distributed working arrangements has been and will be an ongoing trend in business. While COVID-19 has forced companies everywhere to grapple with that change, economic imperatives will continue to drive the trend even after we return to our offices. Updating work practices now, however, will position companies to take advantage of the new opportunities provided by distributed work.

With deep capabilities and experience collaborating with companies and teams across the country, Nerdery can help you efficiently move your office-bound teams into a productive, distributed workplace. Let’s get started.

Published on 04.22.20