Dos and Don’ts of Remote Teams

It’s a delicate balance — how to retain a strong culture as a small but growing company, while overseeing teams spread across multiple locations. COVID certainly hasn’t made things easy, but it has given me the chance to step back and evaluate what works and what doesn’t. So, with that, I’ve put together a small list of Dos and Don’ts for remote team interaction.

Do: Conduct frequent feedback sessions.

We have instituted a number of regular checkups, both micro and macro, to ensure our team is aligned and that nobody is having issues or needs help. Weekly during the agile meeting we give our developers a chance to comment on how we can make their lives easier, always trying to remove roadblocks and improve product output. Every few months we give each other feedback, both quantitative and qualitative.  Maybe for some companies it’s uncomfortable to give and receive feedback, but we believe it’s the only way to grow and learn. By setting regularly scheduled checkpoints, we remove the uncomfortable part and focus on bettering ourselves.

Don’t: Try to micromanage.

I’ve seen in other companies a strong compulsion to check in on colleagues who are working remotely or from a different office. That sense of control is often difficult to maintain when you aren’t seeing someone frequently; but too many check-ins and micromanaging may lead to an unwanted result. Humans feel uncomfortable when they sense someone is watching over their shoulder; we all deserve the opportunity to work at our own pace and present our work when it’s complete. The best way to avoid this “don’t” is to set expectations and deadlines, then allow freedom to meet those expectations. If you’ve hired the right people — and I believe we have — they will deliver without managers stressing about them.

Do: Bring the whole team together regularly.

It’s really hard to create a culture with a team scattered across the globe, and I’m certainly not suggesting that we have a perfect culture. But in the quest for one, we need to spend time with each other; so we have instituted an “All Hands” meeting (that’s pirate lingo right there) to bring together everyone from all our offices to a single location for 1 or 2 weeks. So far we’ve done our bi-annual meeting in Santiago, Chile; Houston, USA; and a COVID version in Santa Catarina, Brazil. Our strategy? Work hard and play hard — we spend 10 hours together in a series of workshops, charting our company’s course together, and then hit the city to see ships, cultural events, and the bottom of wine glasses and beer mugs.

Don’t: Force rigid working hours.

I’ve heard advice saying the opposite — “Bret, it’s crucial to have people working between 9 and 5.” For our team, we have a mix of personalities — and some of our employees get inspiration at 3am! Other colleagues enjoy a more normal schedule.  As the COO, I love this mix: if a strange thought strikes me in the evening, I can reach out to a team member and discuss it. As long as our team is available on pre-determined activities (sprint meetings, feedback sessions, etc) and are performing at our high expectations, we will continue to encourage creativity at all hours.

Do: Tell a joke of the day.

It started innocently enough for me, about 4 years ago, while I was on a consulting project — we had a regular joke session  with our clients, and this silly little interaction helped forge a surprisingly strong bond. At Voyager, this has continued — and humor is important! Our Brazilian team is an expert at introducing new memes (I still don’t really understand “American Eagles Laughing”), we tell a few jokes during every sprint meeting, and even Matt our CEO tries to say something funny once in a while. Overall, humor is helpful at keeping everyone feeling connected and in good spirits, even during challenging weeks.

Don’t: Follow any of the above rules unless they work for you!

I’ve spent much of the last 2 years researching systems and processes for a startup — how to measure a developer’s performance, how to run QA, how many days of vacation to give. At the end of the day, every startup is different and should be structured based on the people in it, not the other way around. One of the most memorable pieces of advice I heard was “Bret, don’t employ a system just because it’s generally considered to be the best system. Use a system because it works for your team and your team wants it.”

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