Since the pandemic began, working from home, either every day or in a hybrid two-days-in-three-days-home plan, has become the new normal for many software companies. However, the work-from-home (WFH) model creates challenges as well as benefits for organizations. As employees adjust to handling work responsibilities remotely, managers have also had to adapt their strategies, using creative methods to encourage their dispersed teams to remain connected and on track.
Saju Pillai, SVP of Engineering at Kong, offers his thoughts on best practices for managing dispersed teams.
What’s the status of software development teams working remotely or returning to offices?
Pillai: We are seeing larger tech companies preferring a return to office but on a partial basis, usually requiring employees to come into the office on certain days of the week. But early-stage companies continue to encourage remote work. Work from home is going to be a permanent phenomenon for a lot of early-stage companies.
What are the most common complaints members of development teams have when they’re not working in the office?
Pillai: “Falling out of sync” with teammates and decreased participation in decision-making are the major complaints from established teams. With new teams or new hires for established teams, long ramp periods, the ability to rapidly develop trust among team members, and delays in “team forming” are major complaints.
How can managers overcome work from home challenges?
Pillai: Managers should do their best to align every team member on both the strategic and tactical vision and mission of the team. Every team member needs to understand the rationale behind their work. It is also very important for managers to clearly articulate their constraints.
Remote working requires a lot of “over-communication” with team members. A lot of this over-communication is really about explaining decisions. By aligning team members on vision, mission, and constraints, a lot of the context around decision-making becomes clear to team members. They are able to understand the decision-making process better, and this leads to higher autonomy of the remote teams because they can now make correct decisions on their own without needing to meet with their management chain constantly.
More autonomy leads to higher velocity and happier remote teams. A common understanding naturally leads to trust developing much more quickly and teams forming in a more robust fashion.
How can managers maintain visibility over productivity, timelines, and the need to add resources to a project?
Pillai: In the absence of in-person meetings where everyone can synchronize, managers should break down larger projects into a series of explicit tactical milestones that are not more than two weeks apart. Doing so greatly simplifies project tracking because managers can measure by checking the weekly milestone achievement rate.
Productivity can also be gauged on a weekly basis by seeing how often these milestones are slipped. Smaller frequent targets also allow the teams to more quickly and measurably get a sense of achievement. Course correction of remote teams and individuals also becomes much easier.
What are some of the most effective team-building methods for dispersed teams?
Pillai: Not surprisingly, we found that the best team-building method for dispersed teams is to periodically bring them together for in-person design meetings and social events. Once a quarter or even twice a year, in-person meetings can significantly boost team cohesion and general alignment.
Additionally, managers should do periodic Q&A meetings where all types of questions should be encouraged. At Kong, we call these “Coffee Corner” meetings. These are monthly team meetings with every team, where the management chain reinforces the vision and mission, provides transparent updates on the company and then encourages questions. In fact, more than three-quarters of the meeting is dedicated to Q&A.
Explicit recognition of wins, big and small, must be shared widely through communication channels like Slack, and managers should celebrate their team members and teams as much as they can.
What advice can you give managers with teams working from home or other locations?
Pillai: Managers should encourage a written-heavy culture. This usually takes the form of memos, wiki pages and markdown documents. A written culture naturally encourages an “async culture.”
In general, the quality of decision-making also improves in a written-heavy environment. Teams and individuals in different time zones are able to read and participate in decision-making, and the documents act as a system of record for all future hires.
Additionally, at Kong, managers are explicitly required to socialize technical designs across the entire engineering organization. All major designs are written up in markdown documents and maintained on Github, where all engineers can look at and comment upon the design. A lot of very interesting conversations are captured and high-quality context gets built around all of our designs.