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How to Effectively Lead Remote IT teams

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Key Takeaways

  • In order to build trust and bond with someone you really need to go and arrange a meeting – it is our ape-brain that always says that a new person that you've never met is most probably a threat to your wellbeing.
  • Make sure you do a thorough interview before bringing someone new in the team. You can use different tools like hackerrank to check their IT skills.
  • With good onboarding, you can get twice the employee engagement in just one hour. It turns out it is far better to ask the newcomer about them and let them talk.
  • The last thing you want is people who feel restricted to ask questions, propose new ideas or experiment with better solutions.
  • The best measure of team collaboration is how many times team members interact. If you are not at the same office, make sure you design special meetings for interactions.

If you are about to build a software product or implement a digital platform, then there are many things you need to consider – like product design, technology stack, architecture and so on. And many times we forget, that at the end the most crucial part is the team that will deliver it.

Many people think that selecting proven experts and giving them а pile of cash is enough to reach success.  However, history has proven that’s not the case – there are many multi-million dollar companies that have big cash cushion and can afford all the talent and yet they've lost the race to a small competitor. Take the example of Overture – a company with 1b valuation that got outcompeted by Google's Ads, which was a startup at that time. Or the example of one Swedish broadcasting group that did not spare money to hire the most brilliant names in media but finally failed to create a streaming service that could compete with Netflix.

In his book The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle makes a deep dive into what makes some teams extremely efficient and why others fail miserably. And much of his researches shows that the most critical part in delivering successful product is the team, team dynamics and team culture.

For the past 13 years running my custom software development company, I’ve been involved in forming many product development teams. Most of them have been distributed and in this article I outline what are the risks and how to solve them when working with distributed teams.

But first, what is a distributed team?

Shockingly, your colleagues that are in the same building just 1 floor above you could be considered as people located remotely. And what if you are communicating with team-members located in another city or service-provider from another country?

According to MIT professor Thomas Allen, even short distance (as much as 10 meters) is enough to impact team dynamics. If you look in Allen's Curve, it shows that the distance of separation influences number of social interactions and frequency of communication. If some of the people you are working with are more than 8 meters away, this means that your social interaction drops by 90%. Which means you might communicate more with someone located on another continent, compared to your colleagues at the other side of the office.

Thomas J. Allen. Managing the Flow of Technology. Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

From my point of view, delivering projects for partners from UK, Switzerland, Germany and the USA, we are always working as part of a distributed team. That is why we have devised processes that solve the challenge of not being in close proximity. Let me share our experience and what has worked for us and our partners.

It all starts with creating a real bond

I am writing this article on my flight to Miami, traveling to meet the new CIO of Vistajet. Indeed, Vistajet just acquired JetSmarter and assigned JetSmarter's CEO as head of IT for Vistajet. Although we're working with Vistajet for more than 7 years and I know pretty much everyone there, I am still eager to go meet Sergey face to face.

You always need to build trust first and to bond with someone new you really need to go and do a live meeting – it is our ape-brain that always says that a new person that you've never met is most probably a threat to your wellbeing. That is until you meet, have a fireside chat, tell each other’s story and drink a couple of beers. Then we have the opportunity to find all the similar experiences and preferences we share and also discuss our weaknesses, which in fact creates an even stronger bond.

This is also the reason why we start each of our new partnerships with either a visit to our partner's office or we welcome them yo ours. Because forming this initial bond is what drives us through the challenges of the projects that are yet to come.

Selecting new team members

Your initial team is set up and you've met with at least the top members of the distributed team you’ve decided to work with and the rest via online conferencing (with video!). Your software product/platform is going great, it attracts more and more users and you need to fuel the growth by adding more people to the team. Now here is the tricky part – you need to make sure you attract the right people;  not only in terms of expertise, but also in terms of fitting in with the existing team and sticking to the same practices and standards.

There is an interesting experiment where one person pretends to be a slacker and demoralizes the experiment team. It turns out that if there is a strong formal or informal team leader, he or she can negate the bad influence of this person. But what if you get more of these people?

One of my main jobs as CEO of a custom software development company is to make sure we don't have any misfits within the team. That's why we have a 2 step (for seniors even a 3 step) interview process that is testing both soft and hard skills. We're very careful in our selection and we're very quick to fire during the trial period (6 months for senior team members). But if you are working with remote freelancers, make sure you do a thorough interview before bringing someone in! You can use HackerRank to check if they have solid IT skills - first start with core programming fundamentals, object/functional oriented programming, design patterns, algorithms. Then delve into the details of the frameworks you will be using - e.g. Spring and Hibernate for Java or .Net specifics.

Additionally, conduct a 2nd interview which tests their team work, interpersonal skills, as well as their fit for the culture you want to establish in your product team!

How you onboard might be even more important

An experiment run by one of the biggest IT companies worldwide showed that with good onboarding, you can get double the employee engagement in just one hour! This sounds like one of the best 1-hour investments you can ever do for your project!

I have made the mistake of onboarding people by telling them how great the company is and how interesting the project/team he is joining is.  It turns out it is far better to ask the newcomer about them and let them talk. You can ask questions about:

  • their past experience and how it fits in the project
  • what motivates them and what unique skills they have
  • what are their personal aims/hobbies/challenges outside of work

And to increase engagement – if the person is at another location (e.g. a software partner like us), send something small, like a branded T-shirt, a keyholder or anything that the person can receive as a token for being part of the team.

Build safety

The last thing you want is people who feel unable to ask questions, propose new ideas or experiment with better solutions.  Google has been always recognized for encouraging people to feel safe and free to contribute wherever they can.  Indeed this kind of environment has created the image of people like Jeff Dean - the Chuck Norris of Internet. Interestingly, Google was struggling to create a working advertising platform. While Google Adwards is currently the main revenue generator for Google, in the early years their platform did not work well at all! There was a major issue in the algorithms that no one could solve for months. So, during one weekend Jeff Dean fixed this problem, although he was part of a department that had nothing to do with Google Adwards. This shows that when people feel safe, have freedom and autonomy, they can contribute to solving big problems. And these problems might not be a part of their ongoing task!

In order to build safety, you can take specific steps like:

  • organize a special time (e.g sprint retrospectives) when people can ask questions freely
  • allow any questions and take them seriously, even from the most junior people
  • show people your weaknesses and fallibility – even if you are the leader, others must know you are a human being. This would allow people to show their problems early on as well
  • don't kill the messenger – thank the people that raise serious issues as early as possible. Don't make them feel bad that they spotted a problem early on, because the next time they will not let you know until it is too late

Number of social interactions per week

The best measure of team collaboration is how many times team members interact. If you are not at the same office, make sure you design special meetings for interactions. Encourage people to do it even online. For example, tell George to call Stefan, because he has something interesting to share!

Or ask your remote team to go together for lunch and give them a topic to talk about. It is very inspiring if the topic is not about work, rather than something of a higher value, such as how can we stop poverty or why did we end up with the situation in Syria.

The best and most neglected - shared experiences

The last one goes to live interaction and having shared fun experiences. If you doubt the investment of getting people at the same place, I am personally investing in inviting our partners in joining us during our team building events. Each year we celebrate our company anniversary at the seaside – this year it will be our 13 th and we will celebrate at one of the best Black Sea resorts – if you are one of our partners just reach Burgas on 13 July – the rest is on us! 

These shared experiences are the best way to strengthen the team spirit, motivate people and show that you care on only what each one delivers at work, but also you value them as people. 

Is all about the shared sense of pushing towards one goal that drives people motivation and makes team members engaged. And statistics show that motivated people can be as much as 500% more productive than unmotivated ones! 

I hope you have found some actionable advice on how to get most of the value from your distributed team. Have fun while applying them! And please, share yours in the comments section below.

About the Author

Todor Gigilev is CEO of Dreamix, a custom software solutions company. He has extensive knowledge in entrepreneurship, consulting and delivery of Webcenter, ADF, SOA Suite, BPM and Java EE solutions. He is eager to help innovative companies and startups develop sales strategies, business models, improve their value proposition as well as design and develop their products. Links to profiles: twitter, linkedin

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