Managing both a remote and in-house team can be challenging if you haven’t cracked the code on what effective communication means within your engineering team.
Getting everyone on the same page can be a nightmare if there aren’t any solid work processes in place. To manage without structure is a big no-no. But thankfully, you aren’t that type of manager.
Nonetheless, how can you create better harmony between your teams regardless of whether they are remote or in-house?
Better yet, how can your remote engineers have just as much of a voice in the day-to-day culture of your headquarters?
The answer is deceptively simple – communication, or better yet over communication.
Yes, it’s really that important to keep everyone on the same page. Today I will be sharing with you 7 tips that will improve communication with remote teams and create the harmony and productivity you’ve been looking for.
Why Is Communication Important in Remote Teams?
As the world is turning remote at a quickening pace, managing remote teams is likely one of the many things on your priority list.
By 2020, 40% of the world’s working population, approximately 1.87 billion people, are expected to be working remotely.
While this might be jaw-dropping news for some, if you know anything about software engineering, you’ll know that remote developers are quite common.
In fact, most developers cited working from home as one of the top perks a company could offer, over health benefits and stock options.
Communication plays a big role in working with remote teams. There’s no question that communication is crucial in every relationship, and business relationships are no different.
Remote work is unique, however, because you won’t have a manager walking past your desk every ten minutes checking up on you like a helicopter mom. The wonderful thing is that remote teams are still productive regardless.
This does not mean that remote teams require no management whatsoever. It means that managing remote teams requires a different approach to bring out the best of your team members. And you have to be familiar with the nuances.
7 Ways to Improve Communication With Remote Teams
The biggest difference between remote teams and having employees at a central office is that your face-to-face interactions will be severely lacking.
These interactions provide a sense of personability and accountability that are critical to small businesses.
In remote work, you can give your team this same experience by organizing a parallel structure through the cloud.
With that in mind, you can use these tips to your advantage and learn the best tools and practices in enhancing communication with remote teams.
1. Daily Stand-Ups
Once you truly internalize the idea that communication is everything, the next question is how often should your team communicate?
The answer is every day.
That is at least if you want an effective communication plan for highly performant virtual teams.
Experience has taught us at Trio that conducting daily stand-ups are an essential piece of communication with remote teams. It also doubles as an excellent team-building exercise.
Daily stand-ups are meant to be very quick and efficient because let’s face it, we are here to get stuff done.
It’s not a watercooler session. If you are managing both remote and in-house teams, then you will need to conduct your stand-up through remote team communication tools such as Zoom or Google Hangouts.
SIDENOTE: All of your in-house team members should connect to the video call individually. No need to gather your in-house team in a room together to share the call. This will create an unnecessary “us vs. them” dynamic.
How to do a Daily Stand-Up?
Each member should answer the following 3 questions:
- What did they work on yesterday?
- What are they working on today?
- What issues did they face that prevented them from making progress?
We’re talking about a 15-minute meeting at the very most. Given that a development team can be anywhere between five to nine people, each team member should have about 90 seconds to address the 3 questions.
As a manager, there is no need to give long and inspiring locker room speeches at the beginning and end of each meeting.
Another important thing to add here is that daily standups are only really necessary if you are managing a high-performance team, such as a team of developers.
Furthermore, if the idea of having a zoom call every morning feels like too much for the work you are doing, then doing a quick slack check-in will suffice.
2. Weekly Sprint Planning Meetings
Good software teams value their time, and sprint planning reflects that. If your team is entirely in-house, then weekly sprint planning is done together in a room.
In the case that your team is both remote and in-house, then ideally you will want them together in a virtual room.
Remember that the sole objective of sprint planning is to come up with a plan of action for handling backlog tasks. In a way that matches your team’s ability to meet their objectives.
One of the marks of a good manager is understanding and keeping some track of your team's velocity and capacity:
- Velocity refers to the speed in which tasks are completed based on previous sprints.
- Capacity is essentially each member’s ability to work, i.e the total number of hours available and the percentage of time they can dedicate to each task.
3. Retrospective Meetings
It would be nice to know what’s been working and what hasn’t, right? Retrospective meetings can offer you just that.
While sprint planning typically occurs at the beginning of the week, retrospectives are held at the end of the week. They are reflective and provide an open, honest, and constructive atmosphere to share ideas and opinions.
Retrospectives can also be feedback sessions, small unveilings of a prototype, and even problem-solving sessions. They are meant to help your remote team improve their process and catch roadblocks as early as possible, resulting in less friction.
Do not overlook the value of retrospectives in communication with remote teams.
SIDENOTE: Agile is a great methodology to adopt for your development team if you haven’t already. Check out our article on how to build an agile development team.
4. Create Requirement Docs and Engineering Tasks
Weekly sprints work even better when they have supporting documentation outlining the requirements for what needs to be accomplished.
A requirement doc is something as simple as a Google Doc that team members can access to gain information about what needs to be built.
You can segment your doc like so:
A little background on the feature that is to be created. This is a great place to explain why the feature is valuable to the product.
Core concepts can be a bit misleading, but essentially this section is where you explain what the feature is supposed to do. Usually, this is done using bullet points.
This section is pretty self-explanatory, any questions or concerns regarding the feature should be listed here for other members of the team to comment on.
The requirements section is where you put in all of the details regarding the functionality (i.e requirements) of a particular feature for it to work properly.
For example, if you were working on building out an authentication feature. Requirements could be the different kinds of platforms a user can sign into your product with. Another requirement could be SMS and email validation.
Using a cloud platform like Google Drive is really all you need to manage these requirements and allow team members to comment for everyone else to see. This creates a focused conversation without the need to schedule more meetings.
For each requirement is another doc called an engineering task that describes possible technical approaches to solving the requirements defined in the weekly meeting and the requirement doc.
The benefit of keeping information organized in docs is that they can easily be accessed and edited by both the remote and in-house teams. This isn’t rocket science, it’s simply communication in practice.
When a developer changes his or her thinking regarding a specific task, they must actively update that document in order to keep the rest of the team on the same page.
5. Create Opportunities To Help People Connect With One Other
Daily stand-ups are one way to advocate for team-building, but they’re not the end-all-be-al for communication with remote teams.
Some of those face-to-face interactions that you’ll be missing include lunchroom breaks or after-hours drinks.
You have the opportunity to re-create these experiences in your own way. To do that, you’ll need focused exercises and activities to help your team get to know each other. Some common team-building exercises include the following
- Two truths and a lie
- Virtual games like Pictionary or UNO
- Movie night via a streaming video conference
- Roses and thorns
These exercises will fuel better communication and collaboration overall. Remote teams will enjoy work more when they enjoy who they’re working with.
6. Encourage Your Team to Contextualize Their Communications
Nonverbal cues frankly don’t exist in the remote world. You can’t simply nod or gesture a thumbs up for affirmation. Unless, of course, you use an emoji. But you shouldn’t.
Teams that communicate remotely have to make sure that they’re over-communicating rather than under-communicating.
While your team might be connected in the virtual world, you can’t be certain what your team is doing in the real world.
This makes it easy to provide cursory answers and explanations if a team member is pre-occupied when really every work-related interaction should supply as much detail as possible. This can lead to misunderstandings.
Better to be safe than sorry. Encourage your team to be specific and extensive with their communication.
7. Invest In Project Tracking Software
Project tracking software can make the difference between teams that get things done and teams that don't.
Any manager worth their salt will understand the benefit of being able to organize and activate your team in the most effective and efficient way possible.
The primary reason you’d want to invest in project tracking software is for remote collaboration. Since we are talking about better connecting remote and in-house teams together, we want to give them every resource we can to optimize their workflow.
Project tracking software, such as Jira, allows the team to have a single source of truth for what’s going on and can keep the team updated.
This is a key ingredient for communication with remote teams.
It is also based on agile principles that interface well with those weekly sprint planning meetings and daily stand-ups.
In building solid communication with remote teams, you will often find yourself using 2 to 3 different project management tools.
At Trio, we use Slack, Google Docs, and Zoom to connect our teams together. After that, it is up to you how you wish to implement the techniques listed above to manage your team.
There are several useful ways to improve communication with remote teams. When it comes to keeping up with your team, daily stand-ups and retrospective meetings offer you and your team a means of exchanging helpful feedback.
Sprint planning, too, can help you organize your business objectives in a team-oriented manner. Requirement docs, engineering tasks, and project tracking are a few of the remote tools that keep everyone on the same page.
While meetings and planning objectives are functional ways of communication, you also have to remember the psychological impact of working alone. Implementing team-building exercises and encouraging exhaustive communication will allow for seamless collaboration.
So there you have it, seven ways that can bring your remote and in-house teams closer together. You’re free to cherry-pick these techniques or use them all together as a foundation for your process.
Those techniques can be very useful for companies and development teams that already work remotely or will start to working like that very soon.