Remote work challenges as a team lead

I’ve been thinking of writing this article for the last few months because I felt there’s insufficient discussion on the challenges that came with remote work. When COVID has hit globally, early 2020, and the IT companies have started to switch over from being at the office type of work to a work-from-home model, I didn’t think the changes are going to have so big of an impact in the future how we think about working in the IT industry.

Perhaps, you’ve been already working remotely, so there’s nothing new under the sun, but for me this was quite a new experience. Working consistently from an office for my entire career, I was always thinking – oh man, I want to work from home so bad because you don’t have to commute in the morning (which I personally hated), you can organize your days more flexibly, and so on. I almost forgot, I thought saving the commute time inherently translates into having more time on family, personal development, having time to play video games.

That was just a personal view of WFH. I’ve been working as a Software Engineering Team Lead for the past years, leading a team of 8-16+ engineers. I really enjoy doing it and I love working with people and clients too. I have a level of inside motivation to grow people professionally while delivering something great to clients. However, I didn’t really think through the case of the entire office team going into full WFH mode and the implications.

The changes COVID has brought into our daily life is something I’m still trying to understand and manage. I personally think the main challenge of 2020 in IT is; what and how to adopt new practices in software development, with a completely remote team.

Keeping the effectiveness

One thing I started noticing at the very beginning, is the fact that the team is a little bit slower than we originally were. I thought, well, it’s a new lifestyle for everybody, we got to find a place at home to work and we also had to change our practices around the communication.

As usual, I continued holding the 1:1 sessions with my team, and the difficulties started unfolding. The first pattern started to appear in our conversations was the distractions they are experiencing at home, a few examples:

  • Tiny little household things popped up like washing dishes, cooking food, taking in and out clothes from the washing machine, etc.
  • Children running around (when schools were closed)
  • Accepting package deliveries

Who’s working as an engineer, we all agree that distractions are the enemy of productivity, at least for most people. All these things above is killing effectiveness, they pull you out of the flow.

Even though I’m quite resistant to productivity loss due to distractions and context switches, I felt less effective as well. These small things started to hit me too. For a long time, I ended up spending my saved commute time on work, and to get back to my original pace.

However, lately I started to realize that it’s not going to solve itself and I have to look at how I’m doing things and how I’m organizing my days. And my conclusion was that I should consciously stop or minimize the distractions I bring in to a day. I try to close out all the non-work related activities to before/after work, just like I did before the pandemic. The next challenge – at least for me – is to have a strict timeline when I work. At home I feel like it’s so easy to get dragged into late calls just because you have the possibility. And after all, you are home so an additional 30mins or an hour won’t make a difference, right?

To sum it up, everybody is different with various personal challenges. If you are the individual suffering from productivity loss, the best thing you can do is to be conscious where your time is spent and try to minimize your distractions. Also, rely on the people surrounding you and ask for help if needed. Have 1:1 with folks and explore the options. Unfortunately I don’t have a silver bullet for this, but I’m interested in your ideas and thoughts, share them in the comments or Twitter.

Async or sync communication

Another challenge with the full remote work is communication. At the office, if I needed to talk to anybody, I stood up from my chair and walked there. Needles to say, even at the office I did not approach everybody with all my questions/topics, if it was something that could wait, I simply texted them via Slack/Teams/whatever.

The latter didn’t change with the WFH, however the first one did. Instead of going to somebody’s desk, the only thing we can do to connect is to call the other person. Imagine you are in the flow, working on some very complicated thing, and also you are the subject-matter-expert of some topic. And suddenly, others in the team start to call you, just because it’s easier than writing a wall of text. For some reason, I feel like people more appreciated other’s privacy at the office and keeping them in the flow during work than we do today. From many people, I keep hearing there’s a ton of time spent on meetings and calls with many individuals.

Personally, I tend to prefer asynchronous communication (Slack, Teams, email, etc) over the synchronous ones (calls, meetings, etc) in case they are not critical. My thought process on deciding which type of communication form to use is simple: is the discussion very critical and absolutely necessary to talk on a meeting, or I can send an email/text message and wait for some time until the conversation is settled.

Relying on async communication channels at first might be hard on this utilization level and it’s really a learning process, how to effectively do that. Like think about an email thread. You start a discussion and you keep ping-ponging back and forth because you can’t come to the same page, ending up with organizing a meeting. So I think it’s important to be alerted to these signs and try to improve how you communicate because it will definitely pay off.

Active meeting participation

Our meetings have transformed as well. While working from the office, I usually wasn’t a big fan of the idea of organizing virtual meetings because I felt it’s a crucial piece in building a trustful team with an open environment where everybody can share thoughts. In addition, face-to-face meetings established a focused discussion because we were in a room without our computers.

Video Conference Online Meeting - Free image on Pixabay
Source: https://bit.ly/2VaUMVh

In the new remote environment, this is different. From my experience, on virtual meetings the focus has been worse compared to the f2f meetings. I think the main reason is, on one hand the fact that there more distractions at home, on the other that people are in front of their computer. And the latter is tricky. Frankly, even I lose focus sometimes. When somebody texts me, or I get an email during a meeting, I also can fall into the trap of checking those notifications, even though I know they are often not that important.

With my team, we have regular backlog grooming sessions where we talk about the stories in the backlog, and after there’s an understanding we estimate them. I started noticing a more passive participation after a couple of months we started going full remote. In the intermediate period, I just thought it needs time for everybody to adjust, and it’s gonna get back to normal. Well, I was wrong – again.

Just like for keeping effectiveness, I don’t think there’s a silver bullet for this either. However, there are certain ideas you can try and see if those make sense for your case, and see if they help.

First of all, the most important thing, and I’m reheating the idea of switching over to asynchronous communication as much as possible and keep the amount of meetings minimal, so when the team participates on one, they know it’s important and they know they have to be active.

The second is, agenda. One of the first principles of effective meetings is to have an idea what you want to achieve. If the whole team is on a meeting without a structured agenda, and all of you try to figure out the purpose of it, you are doing the wrong thing and wasting everybody’s time. I like to visualize how unnecessary meetings are burning the time. Think about having 10 people on a 1 hour meeting where everything is ad-hoc. That’s 10 people X 1 hour = 10 man-hours spent. Plus, don’t forget engineers can easily get frustrated for wasting time. If the meeting never happened because you just sent an email, most probably you’d save a serious amount of time.

The third thing is to try to make the meeting a little bit more interactive. This depends on the type of meeting you are having, for example we use – and experiment – with the following tricks on backlog groomings:

  • When we are discussing the stories and I give a speech about it, I intentionally keep it on higher level than going into details and I bringing up the technical things. Instead I’m trying to have the team think about the engineering difficulties, the solutions.
  • After we discussed a story, and nobody has any questions, we do a random choosing between the participants to reiterate what needs to be done in that particular story.
  • When it’s a bigger feature we are discussing, at the beginning of every grooming there is a little Q&A (10 mins), where folks start asking questions to each other randomly and trying to answer them on their own, kind of like a refresher.

Again, these are just ideas, they will not necessarily work in other environments but it’s worth a try if you want to. Just make sure to remember, nothing is gonna change overnight, you have to keep experimenting, switching up things, adjusting and learning.

Team cohesion and teambuilding

Building teams is hard, really hard. I mean just by putting together a handful of engineers with a lead in front is certainly not qualifying as a team, at least not in my book. I believe, it’s just the beginning, the seed of a something that could grow into something great.

The majority of a team lead’s work is to build the team. With COVID, this has changed too. I think with the f2f communication it was much easier to build the relationship with people. Plus having to see each other in real life is a big bonus.

When you are at the office, it’s really easy to get somebody and talk next to a coffee – because everybody knows engineers are producing code by consuming coffee. Or just grabbing something to eat for lunch. Personally, I have been using lunch as an option to talk to people, and it worked out great. Also, 1:1 is essential to have as a team lead.

With the remote work, this has been different. I can’t just invite somebody to a f2f coffee or drink. Well, I can have virtual coffees which is certainly an option but I think it’s way less effective than the f2f one.

Also, as a team, you gotta have a platform to talk about non-work related stuff. My past experience at the office so far is that somebody randomly asks the others to join for a coffee/breakfast/something. And this is a great opportunity to get to know one another because after all, we are human beings.

We are having regular virtual coffee time meetings, all team members invited to have this non-work related discussion platform. I think it’s good to have these but again, less effective in my opinion.

Another thing that brings people together is having some kind of activity done together, a teambuilding. Pre-COVID, only your imagination was the stop to any teambuilding idea (and of course the budget :-)). This is one of the hardest piece, at least for me. Virtual teambuildings were kind of limited to having some drinks online and that’s it. I feel like there’s less motivation from everybody to participate on a virtual teambuilding than a f2f one, and even coming up with ideas is way more difficult.

Among Us
Source: https://bit.ly/2Jlionw

Teambuildings were crucial in my toolset to build and improve team cohesion and I don’t really have a remote alternative. What we’re going to try in the near future is doing some online gaming together with the team, that’s very talkative and fun. We’ve been thinking about playing Among Us. I’ve been watching streams and videos and it really seems to be a good choice. Even though I think it will work out, I’m rather short on teambuilding ideas. If you have any, send a tweet or share it in the comments.

Finishing touches

With the post, I wanted to start a discussion rather than having answers to everything. Franky, I’m curious what you think and what your personal challenges are because it’s very valuable, so make sure you reach out in the comments or even Twitter.

I believe most of us are still trying to process and adapt to the changes the pandemic has brought. Over the next few years, it will be very exciting to see how the IT industry changes and what techniques will spread.

3 Replies to “Remote work challenges as a team lead”

  1. I think another very useful took is pair programming during this time of remote work. Seeing how someone else does that same and/or similiar thing can really help others come up to speed quickly on coding best practices, IDE usage, and simply how to manage windows with Mac Spectacle app!

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