Okay – I know thats an excessively dramatic title, but I wanted to emphasize a simple but important concept. I believe that normalizing remote work isn’t a single problem to be solved, but rather a number of distinct issues that need to be tackled separately.
The benefits of adopting remote working practices are widely understood. Having flexibility around hours and geography allows you to engage the best talent no matter where they are located or what their current circumstances are.
The drawbacks may be more contested, but regardless of whether you believe having a remote worker is 90% as effective as having that person physically present in your office or 65% as effective, it is hard to argue that it is just not as good.
There are a lot of reasons for this, like the lack of face to face interaction, the need to adapt tools and processes, the difficulties around cultural engagement. The folks over at Zapier do a great job of breaking out and discussing these topics in their guide to remote work. The key point I'm trying to illustrate is that in order to close the delta between remote and in-person work, by 5% say, you probably need to think about improving 5 separate aspects by 1%.
Rather than hoping that you can get that 5% bump by "fixing" a single issue. Hence the titular reference to the multiple headed beastie!
That said, if you are to slay a hydra, you have to start somewhere, and I'd hate to turn you loose without some actionable insight. A quick internet search will bring up a list of ~80 companies that have a completely remote workforce. In the last month or so, I have been lucky enough to speak to leaders at 16 of the better known ones.
One comment from a VP of Engineering really resonated with me, and I wanted to share. He said
“The key piece of advice I give new employees is that you cannot over-communicate your status.”
It is worth remembering that a lot of the tooling we use was largely built with an in-office experience in mind. Now while new(ish) tools like Slack and Zoom have made it easier for remote workers to engage with their in-office counterparts, without a regular face to face interaction we still don’t have a good mechanism to communicate ongoing team status.
By status I mean some way of indicating both project progress and team health.
Remote standup tools can be helpful, but they have a couple of shortcomings, like a myopic focus on individual tasks, inconsistent reporting and no real way to gauge team sentiment. If you ask a remote worker “How are things going?”
They will typically answer with the dreaded “eff” word - “Fine!” “Fine” is a dreaded answer because fine might mean fine, or it might mean everything else up to the point where something is on fire.
This is important because for the most part it is easier to prevent a fire than it is to extinguish one!
We need a better way to indicate status, and there are actually some “old school” models that might help. I’m thinking of the concept of a Niko Niko calendar or an Information Radiator(/BVC). Niko Niko (sort of) means “smiley” in Japanese and the idea is that in a physical office, the team would have a prominent chart upon which they would indicate their mood – either via a happy, indifferent or frowny face on a chart when leaving the office each day, or some kind of traffic light system. But both approaches have the same intent and benefit.
Seeing the “Mood” of the team can act as an early warning system for real problems. Given that team members in the same physical location are able to convey their mood at the water cooler or similar locations, it behooves those of us with remote teams, to make additional effort to make sure we understand our remote colleagues mood and respond to it.
Of course, I’m not an impartial observer to this phenomena, and Genchi offers a tool that “solves” this problem. Rather than mood, Genchi tracks your team’s confidence. That is the collective confidence of the entire team in achieving their goal.
Tracking the team's confidence as it ebbs and flows through the life of a project helps highlight problems as they are encountered and makes it easier to manage dependencies.
Also, because we involve every member of the team, we always have the best most current view of the team’s status, avoiding that rather abrupt shift from "green" to "red" that so often occurs in the last two weeks of a project.
Being aware of team status (or mood) is 10 times more important for remote teams than for those that are co-located.
So, I strongly encourage you to either give Genchi a try of find some other way to actively keep your fingers on the pulse of your team. It is a little additional effort that can pay enormous dividends.
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(Disclosure: The Author is the Founder of Genchi)