Working in a distributed team
Djangsters is an extremely distributed team with teammates in four countries on two continents. What sets us apart from others is that we were working remotely before Covid made it mainstream and we’ll be working remotely long after Covid is gone. Remote work is in our DNA and I’d like to take a moment to talk about it.
We view remote work not only as working from home but also from anywhere else. You might be getting flashbacks to another post about word meanings but that’s just a coincidence.
The differences between our take and others, in my view, have to deal with the work culture: how we approach our job, communication, and team dynamics. It also involves how we as individuals treat remote work. Let’s start with the heavy stuff.
Communication in remote teams is largely asynchronous. We communicate mostly over Slack and while normally you will get responses almost instantly, sometimes there will be a lag. This is not a bug, this is a feature.
Because of this, you have to communicate early, clearly, and patiently. If you have a question or need some input then you need to bring it up early. Think of it as preemptive communication. You are guaranteed a response but that response can be a little late, so ask early. Do not wait until the last minute.
Overcommunicate — include all additional context that the other people need. What works for me is to assume that the other person has no prior information about the topic and imagine what they are likely to ask. In some rare cases, you may need a second round of communication. Remember, there are people on the other end of the monitor and sometimes messages can fall through the cracks.
This next point will sound contradictory, considering I just said include as much context as possible, but be concise. When writing messages try to stick to the matter at hand, avoid going off on weird tangents. Try to keep messages as short as possible while including needed context.
Millions of articles have been written about how to be productive in a remote environment. Some of the advice is pretty sound and others feel like they are just trying to translate office work one-to-one into your home office. Advice ranges from having daily facetime, doing stand-ups, installing monitoring software (yikes), etc.
My advice would be to do what works for you and discard the rest. If daily video calls work, do them, if not, then don’t. There are no silver bullets here, each team is different and as such should be approached differently. You should focus on the needs of your particular team and work to improve those needs. Find the pain points for your team, no one can do that for you. Nothing should be off the table… except monitoring software, that’s just creepy.
A great practice that I do recommend is team meetings where you discuss how everything is working out so far. If something isn’t working then it should be brought up there. You should treat your remote culture as an iterative process that is always improving. Be ready to adopt new things and throw away anything that isn’t working, there should be no sacred cows.
Do what works, discard the rest.
In a distributed environment team dynamics are very important. You have to be able to work together. You can disagree, but you have to be able to disagree productively. This can be hard as there is a tendency for calls to derail or focus on unimportant things. It helps if there is a moderator like a Scrum Master or some other way of moderating disagreements.
Team bonding and team-building work differently in remote teams. At Djangsters we make it a habit to have team meetings where everyone in the company attends. These usually focus on things that affect us as an organization. If we want to change some part of our culture it’s usually brought up there.
We also have less formal coffee breaks where we just chat about life, the universe, and everything. These are a great way for members of different teams working on different projects to interact.
This works for us, but as I said before there are no silver bullets.
We also play a lot of games together, from Counter-Strike, Move or Die, Hedgewars to this one very fun word game no one in the team ever remembers the name for. This all just brings us closer together and is a continuous form of team building. You do not just know your team in a remote scenario, you have to put in work.
Individual Work Life
Up till now, I have been talking about remote work in the context of a team, I’d like to focus a little on the individual. For individuals, remote work can be awesome or utter hell.
If you ask people what they love you’ll hear all sorts of things, like,
- The ability to work in pyjamas
- No commutes
- The ability to go jump into the pool at any point in time
You can also have negative responses if you ask what they do not like
- No work-life balance
- Constant distractions
- Too much isolation
Putting aside whether it’s a good idea to work in pyjamas (it’s not), and whether there really is no work-life balance (there is), remote work will always be as good or as bad as you make it.
The usual advice is building a work routine and sticking to it, having a designated work area, setting strict times where you can not be disturbed, etc. That is sound advice, but there is one thing most articles seem to avoid mentioning, which is to work somewhere else. I don’t mean in a co-working space. I mean on the beach or in your car on the way to the beach (as long as you aren’t driving that is!), or in a desert using a cactus as a signal booster, or on top of a hill.
I once spent a week working in the middle of a forest on a camping trip which was quite the experience. This is what remote work should be.
The biggest advantage of working anywhere is one which most people, ironically, never take advantage of; literally working anywhere. That’s the dream, being able to work while watching a beautiful sunset or with your feet in a pool on a hot day… don’t try that last one though, I lost a good laptop that way.
Make it a habit and it will improve your perception of remote work.
Switching off is something that deserves special mention. The commonly cited problem of no work-life separation is real and can lead to burnout. You have to be able to stop working and do something else. When you live in the same building as your office the temptation to just do 5 more minutes that end up being 5 more hours is very real. Too much continuous work leads to burnout and burnout hurts you and your team. No one wins when team members are burnt out, everybody loses.
In Conclusion, working remotely is a different way to work and really should be treated as such. Going into this thinking that it’s the same as traditional work, just at home, is a recipe for disappointment. But embracing the paradigm shift will lead to an amazing way to work and be productive.
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