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3 best practices for working on a distributed team

You've been thrust into remote work but it can be productive as well as pleasant.
Remote work best practices

Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels

The perception of remote work, especially in the tech industry, has significantly improved in the past few years. Previously considered the domain of spammy emails promising $5,000 a month as an underwear and facial moisturizer QA tester, remote work is now accepted and often encouraged at many organizations. COVID-19 has only accelerated this shift, though the compressed time frame in which to make that shift has left many organizations scrambling. Regardless of your organization's unique remote work setup, below are three best practices to consider when working on a distributed team.

Set explicit expectations around communication tools

I have mixed feelings about instant messaging platforms. Pulling quick conversations out of email and into Slack often does improve resolution times for small issues, but a successful rollout requires some setting of expectations. Fundamentally, I do not believe it is reasonable to expect prompt responses to IM messages during the workday. Giving employees time for focused, uninterrupted work is vital. These tools provide functionalities to customize alerts, including muting all notifications (with a configurable option that lets others force alerts through as needed), muting individual channels, setting up various keyword notifications, and a wide range of other options not covered here.

However, these controls are meaningless if there is an organizational expectation of prompt responses. Too frequently, I see folks asking a question like "Is anyone working on the database?" and, after less than five minutes, following up with "Okay, sounds like nobody is working on it, I am going to make my changes."

Not only does this assume everyone has the same working hours, which immediately breaks down when you have remote team members in different time zones, it also ignores the reality of work both in and out of the office. Packages get delivered, coffee needs to be prepared, meetings are attended, and, sometimes, real work is being done! Take an empathetic look at your co-workers' needs and build expectations that allow for async work.

Replicate non-scheduled in-office interactions, too

In the office, we frequently overhear co-workers discussing problems that they are working on, get into impromptu discussions at the coffee machine, or have lunch together and trade debugging stories. These might not be vital to getting work done, but they contribute to helping feel like a cohesive team and can provide valuable insights into the larger organization. Only seeing our co-workers over Zoom is a poor substitute, but it is still important to create these sorts of interactions. I am a fan of tools like the Microsoft Teams Icebreaker Bot that randomly pairs up team members each week.

Create a write-first culture

Contrary to what one might expect, many folks find themselves attending even more meetings now than when they were in the office. You can combat this effect by creating a write-first culture. Though it got buried by clickbait stories about Amazon banning Powerpoint, there is a much more important insight in this story about Amazon's meeting culture.

Consider that most meetings actually serve a dual purpose. The first portion of a meeting involves an organizer or presenter communicating some contextual information, and the rest of the meeting is a discussion of that information. This setup assumes that you invited the right people and that you can effectively communicate all of the information required in that meeting, and gives the attendees little to no time for investigation on their own.

Instead, before a meeting, you should encourage folks to write a memo articulating the need for the meeting and all information that the attendees might require. Clarity comes from comprehensively articulating your point of view, and deeper understanding comes from reading the complete narrative of how and why you came to a certain conclusion. You facilitate purposeful preparation, and participants are equipped to fully engage.

Additionally, in a remote world, individuals can read your memo on their own time and have time to digest the information. Imagine how much more positively your proposal might be viewed if people are considering it from the comfort of their porch instead of six hours deep into eight hours of meetings on a Friday afternoon!

Portions of this article were originally published on Medium.

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Jonathan Roemer

Jonathan Roemer is a senior DevOps engineer at Drizly with an interest in security, automation, and the human side of IT. He can usually be found hiking or reading a book on his porch. More about me

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