Remote Teams in Transition
At Duo Labs, we are a remote-friendly team, but historically the majority of our team has been based out of one Duo office (in Michigan). Over the past year through a series of unrelated changes, the Labs team has coincidentally changed to a distributed team where 100% of our researchers work remotely.
While what technology tools we use has been important, the changing social and collaborative dynamics has been crucial too. It’s been a learning process, and the learning is ongoing, but I’ve picked up a few takeaways about our dynamics as we made this transition slowly and thoughtfully. I wanted to share these learnings as teams around the world are increasingly moving to remote work, often without the luxury of phasing it in or experimenting.
Either Everyone is Remote or No One Is
Having a group of people together in person (e.g. in an office), allows institutional knowledge to build up , and let's camaraderie happen in real life. Remote team members may find it difficult to duplicate the rapport in a way which makes them feel included.
The best way to combat this is moving as much as possible to WebEx/internal wikis/formal documentation. The important part of working together within a remote team is not just the standups and other meetings already on calendars, but the hallway conversations and even "water cooler" jokes etc. There's a natural inclination to devolve into sub-teams based on location and time zones which is worth trying to avoid.
Ad Hoc Chats Are Important
Lead by example with short ad-hoc video calls which can be as brief as five minutes. If everyone or most people are remote, one huge advantage is there's no overhead (there is no scramble to find a conference room). For many people a video call has the same mental context as a formal meeting, something they must set aside time and prepare for. Short ad hoc video calls allow for having the context of dropping by your desk for a quick chat as opposed to a formal meeting, something with much lower friction.
Documentation is Crucial
Documentation becomes much more important as institutional knowledge is harder to disseminate with a remote team. Creating an easy, low-touch process to share things is important. The “low-touch” part is important for both the creation and the consumption of content. The friction should be so minimal that someone who has info they want to disseminate, shares it regardless of how consequential (or not!) the information seems. Equally, consuming the information should be so simple that team members can easily get in the habit of catching up over their morning coffee.
In Labs, we use our in-house and open sourced Journal, which allows us to really easily share notes and other things, which may occasionally seem inconsequential, but lead to that building of institutional knowledge. The tool allows for a quick text or Markdown document to easily become a static site that team members can view as easily as any blog or news site.
For those who have never/rarely worked remotely before, to make sure their work stays visible is huge. For some I've found they very easily will say "cool!" and share around them when they solve something, so encouraging them to take those same conversations to WebEx Teams or your internal chat tool is big. All the regular opportunities to showcase, such as presenting in meetings should still happen, this is primarily for the small things that sometimes won't get said otherwise.
This is probably the biggest change for most people on the team. Seeing our online communications become less formal has led to more interesting things being shared and seeing more of team members passion projects and interesting details.
The discovery which surprised me (although it probably shouldn’t have) is how relatively little the technology and tools mattered compared to the social aspects of being remote. When the social aspects were less productive, it was generally apparent to everyone on the team but the solution for a remote team wasn’t always clear. This led to the trial and error over the course of a year, and to the much improved spot we find ourselves in now. Each team is different and what works for us may not be as applicable for other teams, but the focus of social interactions and team camaraderie over tools and technologies will always apply.