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Anna
Dziuba
Delivery Manager at Relevant Software

How to Effectively Manage Your Remote Software Development Team

Management

If you want to manage a dedicated software development team that is countries away from you, you might need to rethink your management approach.

Here is a comprehensive guide on how to properly and effectively manage your remote development team. We assembled the essential tips to bridge the distance between your in-house and remote teams and keep all workers accountable, efficient, productive, and satisfied.

These practices will help you to:

  • Build a strong rapport with every individual member of the remote team
  • Monitor the team’s performance
  • Be sure the team understands your strategy and knows what to do
  • Keep goals and objectives clear and top-of-mind

Work around time zones

One possible solution to this issue is using the “golden hours” — the overlapping hours of your time zones when both you and your team are available. To calculate them, you need only the time zones for both you and your team.

For example, if you are in London (UTC) and your team is in Ukraine (UTC+2). There is a 2-hour difference, but provided that you and they start working at 9 AM and keep 8-hour working days, there are five hours per day when you can interact — 9 AM–2 PM for you and 1 PM–5 PM for them. So as long as you move all meetings and discussions to those times, you can consider the problem solved — instant communication is available. To find those hours you can use tools like EveryTimeZone and TimeAndDate.

However, “golden hours” often don’t exist. For example, if you are in New York (UTC-5) your team is somewhere in India (UTC+5), then you have no working hours in common. That’s where you have to consider things like daily written reports. Just don’t over complicate them — most of the time you can use a simple template:

  1. Work done by the team yesterday;
  2. Work planned for today;
  3. Issues that are interfering with productive work.

It’s also prudent to have an emergency communication channel where your team can reach you at any time — even if you are not at work. And make sure that they know it’s not to be used lightly.

Create defined work procedures

There are four basic rules when managing your teams — and while they are important for in-house management, they are CRUCIAL for the remote teams.

  1. Create clear project guidelines for productivity, teamwork, and accountability so your employees know what to expect. It’s generally better to uphold both your in-house developers and your remote staff to the same standard, in order not to create any hostility.
  2. Present the idea of your project and describe what you want to be done in detail. Overall, when you are working with your team — remote or otherwise — make sure that they understand your goals. 
  3. Remember that the estimate for your project will depend on what you communicate to your team. Your team can start developing your product faster and give you a more precise quote if you provide a clear vision for the project.
  4. Set clear tasks and give detailed answers. Review the project requirements document attentively to make sure you have included all functionality. Respond promptly to emails from your project manager since they are the ones to pass down what you say to the team. The development of your product will depend on the information your team gets.

Finally, keep in mind that while your in-house development teams are working with you closely, the remote teams don’t share this luxury. You can’t notice mistakes made during communication with them as quickly, and this can lead to wasted development time, which leads to the next point.

Improve communication

Whether we speak about in-house or remote team, the most important thing is to build a solid rapport with every team member. You need to communicate with them clearly and make sure that both your in-house team and your remote teams are on the same page.

Schedule meetings 

Provided that you have “golden hours” you need to schedule daily stand-up meetings, weekly progress reports, and monthly “all-hands-on-deck” demos for the whole team. This way, you can keep your hand on the pulse and resolve all blocks and bottlenecks when they arise. These meetings are also invaluable for sharing thoughts and accomplishments and staying accountable and aligned with each other.

Make sure to keep minutes of your regular meetings and send them as a follow-up email to all participants. They will serve as to-do lists and ensure all the relevant details about personal responsibilities are preserved.

Remember not to cancel any meetings — especially ones that are outside the routine. In the most extreme cases, postpone or reschedule them. Otherwise, your remote team might feel neglected or less important.

NOTE: If regular meetings are impossible — for example, you lack any “golden hours” — make sure to keep written communication and hold regular conference calls by adjusting your schedule.

Build personal connections with all the team members

You can discuss work-related issues quickly and then get back to work. However, that’s not how you build rapport. The emotional distance between remote team managers and their subordinates will create an unhealthy working environment and lead to poor performance.

Do not underestimate the importance of building personal connections with all the team members. When holding a meeting with your remote team, always find some time for small talk. Ask people about their lifestyle, hobbies, and what they are into, and you will be surprised how many things you may have in common. Talk freely and give enough space to build a healthy relationship.

Show people that you genuinely care about them, and they will want to work more and bring you more value. Have a separate Google calendar for the team members’ birthdays and local holidays, and remember to congratulate them. Being on the more approachable, personal level with your employees boosts morale, builds trust, and improves the team cohesion. We hold share breakfasts with our clients to talk about non-work related topics.

Leverage face-to-face meetings

Live face-to-face meetings play an important role in building a solid rapport. They allow your employees to communicate issues that they are embarrassed or otherwise unwilling to raise.

Generally, it’s a good idea to hold monthly face-to-face meetings with every employee on your remote team. Make sure that by the end of each meeting, you have answers for these questions:

  • Is the developer satisfied with their working environment?
  • Are they satisfied with the work they are currently doing? If no, would they rather work on a different part of the project?
  • What can you do to resolve any issues they currently have?

Of course, it is a bare minimum, and you can leverage such 1-on-1 meetings further to learn more about the employee’s hobbies and personal life. However, even these three questions will alleviate a lot of issues that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Meet in Person

At least once or twice a year, you should bring all your teams together for team-building activities. It might be an annual celebration at your HQ, a New Year party, or an internal conference. Truth be told, the reason itself doesn’t really matter.

The point of such events is to make sure that the people on your teams are acquainted and see each other as people — not just co-workers. They need to understand each other and have better communication moving forward. Which, in turn, will make their work more productive.

You can also just come and visit them. Many clients of Relevant Software do so regularly, and they are always welcome to meet the team, see the office and overall get acquainted with their employees.

Reward Team Members

Make sure to appreciate your team members — even if they make mistakes or aren’t as efficient as you would like. Also, make sure that they know they are appreciated. 

  • Kick-off each meeting with praise for the job done so far;
  • Point out the great ideas they’ve provided for the project — or at least explain why you are dismissing them;
  • Provide them with corporate gifts when the project reaches milestones. T-shirts, coffee mugs, pens, and other cheap merchandise can go a pretty long way;
  • Assign them cash bonuses for going above and beyond their duty — for example, regularly staying overtime to solve a critical issue.

To the most pragmatic managers, it might seem like an unnecessary waste of time. However, having good team morale often results in faster, better development.

Use Collaboration Tools

There are a lot of ways to keep in touch with your remote team. Generally, they can be divided into two categories:

  • Text-first communication. Text can be easily searched and instantly preserved. In software development, it’s often the main mode of communication.
    • Slack. Slack is the masterpiece of corporate communication, with many features that raise it above the simple text chat. You can attach documents, integrate Google Suite and other tools, create private rooms, assign tasks, and overall manage your team easily. 
    • Mattermost is a less powerful, but private open-source solution.
    • If you are on a shoe-string budget, consider Discord. Gamer aesthetics aside, it is surprisingly powerful.
  • Video/Audio communication. Personal meetings are still important — even if they come with drawbacks. Sometimes they help you explain your idea better — or simply get on the more approachable level.
    • Skype. While it is less and less popular in personal communication, the corporate world loves Skype. It’s a great way to communicate personally with your team members, it allows for conferences, and – most importantly – it comes pre-installed on every Windows PC.
    • If you are not using Windows as your company’s primary OS, consider using Zoom instead. Skype support on non-Windows systems is spotty at best.
    • UberConference is an up-and-coming competitor in this category. It is web-focused and works on anything with a browser.

There is one more tool you should consider if your team is large and communication becomes complicated. SocialChorus is essentially an Employee Relations Tool and helps you keep everything about each group or even a particular member in one place. It also has great communication tools — like a way to draft personalized emails.

Utilize tracking

Sometimes, it can be difficult to understand what is going on with the project, how long has each person worked and what they are working on right now. Thus, all basic metrics of productivity should be tracked, in order to:

  • See the team’s progress in numbers;
  • Objectively understand the capabilities of each employee;
  • Review their value and importance on the team.

Overall, tracking provides you with everything you need for a performance review. Moreover, employees themselves can see the issues they have and will often start working on them by themselves. It provides great material for your monthly face-to-face meetings.

Use Team Time-Tracking Tools

While you can have each member install a time-tracker on their computer and report the tasks and time spent daily, it’s a very wasteful way to use their time. Instead, consider using dedicated tools for time-tracking development teams.

  • Jira. An industry standard for software development. Jira is rather intimidating at first sight, but the actual developers will often need only the Kanban board functionality — which is pretty intuitive and simple. Moreover, it integrates nicely into the Atlassian infrastructure and has great synergy with Slack.
  • Asana. Asana is a more approachable competitor to Jira. It’s almost at feature parity, yet has a much better user experience and less clutter. It’s also cheaper and even has a trial version for teams of less than 15 people. 

Stay transparent

Sometimes it’s easy to forget about people you don’t see every day in your office. But you need to keep the remote team informed of what is going on in the company.

Everybody should be aware of the company goals, crucial decisions, changes in the company’s strategy, and other important news. Make sure to document all info and send it to all your team members — on-site or otherwise.

Transparency helps your remote team understand what success means for your company and what exactly they should do to achieve it.

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Hire self-organized people

Not everybody is self-organized and dedicated enough to be suitable for a remote job. Members of the remote team should have above-average levels of self-motivation and be ready to work independently.

Look for the following soft skills first:

  • Communication;
  • Organization;
  • Reliability;
  • Independency;
  • Self-motivation;
  • Honesty.

While hiring people in our company we make sure they can perform on their own as a part of the client’s team.

Hold personal interviews

Find out whether your potential employees are motivated — and what are they motivated by. Ask specific behavioral questions to gain insights into how the team members approach the remote work.

Prepare for interviews by reading the reviews and feedback from your employees’ previous clients on Clutch. Browse the team’s activity on Quora, Dribble, GitHub, and Behance to find out whether the quality of their work meets your expectations.

Once you make your choice and hire a team, trust them. Mistrust towards remote teams still exists, and you may end up wasting brainpower on constant worries rather than your key focus.

Finally, remember that experience is the most important advantage that you can find. If you can hire a team that worked remotely before — do so. 

Build processes

It’s highly unlikely that if you gather random people from around the globe in a virtual environment, they will immediately start producing outstanding work. To make it happen, you need processes. A process-oriented approach to managing a remote team is crucial for your project.

The core principles of the Agile Manifesto can definitely be applied to distributed teams. For example:

  • Software over documentation;
  • Responding to change over following a plan;
  • Quality interactions over tools.

Leverage continuous integration, encourage knowledge sharing, and prioritize communication to foster Agile development methodology with your remote teams.

Avoid micromanagement

Communicate project goals and pain points instead of solutions to them — unless you are specifically asked, or you can see that the team is failing. 

Focus on long-term goals

Instead of tracking every step and giving away minor tasks, teach members of your dedicated team to find solutions and organize their work on their own. Also, set defined priorities and focus on long-term goals rather than on day-to-day goals.

Reduce busywork

Don’t make your people do something that a machine can do better. Routine kills morale faster than anything, especially if the work doesn’t serve much point. Automate everything that can be automated and make sure that your team has fun working. Or at least doesn’t hate work outright.

Get acquainted with Bruce Tuckman’s model

Bruce Tuckman’s team model was born in the 1960ies after the psychologist published his famous article “Developmental sequence in small groups”. According to Tuckman, every team goes through certain stages of development before they can achieve their best performance – Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. There’s also a final stage called Adjourning, which was added later. It’s the period when the teams stop working together.

Why is it important to know these stages? Because at every point of development, the teams face some challenges. Being able to navigate through these issues can make a difference between fruitful cooperation and bickering in a group chat. 

Encourage team building activities

remote team building activities

Forming stage

The beginning of the work in every team, according to Tuckman, starts with the Forming stage. That’s when the team members get to know each other, learn more about their responsibilities, and establish some relationships within the group. Typically, everybody is positive and polite at this stage. Depending on the personality types, some may feel a bit anxious, others may be excited, but the overall mood in the group is all about getting familiar with the scope of work and figuring out the social roles of people in the group. The leader’s role is to help the team get to know each other. Several types of remote team building activities can be super helpful. 

Meet and greet activities

The best team-building activity for a newly-established team would be going out to get acquainted in an informal environment. The reality is, it’s not always possible, especially if we’re talking about international teams that might never see each other in person. No worries! There are still many ways to help people learn more about their new teammates. All you need is decent video chat software and some creativity. 

Something as simple as letting them have a casual chit-chat at the beginning of a conference call might help. You don’t have to go straight to the business. For some teams, it’s enough of a team building. Others, however, need a little facilitation. In such cases, you could try basic games, such as “Take a Picture” – asking everybody to take a picture of some object in their working area, share it in the chat, and say a few words about it. Another option is the “Two Truths and a Lie” when everybody shares two real facts about themselves and one fictional, all three aren’t work-related.  

Icebreakers

To help the remote team get closer to each other, you can use the team-building activities that help them learn more about each other’s personalities – what they like, what they don’t like, how they make decisions, etc. One great icebreaker game is called “Desert Island”. For this activity, a manager chooses five random objects and gives the group the following scenario: “Imagine that you found yourself on a desert island with these five things. Rank the usefulness of these objects from 1 to 5, with 1 being the most useful and 5 being the least useful.” This game is awesome because it helps to build trust and establish more friendly relationships between the team members. 

Another great activity is perfect for multicultural remote teams. Ask everyone to share three unusual or fun facts about the city/country they live in. Another more lengthy option would be to take the personality test together, like DISC or MBTI. This will help the team members learn more not only about their mates but about themselves. 

Needs assessment workshops

Some people are more outgoing than others. Therefore, every manager should pay attention to each member’s needs and emotions and encourage positive communication. What we like to do here at Relevant Software is take the CNVC Needs Inventory. The goal of this assessment is to understand the needs, interests and positions of each team member. We have a certified facilitator who is capable of designing a unique session for each team. It consists of 5 questions and aims to detect each team-member’s needs and interests. It’s super helpful in the future as it enables us to understand the consequences of decisions much better. 

Conflict behavior prediction 

As much as we’d like to avoid it, conflicts are inevitable. Moreover, constructive disagreements are the best indicators of healthy teamwork. Here at Relevant, we put our employees through Thomas-Kilman model testing, the goal of which is to foresee the behavior of each team member in a hypothetical conflict situation. Thanks to the results of this testing, we can plan our actions ahead should any problems arise in next phases. 

Various out-of-office activities 

Although the remote teams work together all the time, it takes them longer to get to know each other. They may communicate every day, but all they talk about is work. There are no lunch breaks or small talks near the water-cooler. Therefore, spending some time in a less formal environment is a great way to help them develop stronger bonds. Some of our favorite informal team-building activities are laser tag, VR quests, family lunches, partying together, skiing, hiking, etc. Anything works as long as everyone enjoys it.  

Remote team building activities ideas for software development and tech teams
Relevant team in VR quest room

Storming stage

During this stage, people in the team learn to work together, and it rarely happens without any friction. Normally, as everyone starts feeling more comfortable, they start pushing against boundaries that were set on the previous stage. There may arise conflicts and miscommunication, more assertive personalities might start questioning the leadership, whereas less assertive ones may get even more anxious. The role of the manager at this point is to help the team get through this phase and overcome challenges effectively. Here are some of the approaches that could be useful in different situations. 

Problem-solving activities

Disagreements at the Storming stage are very common. The key is to make sure they are addressed properly and resolved on time. As a manager, you should constantly monitor the atmosphere in the team and act as a mediator whenever there arise (or about to arise) any conflicts. Conflict resolution may take longer than “meet and greet”, but it’s definitely worth it as it brings more value to the engineering team’s culture and creates a favorable atmosphere in the group. Active games aren’t recommended at this stage. Calm and mediated communication is key to the successful resolution of all issues.

Setting up the working methods 

The best way to establish a smooth working process is to provide clear tasks and draw up expectations. If the team members have difficulties trying to figure out the working process, help them with constructive suggestions. If they have any issues or need more resources, provide all the necessary support. Here at Relevant, we have our default SDLC document that covers everything that happens with any project on a top-level, so each team can optimize that template for their particular project.

Find agreements on issues inside the team 

As cooperation goes on, you might notice some issues related to the individual working style between the team members. Don’t let it slide. Determine what the problem is and help them find a consensus. Again, some people might need extra help, so make sure you provide it at all times. 

Setting up the rules 

The teams tend to establish their informal rules of what behavior is acceptable and what’s not. If it didn’t happen for some reason, jump in and facilitate this process. For example, everyone should pay attention to the status icons on Skype. If the person is “active”, they have to answer messages within 10 minutes or less. Such little things take time to agree on, but they are super helpful in the long run. 

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Norming stage

That’s when the team finally resolved their issues and started working efficiently. People start appreciating each other’s contribution, they cooperate easily and respect the authority of the leader and one another. You know that your team has reached the Norming stage when they ask each other for constructive feedback, back each other up, socialize in after work hours (for remote teams – you might notice that they become friends on social media, like and comment each other’s posts, etc.). Teamwork is already happening but they haven’t yet reached their best performance. The team building activities at this stage are aimed at getting closer to the next one. 

Speaking clubs

A great way to help the remote team build even stronger bonds is by organizing speaking clubs. Choose a thought-provoking topic, like climate change, and get the team to discuss it over a virtual coffee break. For some teams, it would be better to arrange virtual movie nights with open live chat. 

Consensus decision-making

Even though the team already has some established rules, there might be some people who are unhappy about the way things are. That’s why you need to update the rules from time to time. A nice way to do it is consensus decision-making – a way of reaching the agreement between all the members of the team and finding the best solutions for everybody. 

Source: seedsforchange.org.uk

Learn more about the consensus decision making in this guide from Seeds for Change.  

Performing stage

Hard work pays off – that’s the best description of what happens at the Performing stage. This is the absolute peak of every team’s cooperation when they demonstrate their best performance. All friction disappears, the rules work like a charm, people understand each other perfectly well and deliver outstanding work at all times. The leader’s involvement at this point is minimal, but there are still some activities that can help keep up the team spirit. 

Shared breakfast to talk about life

If you have an international team, you may replace it with coffee breaks via Skype. The goal is to maintain the connection in the group and strengthen bonds. 

Regular retrospectives

This necessary component of Agile is also a good team-building activity. Make sure you conduct regular check-ups to not only monitor the project goals but also check the team climate and avoid pitfalls.

Remote team building activities ideas for software development and tech teams
Scrum game at our office

Closing thoughts

If you have always worked in the same building with your team — you are in for a rather rude awakening. However, if you persevere and learn to manage remote teams, you will gain incredible benefits. Teams of great developers are dispersed all over the world, and the quality of work is never determined by a geographical location.

Thanks to collaborative software, video conferencing tools, and project management SaaS, there are no longer barriers that once required the team to be on-premises. And when properly managed, a remote team can do wonders for your project. 

Written by
Anna Dziuba
Delivery Manager at Relevant Software
I ensure delivery excellence and high-quality of software development services our company provides. We carefully pick each employee and stick to high standards of product development to ensure the highest quality of code.

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