I wasn't happy when our operations manager dropped the question: “would you like to lead a remote team?”
At the time I was working for a project for ING. Because the project was launched in France and Italy and one of the core elements of the platform was developed by Kabbage, an American based company it was already quite a hassle to manage stakeholders abroad. Different work ethics, cultures and time zones. We had a 2-hour window per day in which we could plan meetings with all the intercontinental connected parties. We were already finishing up our day when our American colleagues woke up.
My team consisted out of developers from VI Company and we were sitting close to each other. We had short communication lines and if there was a bug or error, I only had to turn my chair to discuss the possible solution. Communication went smoothly and it was a relieve in contrast to the meetings with the client and other third parties.
“Would you like to lead a blended local and remote team?”
As you may know, when working in IT, there is always a shortage of developers. At VI Company we also ran into this problem and as a solution, we work together with a Utrecht based IT company that does small projects for VI Company. Due to increasing demands in the planning we had no other option then to change the composition of the ING team and made it a combined team with VI Company developers based in Rotterdam and the external team based in Utrecht. This was the first (and up till now) the only blended team at VI Company. We had no idea how to make this work.
One of my believes as a Project Lead is ‘Happy team, happy life’. Happiness, in my understanding, is being heard and valued for different reasons. Where there is an open communication culture based on trust, there is space for experimenting and growth. But how do you create a happy team?
The first quarter we focused as a team to get to know one another and defining team standards by creating a “Team Blueprint”. Different teams have different ethics and work culture. At VI Company we are quite strict at 08:30 – 17:00 working hours, where other teams or companies might be flexible or have different working hours or even work from home from time till time. So, we needed to find a way to work together as a team without being frustrated because of the difference in ethics.
For this, we created a team blueprint using different exercises. In these workshops, we defined as a team what kind of team member you do and do not prefer in your team. Is it the core value of the team to be present at 08:30 or are you ok with everyone starting at their own pace, with a team meeting around lunch? How do you communicate with each other and when do you, for example, expect an answer on e-mails or chat messages? Just to manage expectations.
Want to know more about the workshop forms, contact me.
Now the team values are clear, it’s also good to know the people. What drives them and where do they come from? In order to create a safe space where everyone can be themselves, there is one, in my opinion, best solution: drinks! So, we went out a lot. At these dinners and beer drinking events, the team got to know each other, found out there were a lot of similar interests like computer games and they start hanging out in their spare time. Before I knew, the team was not only working together professionally but turned into a group of friends. Despite their different personalities, the team found shared interests and bonded both professionally and personally.
The team members were apart. We, therefore, tried to keep communication lines as short as possible. We agreed (defined in the Team Blueprint) that we would be available within 15 minutes when a team member tried to reach out during working hours. Except if you needed to focus for some hours of course. The tools we use and (most of the time) love:
I think everyone in the tech industry knows Slack, it’s a widely used chat tool. The best thing about Slack is that its low key and you can create multiple channels. We had a channel where the entire team was in, client included. We also had a channel just for the developers (and me as a voyeur, don’t tell the team) to quickly come up with technical solutions without having to explain to non-IT people.
A very handy feature is that you can set reminders in a channel for standups and other meetings. With one click you can set up a video conference that everyone in the channel can join. Regardless of what office they were in, we agreed to always dial in on the daily standups. This was the only moment in the day where the whole team was together and we could discuss multiple topics besides the daily work.
Not only did we use the VI Company Slack workspace but also other spaces like the Kabbage Slack workspace so we could reach out to other developers and project managers easily.
When we just started to work together as a team, we sometimes didn’t know where everyone was. It was quite annoying when you wanted to ask something, and the person didn’t respond for an hour because he was away from his desk. So, we introduced SoCoCo. This is a digital office space with multiple rooms. When you were at your desk you can place your character in the project room. When away or out for lunch, just place your character in a different room and other team members can easily see where you are. We also had the ‘toilet’ room, for when you didn’t want to get bothered.
The platform we worked on was launched in France and Italy, commissioned by ING HQ in the Netherlands. With the American party Kabbage responsible for a big part of the platform, there were a lot of stakeholders joining our demo’s. Most of the time there were 20+ people in the call. To keep the demo’s smooth, we used gotomeet.me, a tool for screen sharing. Once you receive a link and invitation code you can join the demo on multiple devices. We found the features to pass the controls to others, the ability to leave a comment without interrupting the speaker, and the ability to record the presentation particularly useful. Another great tool is join.me or appear.in and I’m sure there are many more tools that will work just as well.
All in all, the most important focus point in working with a remote team is that you need to put the effort into getting to know each other. Make team agreements explicit, what are your team values and beliefs? Put time and effort into creating this stable basis. Don’t force the team to like each other but help them to get acquainted. When there is a good understanding on a personal level and work ethics it’s far easier to create an open space, have constructive discussions, and have fun. Make sure to find the right tools for your team. Many of those are very useful and help solve common problems.
Looking back on this experience and all the effort we’ve put into this team; I think we did a pretty good job. Of course, we have faced hurdles but now it is one of the most awesome teams I’ve ever worked with. We even have a team name (team Schroei), inside jokes, open communication, drinks on a regular basis and I personally, a happy life.