I have never met most of the people I work with. My company’s proverbial water cooler is the #random chat on Slack. This is because most of them are thousands of miles away from me. Codelitt is a remote first company, which means we expect to hire remote team members, but if you want, you can join me and a couple others at our Miami headquarters (or our Brazil office). The concept of a remote team is certainly not unique to Codelitt and has become a growing trend, especially for tech companies. Here Forbes lists a few companies where all or most employees work remote. However, as anyone who has ever been in a long distance relationship will tell you, it’s not easy.
As project manager, I face some unique challenges working with a distributed team. Fortunately, with the help of technology, clear processes, and a willing team, we have been able to overcome them.
The ability to properly communicate is important in any office setting. As a PM, I need to make sure everyone is always on the same page and that all parties involved understand each other. Potential issues need to be identified and resolved as quickly as possible to avoid inefficiencies. Progress needs to be tracked to manage timelines and expectations. The list goes on, but the point I’m getting at is that all these efforts become increasingly difficult when the people you are communicating with are not physically around you. While I (and most people?) hate pointless, never-ending meetings, it’s really convenient to be able to walk over to someone’s desk and take 5 minutes to figure out a solution to a problem. Remote first means finding alternative modes of communication that allow for the management of these tasks. This is where technology can help.
In order to properly communicate everything related to the tasks of a project, we use a project management application called Trello. It is essentially an app that enables us to make lists (tasks) and lists of lists (project stages). The tasks can then be collaborated on as they move through different stages of a project. So if a new form needs to be built, it starts its life as a list of tasks on the “Needs Design” list, then once it’s completed it’s moved over to “Design QA” list, then to “Current Sprint” for coding, etc. Trello serves us well for task planning, estimations, assignments, and deadlines. Anyone on the team, no matter where they are in the world, can go in and get a high level view of a project and its tasks. In addition, they can dig deeper into any given task and see task specific checklists, documents, and conversations.
It is important to note that a tool like Trello serves to organize the tasks at hand but it is only as powerful as the processes it supports. Goals and strategy also have to be very clear. For example, without proper instruction, rules and discipline, Trello can start to look like a Jackson Pollock painting (chaotic), end up causing confusion, and become ineffective.
Poorly managed project in Trello
To support the more day-to-day communications and allow for a continuous flow of information, we use Slack. Slack is a messaging application that has almost endless features (group chats, private chats, reminders, attachments, calling, etc.) and integrations (Trello, Google Hangouts, gifs, CI, Github, Invision, etc. or build your own). It has basically replaced email for anything we do internally, with the advantage of being real-time. At Codelitt, we ask that everyone stay connected to Slack during work hours. This allows for instant communication with anyone on the team, no matter how far apart you physically are. This is helpful for enabling discussions and conversations that would otherwise not be had by email, for example. We also encourage everyone to ask questions in their respective channels, rather than through direct messages. This adds some noise to the channels, but there’s a huge advantage of enabling everyone to stay informed on all topics. It has even gotten to the point that I often find myself talking to someone on Slack that actually sits across the room from me.
All this of course, brings up a good point about technology today making communication less personal. There is a certain human aspect that gets lost with distance and as you add more technology in between people. So how do you create and maintain a personal relationship with someone across the globe? How do you demonstrate respect and trust to a co-worker that you will never meet? How do you create an environment where people want to work because their opinions are taken into account and the creative process thrives? The answer is, not easily.
A tool like Slack helps create spaces where people can share and discuss common interests, opinions and feelings about topics that aren’t necessarily related to work. If you browse through our channels, you would find some called Sports, Science, IWantToGoThere, Pokemon, Politics, Music and more. Imagine a team that lives in 6 different countries, all listening to the same music. Slack also allows you to ‘drop in’ on someone without physically being able to even just for some small talk.
There is, of course, no substitute for speaking to someone face-to-face. I grab any and all opportunities to get face time with someone on the team. Meetings, one-on-ones, and stand ups can and should all be done with video conferencing. Seeing someone’s face and hearing someone’s voice helps create even deeper bonds, especially if it’s on a regular basis.
The important thing is that by giving everyone a better chance to get to know each other, stronger ties are created that lead to greater trust and transparency. It also allows us to grow and evolve as a company, ever creating a culture that more closely matches the characteristics and ideals of everyone on the team.
Of course there are benefits to working remotely. Everyone at Codelitt has the freedom to work from where they like. Some of the team works out of their home, some go to co-working spaces, and other’s travel from coffee shop to coffee shop for a constant change of scenery. Our team also has the flexibility to work the hours that are most convenient to them. Although everyone is required to attend stand ups, meetings and be generally available, the schedule flexibility allows for a more balanced personal life. Being goal driven and flexible with schedules also allows us to work with people across different time zones.
Of course, you may ask, why deal with these challenges if you can just work with local people and a regular office set up? The makings of a good project manager are directly related to fluid communication and transparency across the board. Working with distributed team has required me to be more disciplined in these aspects, more than I have ever been in any previous office settings. In addition, Codelitt has worked well as a distributed team. In fact, we encourage it! It is safe to say that the success of our company is accredited to our team members and their talents and effort. Being able to work with each one of them is a direct result of our remote set up.
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