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How to Make Remote a Success (bearer.sh)
168 points by cfabianski on Dec 5, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 60 comments

I'm totally convinced that video & voice communication –not only chat/text personas– is what will allow any remote organization to be successful, by bringing their teams together, improving culture, team spirit, their sense of belonging and ultimately having more productive and happier teams.

Sync/real-time communication is not needed for all the processes in a remote team, and you should go async by default and only use sync for cases where you _really_ have to get together. This is how companies Gitlab [1] have really become successful in doing remote work.

A remote team can be successful by using async/non-real-time communication, especially when you're pairing it with an async platform like Standups which is built from the ground up to support the async comm style. I wrote a blog article about how async is determinant to make remote work "work" within your team/org [2].

[1] https://about.gitlab.com/handbook/communication/

[2] https://standups.io/blog/how-async-communication-can-help-yo...

And a lot of people probably undervalue video specifically. I was probably one of them but I've had a manager who insisted on camera-on for both group and 1:1 calls unless you were in some environment where you couldn't for bandwidth or other reasons. It really does make people more engaged.

I'm a remote dev for 5 years now and I have to say, most of the time synchronous communication didn't help much in terms of engagement. Good projects helped, a reason to do stuff (besides getting paid) helped, nice co-workers and managers helped.

Often synchronous communication is applied by managers because they lost control of their team and now try to monitor them closer so they don't step out of line.

It's like working overtime to compensate for bad planning or dropping home-office work all together because the company does bad.

I'm not saying 1:1 video isn't needed for some situations, but every day and even every week is often overkill. The best projects I had only required 1:1 videos every few months, most of them even only at the beginning.

This seems like a personality thing and reflects the type of culture company leaders want to create. Every other comment in this thread is "I don't like video, not conducive to how I think/work" or "I like video, makes me feel engaged and part of a team". My bet is this is not a better/worse thing but more of a mars/venus thing (I'm definitely, as someone on a remote team myself, in the video camp).

The other strange thing you hear a lot is that any attempt to get people to be on-site or on-video (basically anything other than fully async, text only) is attributed to control-freak tendencies by terrible managers. Again going back to my above point and the fact that so many people here agree that video is better for them, I wish we could dispense with speculatively attributing motives so negatively and give people the benefit of the doubt that, right or wrong, they hold their POV because it is what they actually believe is best.

Yes, probably.

Guess, I'm seeing it like that, because I worked with control freaks.

Yes. I don't think a team leader should be regarded as a control freak for wanting to encourage team cohesion and collaboration even if (or especially if) team members spend a lot of their days working independently.

I get that some people--perhaps especially engineers--would rather just be left in their cave to communicate asynchronously if and when they want to. But I don't blame managers/leaders for considering that a suboptimal practice taken to an extreme.

Personally, I mostly work fairly independently on a day-to-day basis but I also work with both formal and informal broader teams and it definitely helps to know the people I work with as something other than a nickname on chat.

I’m not a fan of 1:1 video, I am full remote for almost a decade and I have a strong preference for chat. I like to think slowly and take a few minutes to respond. Being on a call robs me of that.

I feel the same way. I also like having things written because it acts as documentation that can be referenced later. It's especially important on remote teams because not everyone is in every call or hears every word. My two cents after half of / most of this decade being remote.

This is exactly why I decided to work on building a platform for async video / voice discussions.

You end up getting rid of meetings — people gathering in real-time :)

As someone who just joined a majority on-site company as a remote employee, I've taken great pains to make my audio and video the best it can be within a reasonable budget. Good camera, studio-style lights, and a cheap but surprisingly effective lapel-style mic have all helped.

Do you have links by any chance (to the stuff you bought)?

I use a Logitech Brio camera and a $20 USB lapel mic. I think those are basically interchangeable. The light is a Viltrox panel, not sure what model number off hand.

Not the parent but I use a Logitech HD Pro Webcam C920 both for the camera and the mic. I don't do anything special for the lighting but my office is well-lit, both from natural light and overhead track lighting, and my background is on the opposite side of the room from the window. Main thing is not to be backlit.

I just joined a remote team (after 5 years of other remote work) that heavily values video (including budgeting for proper webcams, headsets, and video conference software).

It is honestly so refreshing. I feel like I have teammates (not just text in Slack/Email). I feel like I understand who they are and how they communicate.

Thank you, https://about.gitlab.com/handbook/communication/ - great resource. It seems they have a pretty bold typo there. ~Communciation~ Communication?

Thanks for catching that, I'm a GitLab team member, I'll open a quick merge request to fix that now.

Nice catch @kull.

@samanthalee233 That's great! I tried to log in to suggest the change, but it did not work with my normal Gitlab account.

Good points but I think you missed one of the biggest ones. Hire people who want and can work remotely.

Some folks aren't wired for the self-discipline or don't enjoy the isolation of remote work. They thrive in an office where they can interact face to face with their co-workers and have their manager looking over their shoulder. And that's fine. There's nothing wrong with that. But don't hire them for your remote-only business and expect them to be happy and productive.

At GitLab we translated this this requirement to 'manager of one'. It is a term introduced by Basecamp that means every person has to be able to manage themselves.

I can identify with that. The more autonomy I have the more I get done. I am happy to collaborate with others but I don't need nor want a manager to tell me what to do.

At my current job there is a trend to more and more planning, prioritizing and scheduling. I understand there is a need for that but personally I perform best if I get a big goal and can figure it out for myself.

It would be nice if we could find a way to work remotely without being isolated.

I believe that lots of synchronous video communication is key here.

I work remotely and want to be isolated. How would lots of synchronous video help me?

Not you, but most people don’t want to be isolated.

Personally, I’m quite socially awkward and tend to avoid people, but being isolated still depresses me.

Some of us don't want to be isolated. I have the choice of working from home, with complete freedom, but mostly choose to work from the office.

I don't look to annoy others at work, I just don't like to be at home (unless I really need to focus on something, which can happen).

For me the key to avoid isolation are my hobbies...

The main two that helps me with that are to ride my bicycle at least twice per week and to play Jazz jam sessions on a pub nearby.

also... wife + kids + regular family time... all that helps a lot! =)

In most of my on site jobs, I never had a manager looking over my shoulder. Most of the time they were off in some meeting!

People want offices so they won't be socially isolated. You might not, but others do. Also sync video talking can often be faster than chat, and issues that are controversial are usually resolved a lot better in a meeting. I once had something that took 2 weeks of unproductive back and forth with a team half way around the globe resolved with 20 minutes of a video meeting.

Totally agree. You have to be cut out for this.

Most of these bullet points are just as important for in-office teams. Enforcing good meeting discipline, sending out weekly updates, defining process for RFCs, and documenting process and culture in a shared location are all very important regardless of where employees are located. Remote work only works if the team's foundation is solid in the first place.

The point about forcing everyone to be remote is great if you can make it work, but it will eliminate a lot of employees who can't work remotely. I know remote work is a hot topic, but in my experience only a small fraction of employees can be very effective in remote-only roles.

If your company can't be all-remote, it's critical to invest in proper processes and culture to keep everyone included. Quashing in-office politics, breaking knowledge silos, and mandating centralized documentation of decisions is key.

>The point about forcing everyone to be remote is great if you can make it work, but it will eliminate a lot of employees who can't work remotely. I know remote work is a hot topic, but in my experience only a small fraction of employees can be very effective in remote-only roles.

It's both effectiveness and preferences. I was just having this conversation a couple of days ago with someone whose company location is basically out of space. I asked why more people don't just work remotely. (Many already do; the company is generally remote friendly.)

His response was basically that there are a lot of employees, especially younger ones, who would probably up and quit if they were told they had to work out of their homes. Most of the people who haven't already gone remote either have to be in the same office or want to for whatever reason; this is in an area where housing is fairly reasonable and commutes are fairly modest.

Leaving aside that I started work at a time when communication tools were much more limiting than today, I still can't really imagine working from my apartment during the early years of my career.

It's been my experience that mixed remote/onsite doesn't work. Either go all-remote or all-onsite. I've even been in an org once that was mixed remote/onsite and very friendly towards remote and decided to end that policy, which resulted in all remote staff walking away from the company. That's a very tough and painful thing to have happen.

Among the remote-only companies that I've been in, I've never seen the remote-culture as being in any way problematic. (Quite the contrary. They were usually better at communicating).

>Either go all-remote or all-onsite.

The thing is that, in many cases, there is no "all-onsite" especially for larger organizations.

Your field people (sales, system engineers, etc.) are going to be wherever your customers are.

Acquire a company in a different city? If you force everyone to move, you're probably going to lose a lot of the value of that company?

Work with open source software? Many of the upstream developers are going to be scattered all over the world in any case.

And as soon as you're in multiple locations even within a given city, you're really not much different from being in two separate cities at that point.

Certainly, there are challenges. But I'm in a very mixed environment, which I think generally works pretty well.

...well the scope of each team for which this "all-on-site or all-remote" principle holds is debatable (i.e. if we're speaking of a project team, department, set of people working on a given product or module within a system, etc). But the principle, I think, is still a valid one.

The real problem tends to be when you have a few outliers. Say, a 10+ person team where everyone is next to each other and are all in the office most days except for one or two who are fully remote. That can be a problem. It can also be made to work. But everyone needs to work at it and be committed to it.

To be honest, the situations where I have personal experience are mostly more senior teams where everyone is doing a lot of travel anyway, a decent percentage are fully remote and the rest are often only in the office a few days a week. And everyone is doing as much communication (if not more) with other teams and people outside the organization as they are internally anyway.

Why do you think it particularly undesirable to work from home during the early years of a career (as opposed to later years)? Genuinely curious.

Some of the reasons:

You're probably coming out of an environment where you spent lots of time with lots of different people. Played sports with them, partied with them, studied with them, etc. Now you're going to spend your days in a possibly cramped apartment communicating over chat.

You're less likely to have the discipline or the experience to work on your own.

You may not have much of a separate social group where you're now living.

Obviously, everyone is a bit different. But I know I'm pretty happy to sit at home these days. I'm sure I would have hated it when I was starting out--and wouldn't have been nearly as effective.

Just a personal story; but I think remote work can only work if the entire team (or at least the majority of the team) is remote. I'm currently the only remote person in the team, and it's so frustrating. For them, getting me involved in anything is an extra step, as to them I'm the only remote person. But for me, everyone is remote, and I have a lot more expectations about communication and meetings.

Just to name one thing; meetings that start 5-10 minutes late. For them it's normal, because they're in the room, or walking to the room, or at least aware as to why a meeting is starting late. To me, it's 15 minutes wasted, and there's no communication what's going on.

We're getting better at it tho; or at least, I've lowered my expectations of them. I know that I will be left out of meetings frequently, I know that every meeting will start 5-10 minutes late.

That said, I love working remotely, although I would prefer to find a team that's used to it.

I'm not getting the problem with the meetings...

Why you don't just... log on Zoom on the correct time and leave it running while you do actual work on another screen/monitor/window?

Eventually they will get to their senses and stop being late.

Most of it is just being in the unknown, it’s incredibly frustrating to just having to sit there and wait not knowing what’s going on. Obviously I can continue to do work, but the frustration is still there.

Like I said, for them it’s natural, they know what’s going on, if they don’t communicate that, I don’t know.

We rely mostly on email. Probably 90%. The best part about remote, I believe, is asynchronous communication. Email forces people think harder about what to say, vs trying to fill gaps of silence with nonsense during video calls. This makes for a more effective and efficient exchange of ideas.

Completely on point. I've heard this from our users at Standups, that async lets them have the time to think and note down what to say, and don't come unprepared to a live/sync daily update meeting, for example.

Another thing I will add to this is to use creation tools that show your presence to others. Figma has been huge for our design team because you can see the other person’s mouse cursor moving around and making changes - it makes it feel like the person has a presence in the same room with you. Likewise with google docs or confluence, just the presence of a line cursor with a name next to it goes a huge ways. Mural is another one that does this well. It really helps make the remoteness feel less isolating.

He mentions keeping a knowledge base up to date. That's a great idea, but I've never found good low-friction methods/tools for getting knowledge from peoples' heads into a knowledge base. Any suggestions?

One suggestion I've heard is to encourage your team to write blog posts. The blog posts serve as an open source knowledge base for the organization. This also provides the individual a way to become more well known in and out of the organization (personal branding) and provides the organization a bit of content marketing.

Totally agreed! I've seen this at other startups, and it works great.

At work each team uses the tool that they deem better.

My team (DevOps) have a git repository where we put all our docs, post-mortems, etc...

Other teams uses Confluence, some uses GoogleDocs... etc...

Years ago a place I worked had a team where a manager asked everyone to spend a day documenting stuff. I think it was once every months (??) but they had document stuff all day days.

Yes, just like Gitlab does. [1]

[1] https://about.gitlab.com/handbook

I'm convinced that some of the downsides to remote work will be solved through technological means; probably some kind of VR or AR solution, where you can be inside a shared virtual space and glance over to see what your coworkers are up to, and perhaps give them a virtual tap on the shoulder.

This kind of virtual office would not help as much, of course, in cases of highly distributed teams split across continents. Even then though, it would be cool to drop into someone's virtual office and leave a note on virtual post it or whiteboard.

In general I'm sceptical of skeuomorphism tools that try to simulate offices in applications. But I do believe VR can help creating the feeling of presence that is still lacking with traditional tools.

Sense of presence is a real added value of VR, I've been experimenting with virtual presence since 1995 making Unreal level with Wicked3D glasses and a huge monitor, later a z800 and OpenSim. Nowadays I watch Star Trek with a friend in Bigscreen, sitting next to each other, catching up - Bigscreen also works for pair programming.

A friend of mine lived in Boulder for a long time so I asked her to take me on a tour through the area's where she lived (Wander), basically you morph through a series of 360 photos like in streetview and you don't have full body tracking, but "you are there with someone, 'cycling' around". It beats narrating pictures.

I made a VR app so I can practice my vajra dance, a spiritual practice, on a huge mandala and meditate and doing tai-chi on a mountain top. I work solo or together with a cooperative game contained in Tabletop Simulator (Robinson Crusoe, Spirit Island, Codenames Duet), manipulating the various tiles with my Oculus Touch controllers. Experimenting with memory palaces in relation to internal psychological concepts and states as well as tuning into a virtual dance floor while DJ-ing are next on my 'play' list.

As a PM, I don't think remote can work for me. Any PMs who work remotely? Curious to your thoughts.

Yes, I've held this role at an internationally distributed company. It's even harder across time zones, but it's doable.

As a first step, work on weaning yourself off of synchronous communication wherever possible. Limit your synchronous communication to only the minimum necessary to operate efficiently.

Create a routine of sending of ultra-concise weekly updates to the team. Your goal should be to produce reports that the teams actually enjoy reading. People should walk away from the reports feeling like they know what they need to know, what's expected of them for the week, when it's expected, and who to contact if any exceptions come up. The goal is no surprises, no hidden expectations, and visibility into the team goals. If people have to synchronously talk to you or wait for a specific meeting, work on improving the weekly update.

Fill in the gaps with daily updates for any relevant changes. Work on collecting updates, summarizing, and sharing them at the same time every day for predictability. Don't get in the habit of pinging everyone every time you have a question. People will hate the constant distractions.

Finally, carve out time for predictable, synchronous weekly meetings. Make it predictable, at the same time every week. Resist the urge to schedule spontaneous phone calls every time something comes up. Practice excellent meeting discipline, with an agenda shared ahead of time, careful attention on managing off-topic discussions, and so on.

I work in a remote startup (and I agree with every point in this article, btw!), we have 3 product managers who are all very effective in their roles (I'm a dev, btw). IMO you just need to be an effective communicator in both written and spoken forms, be very thorough and observant, and follow these same sets of guidelines for remote (write down everything, build knowledge base, send out weekly notes, etc.), to perform well as a remote PM.

On the other hand, if your organization is not remote to begin with, and most of the staff is in an office, a remote PM most likely would not be able to work out in such an org.

As a developer, 90% of interactions I have with PMs can be done asynchronously through a tool like JIRA, Slack, Email, Figma, etc.

The other 10% of those could simply be phone calls or screen shares.

It depends on the company, and how much "power" you have as a PM to influence/push process, but I find that even causing a majority on-site company operate as if they are fully remote is almost always a universal good.

Writing things down and having documented (and followed) processes is good! And helps with onboarding as your knowledge-base grows, and (in my experience) costs a lot less that not everybody being around the watercooler when "that" conversation happened.

I am. It works great for me personally and for my team professionally.

I function a bit more as a communication hub than I used to in previous non-remote roles, and I put much more stuff in writing than I used to.

Remote work forces you to be way better with knowledge management, but honestly it clearly is just a best practice for any time that's big or about to grow.

Not a PM myself but I know tons of PMs who work remotely--but in most if not all of those cases the engineering teams they're working with are some combination of remote (i.e. WFH) and distributed as well.

Couldn’t find a better time to post this article than in the middle of France biggest strike!

Good point. This will probably force more companies to experiment remote work.

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