Dec 22 6 min read

The 7 Biggest Communication Problems Facing Remote Engineering Teams — and How Managers Can Help Solve Them [Guest Post]

The 7 Biggest Communication Problems Facing Remote Engineering Teams — and How Managers Can Help Solve Them [Guest Post]

Shitika
Anand (Cassiopeia)

The following is a guest post from Cassiopeia, a SaaS solution that uses communication data to provide remote managers and team leaders with actionable insights regarding team dynamics, collaboration, and work-life wellness.

 

As distributed teams become the rule rather than the exception, managers and engineers are finding clear communication to be one of their biggest remote work challenges. 

Remote work requires extra communication — as remote teams, we’re missing out on all the overheard discussions, cubicle wall meetings, and spontaneous brainstorms over lunch. For engineering teams, a lack of clear communication patterns means there’s greater risk that engineers will change and break code, overlap, and/or waste time doing unnecessary synchronous tasks.

Engineering teams could fall into unhealthy distributed work patterns if managers don’t set clear communication processes and structures. Managers can also help foster a more inclusive remote working experience by focusing on finding solutions for the communication hiccups within their distributed team. 

The key to effective remote communication is to be much more intentional about how we communicate, when, and how often. 

Here are a few tips that can help you optimize your communication while working remotely:

 

1. Set clear priorities and agendas. Whether in daily stand-ups or weekly team-wide meetings, be sure to set priorities for the week for all members of your team, so everyone is on the same page. As the team gets bigger and each individual starts working on multiple aspects of a product, this added context will make it easier for developers to switch off with other members of the team. In an office setting, you would be able to walk over and review someone’s code with them, but things are different virtually. If managers set clear agendas and priorities for their entire team, it creates more transparency and a clearer direction.
 

2. Make space and create processes for knowledge sharing. The key to successful completion of engineering projects is an effective communication flow and smooth transition of intricate inter-dependencies. If something changes in one aspect of a project, it will likely impact another team member and their workflow. This is why regular communication, especially when working remotely, is recommended for engineering teams.

From our research we have found that one of the most effective ways for distributed engineers to work together on a task is by pair programming. Just sharing a screen enables devs to code anywhere, edit the same files, click through the same dev server, and share a virtual terminal shell for running tests and other commands. Managers should encourage members to participate in this type of knowledge sharing, and also design process maps that help set up performance benchmarks and metrics to measure success for each individual on the team.

Have your team explicitly talk about their priorities for the day in your daily standup calls, and encourage them to discuss things like who will ‘drive’ the pairing session (i.e. who will be actively coding), who will raise tickets, and who will review before the final sign-off. This will help create a more inclusive work environment and combat the feeling of isolation when working remotely.

 

3. Don’t skip the 1 on 1 meetings. In the Manager Tools podcast, host Mark Horstman calls 1 on 1 meetings, “the single most powerful thing we know a manager can do to improve their relationship with direct reports and get better results.” These 1 on 1 meetings go beyond an open door policy. They offer dedicated time for leaders to coach, mentor, and build a working relationship with their employees, and they can open the communication channels in a remote setting. If, as a manager, you’re tempted to skip the 1 on 1 because you just had a call with someone in a team setting, stop and reflect on the importance of this one-on-one time. Remember, this meeting isn’t a performance review. A 1 on 1 is time for you to ask questions, listen to your employees, and coach where necessary. We suggest starting the meeting with, “how’s everything going?” or, “how’s it been working on xyz project so far?”

 

4. Over-communicate and use external tools to stay on top of things. Remote engineering teams often work asynchronously because they’re not in the same place. CEO of Remote Job van der Voort’s biggest recommendation is to over-communicate. “Remote team leads should always be writing more, saying more, the usual FYIs that you wouldn’t necessarily mention when you’re in an office space…mention them out loud in a remote workspace.”

3 tools that can add value to a remote workplace:

  • A shared calendar: Remote managers should be transparent regarding where (and with whom) their time is being spent. This information should be made available to their entire team for the purpose of trust-building. 
  • Video conferencing: Research shows that remote employees tend to be more distracted in audio-only calls, but more alert and productive when their video is on. We recommend using Zoom, Slack Video, Teams, or any other video conferencing tool for calls that include more people, like company-wide meetings and team catch-ups. 
  • Project Management tool: Use a software like Jira or Trello to reflect on tasks and projects that members of the team are working on, and to monitor progress. 

 

5. Communicate a clear Code Review process. Derek Parham was the former technical lead of Google Apps, where he scaled a team from one employee to over 100 in six years, and helped set up multiple processes that have contributed to better communication within the engineering team. “Google Marketplace was one of our first early remote teams, so there were a bunch of communication breakdowns. The design review process helped with that because we only spent a couple of weeks going back and forth instead of building a system for six months and then launching it only to realize it wouldn’t work, or would break a bunch of other things, or didn’t meet people’s expectations.” 

He continues, “It’s okay to have that time crunch in the beginning when you’re writing the code and doing the review, because as soon as you launch the product, everyone knows what is going to be built.” Having a clear review process from the start can help engineering teams avoid many future issues.

 

6. Use a data-driven approach to increase visibility within the team and improve communication. When you’re working with a virtual engineering setup, it can be a lot harder to gain visibility on your teams. But it is possible. Engineering and other technical teams actually generate a lot of data about their communication patterns on a daily basis. It’s important for managers to aggregate and analyze this data and extract useful insights to improve the way team members communicate and work together. By doing so, managers can get a much clearer picture of how direct reports are communicating and collaborating. For all you know, that quiet engineer may be contributing much more than you thought.

At Cassiopeia, we use communication patterns and related tracking metrics to help managers gain visibility and spot communication issues in a timely manner. Managers can track if and when there are any collaboration issues between or within teams, or spot people who might be feeling less connected, all by tracking communication metrics.

 

7. Set daily ‘focus time’ for the team. When you’re working in a distributed team, it’s easy to get drawn into conversations on Slack or Teams with colleagues. The idea behind ‘focus time’ is to allow for dedicated work time, free from interruption and chatter. As a manager, setting daily focus time explicitly allows people to tune out group communication, and that’s an empowering move.

How does this work? Ask your team to turn off their Slack and Teams and work independently for set hours, either daily or weekly. This prevents team members (and managers) from having to keep one eye on their Slack channels. Quiet hours can be set based either on time zones, individual schedules, or personal preferences. Some managers also choose to have no-meeting days, which can produce similar results.

 

Despite the challenges, remote work can be very rewarding for organizations across the globe. With proper communication practices, the right tools, and a supportive work culture, distributed workforces can overcome common challenges and build more effective software and technical teams. 

Cassiopeia is a SaaS solution that uses communication data to provide remote managers and team leaders with actionable insights to help improve team dynamics, collaboration, and work-life wellness. You can read more about how to be an effective remote manager on their blog.


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