top of page

How to Build a Remote Team That’s Better Than On-Site


I still see people talking about the value of on-site over remote. And I’m shocked people are still considering this. At Vixul, we are a very strong believer in remote. In our previous venture, Flux7, we were mostly remote from 2013. By 2015, we had eliminated all on-site work. It is insane to us how a decade later people are actually arguing about remote vs on-site.

Over the next few weeks, we want to talk about how to improve your delivery organization. And I want to start with how to make sure your remote teams are effective for two reasons:

  1. I feel it is ridiculous how there is even a controversy around the effectiveness of remote teams.

  2. Making remote successful requires deliberate effort, so understanding good remote teams gives a better understanding of the core goals of building an effective team.

We believe on-site communication is not better, it is just easier. Because it is easier, it happens more frequently. A little bit of effort can result in deliberate communication in a remote environment that is more effective than the on-site default. With this advice, founders of tech services companies can use remote working to improve their hiring pool, increase employee satisfaction, and improve customer satisfaction.

Access To Information

Ask anyone, and they’ll say the best part of on-site work is that you’re able to walk into someone’s office and ask them for help if they’re stuck. This sounds good, but in reality, it is disguising the fact that there is business-critical information that is only in people’s heads instead of in a proper system of record. With the ease of communication in on-site you don’t build the systems to handle the information at scale.

When you make people less available, you make the pain point more obvious. So, you build systems and turn the knowledge in people’s heads into IP. This is why we are such a strong believer in the value of writing.

Alignment

In an office environment, people communicate regularly so everyone learns what others are working on. But alignment is too critical to be left to serendipity. Everyone already knows this - which is why so many organizations have adopted Agile. This is why so much company time is spent on meetings. Alignment is critical and requires a deliberate effort.

When you’re remote, you need to replace the serendipity with deliberate processes and systems of records. From religious adherence to Agile ceremonies for your delivery teams to town halls & weekly strategy updates for executive communications. With this intentional work, you will discover that you are better aligned. And it’s not just internally. Our customers would often comment on how they had better alignment with us than people they were working with on-site.

Collaboration

Collaboration is actually a valid reason for on-site. Projects have phases that require a very high amount of collaboration to integrate different people’s work. People may be just as effective being given time to work on their problems but, at some point, their work needs to integrate with others. This is why the Agile manifesto talks about the importance of “colocated teams". Other than integration, collaboration is also integral for mentoring.

At Flux7, we didn’t argue with the importance of collaboration. We just said that we're colocated on the internet. Team members would frequently work in war rooms for which we used the Intel term “dungeon". We regularly did Extreme Programming (shout out to Google Meet for allowing multiple people to share their screens).

Since there was no such thing as a desk, it was just as easy to do your work while being logged into a Google Meet as working alone. So in a way, remote allowed us to have it so you could have your desk next to whoever you needed to be next to on that day. Everyone in the team had standing orders that if they were stuck spinning their wheels for more than an hour, they had to reach out for help. Our teams where people hadn’t seen each other's faces had the kind of collaboration most companies dream of having.

Camaraderie

Of course, we are all humans. And we have to develop a sense of belonging, community, and camaraderie. This is why we have all the office foosball tables, ping pong tables, and happy hours on Fridays. But camaraderie is not built on foosball tables. Camaraderie is built on the trust you develop in each other's abilities after solving hard problems together.

All the efforts at engineering culture are less effective than creating a team of talented individuals and allowing them to contribute with their talents and creativity. We had the weekly Jackbox Games. We even flew people for several events and even did international retreats in Turkey and Greece. But creating an environment with meaningful work dwarfed the impact of these activities. Although using Hey Taco to celebrate all the hard work of the team was critical.

Larger Organizations

This is another type of serendipitous communication that organizations seek to create. People being in the same physical location leads to people talking, and new ideas arise from interactions that normally would not happen.

Before discussing how to increase interactions over the larger organization, I do want to point out that meaningful impact from these conversations is rare. Most people don’t interact too much with others and most organizations are not structured in a way to allow these ideas to result in outcomes.

Still, our Slack with Hey Taco, news on the latest accomplishments, and a general culture of being helpful to each other allowed people to know each other from different parts of the organization. We also made a lot more deliberate effort to create collaboration not just within people’s own teams but across the organization.

The Buts

Despite being completely remote, Flux7 had an amazing culture and a very high-performing team. Anyone that says you can’t do it is wrong. But a statement like that always needs to have some buts attached to it. And there are some buts here that are hinted at in the article.

The first hint is the word “ease". As I said in the beginning, in-person communication is easier. If you give people an easy option and a hard option, people will adopt the easy option. So you need to take away the easy option. Everyone remote takes away the easy option.

This is why we’re claiming remote will be better than on-site - only if done correctly. It also means that I’m saying a hybrid approach guarantees failure. It makes it too easy. so your team does not build the muscles and doesn’t solve the hard problem. Sorry, but this requires going all in.

The second hint is the word “serendipity". Serendipity only happens when things are so easy that they can happen without effort. In remote you can do work to recreate serendipity. But by definition, you cannot plan for serendipity. There will be moments of serendipity that will be missed. Those moments are extremely rare because we are busy with our daily priorities. So, the impact of this theoretical loss of serendipity is completely dwarfed by the actual costs of on-site.

But there is an exception. And that is when you’ve created special temporary circumstances to increase the probability of serendipitous encounters. This is what we observed at VixulCon 2023. This is why, despite having a religious belief in the superiority of remote work, we are hosting VixulCon again one year later. We look forward to you joining us for VixulCon 2024 on May 18 and 19.

83 views

Comments


bottom of page