The current COVID-19 situation is unprecedented and incredibly difficult for everyone. The number of cases and deaths due to the virus have skyrocketed in recent weeks, and people across the world have been forced to stay and home to avoid spreading the virus. During this tenuous time, it is difficult for anyone to really stay motivated on the job, especially now that companies have shifted towards fully remote work.
At AdaptiLab, we’ve had to make the quick transition from having in-person communication in our downtown Seattle office to being fully remote. As the manager for our engineering team, I personally have had to learn new ways to manage engineering timelines and make sure everyone on the team is feeling good and motivated. To help others who might be in a similar situation, I’d like to share the top three most important things I’ve learned so far during this process:
Set up clear lines of communication for collaboration and engineering help
With the shift to remote work, many teams that are unfamiliar with working together outside an office will struggle to adapt. Without the benefit of in-person morning syncs or the ability to hop over to a colleague’s desk, it can be difficult to properly communicate and collaborate. This means that you’ll need to set up clear lines of communication for team members to use in order to discuss work, collaborate, and troubleshoot. For my team, we use Slack as our instant messaging system with separate channels for different topics (e.g. direct messages, a bug reporting channel, a general engineering channel, etc.). We use Zoom for scheduled meetings and sharing work, as well as for debugging and paired programming sessions.
Oftentimes, it’s easiest for a person to help their colleague debug code by directly typing and clicking around on their colleague’s computer. To mimic this in a remote setting, my team will either use Zoom’s remote control option or TeamViewer (which I have found to have lower latency than Zoom). Both options are free for small team usage or usage on an individual basis, so they’re perfect options for engineers to use amongst each other for paired programming sessions.
Make sure everyone on the team knows where to track deliverables and issues
This is a key point for any situation, but it becomes even more important when transitioning from having an office to being entirely remote. When in the office, it is normally not an issue for employees to concentrate on tasks, especially when they see all their colleagues working diligently. However, going from the structure of an office to the freedom of working remotely from home can add potential distractions to an employee on the job. This isn’t to say that working remotely will necessarily be less efficient than working in an office environment. Several companies, such as GitLab and Zapier, have successfully been fully remote for years by implementing a culture of accountability and hitting deadlines. While it will be difficult to match this success for companies that are working remotely for the very first time, there are quick and simple ways to ease the transition.
One of the ways to improve team efficiency is by organizing deliverables and issues/bug reports into as few places as possible. In AdaptiLab, we put all our milestones, work deliverables, and issues into GitLab’s issue board. This saves our engineers the confusion of having to look between various different platforms to figure out what to do or what to fix. They’re also able to see deadlines for deliverables, descriptions of issues with screenshots or code, and priority rankings of various tasks, which makes the engineering workflow a lot smoother.
Example Gitlab Issue Board from Gitlab
Schedule 1-1 meetings for non-work related discussions
This last point is arguably the most important. Given the uncertainty of the situation surrounding COVID-19, it is crucial to maintain team morale and ensure that everyone on the team is feeling well and safe. The best way to do this is to schedule 1-1 meetings with them to discuss how they’re feeling outside of work. This will not only let your employees know that you care about their well-being, but also allow you to better understand how they’re feeling and how it may affect their performance at work. In these 1-1 meetings, be a listener first rather than a speaker. Try to empathize with your employees, and let them speak as much or as little as they would like to.
In addition to 1-1 meetings, try to schedule catchup calls amongst the entire team. The hardest part of remote work for engineering teams is the lack of in person communication and the potential decrease in camaraderie. A way to mitigate this is to schedule all-hands meetings amongst the team so that everyone can catch up and hear about how their colleagues are doing.