Four Simple-Yet-Effective Tips for Stronger Distributed Teams

Four Simple-Yet-Effective Tips for Stronger Distributed Teams

Ajay Wadhwa

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Bradley Scott, Andela’s VP of Technology Product, has years of experience managing product and engineering teams of all types, so he knows the do’s and don’ts of remote work firsthand. Here, he shares four ways to overcome common objections to distributed work and build strong engineering teams.

His first recommendation? If you want your developers to build rapport and communicate better, stop holding team meetings in a conference room. Instead, make everybody log onto a video meeting from their own desks. It may sound counterintuitive to build teamwork by keeping team members away from each other. But it makes sense when you realize that the most companies have at least a few distributed team members.

“If you are just a face on the TV and everyone else is sitting around the table, you are naturally going to feel at a disadvantage. You miss the side conversations and the jokes people are laughing at,” says Bradley Scott, VP Technology Products at Andela, which helps companies scale distributing engineering teams. “Our rule is that if one person is remote we’re all remote. Everyone will see each other’s faces looking at the camera and we can all start from the same baseline.”

With more than 1,000 developers across Africa working with 150 companies globally, Andela has developed a framework to foster the most productive distributed work culture. The key, Scott explains, is open, transparent communication that treats each team member equally. Here are more of his top tips to make this work:

Make sure everyone is in the loop.

“Think twice about walking over to someone’s desk and having a one-on-one conversation about a project that also involves people in other offices,” Scott says. “Instead, it may be better to start a Slack chat on the subject, so everyone gets the information at the same time.” Note that Scott is not suggesting that people in the home office stop speaking to each other. But if you do have a conversation about something at the water cooler, send a message about it to the rest of the team as soon as you get back to your desk.

Develop asynchronous work habits.

Avoid unproductive status updates and unfocused brainstorming sessions by thinking about ways to collaborate other than a team meeting. “Rather than having everyone sit in a meeting to go through a new project, we might share a Google Doc,” Scott says. “That way, people can read it, ask questions and make comments at the time that works for them. The next day, I can see all the feedback and answer all the questions. It’s all very transparent.” Along with catering to various working and learning styles, this also helps teams who may be distributed across multiple time zones.

Have frequent 1:1 video meetings with direct reports.

If you’re not working in the same office as a team member, it can be harder to notice if blockers are cropping up. “It’s essential to have regular, frequent, open one-on-one conversations,” Scott explains. “People will tell you their concerns, but you might have to ask more than once. It takes some nuance to create the environment where people feel safe being honest with you.” This may explain why distributed engineering managers are more than twice as likely to have weekly 1:1s with their team members than managers with no distributed team members, according to a survey of over 500 engineering managers in the U.S..

Bring everyone to the same place at least once a year.

A lot of work can get done by email, Slack, Google Docs and videoconferencing, but none of that is the same as being in the same place at the same time. “It’s hard and it’s expensive, but we firmly believe it’s worth it to bring the whole team together at least once a year,” Scott says. “You have impromptu conversations at the office, or you go out to dinner and learn interesting facts about the people who you work with.” These interactions build bonds that persist even after everyone goes home. “We have learned that it’s not hard to foster and grow relationships remotely,” Scott says. “But it’s much easier if you are building on a foundation that has been established face-to-face.”

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