Remote work is not a temporary adjustment to a passing pandemic; it’s a new reality that is here to stay in the software industry, or the professional world at large. According to a Gallup survey from September 2021, 45 percent of full-time employees in the US worked remotely at least part of the time, while 67 percent of employees in white-collar professions worked remotely at least some of the time. MicKinsey also released a study showing that a desire for a flexible working arrangement was one of the top three reasons employees sought a new job.
Normalizing remote work has been great for many employees, and it’s created new ways of collaborating that span more than just geographic distance. Multinational corporations are nothing new, but it’s becoming easier to form multinational teams within those corporations. Teams nowadays are collaborating across time zones, language barriers, and more.
For the last year, I’ve worked on a team that was spread across Chicago; Cincinnati; Villarreal, Spain; Cape Town, South Africa; London; Tunbridge Wells, England; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Sydney; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Indianapolis; and Las Vegas. It’s nearly impossible for us to find a time where we’d all overlap, and impossible to find an overlap that didn’t inconvenience someone.
Our team realized that we couldn’t default to real-time communication, and needed to adopt new practices and processes to accommodate asynchronous coordination. In my 8th Light University presentation, I explained why I think that’s a good thing.
Downsides of Real-time Collaboration
- Each of us is at our best at different times during the day.
- Outspoken individuals tend to dominate the conversation.
- Some of us need more time than others to come to a decision.
- Context switching is expensive.
- Documentation is not a given.
- Meetings can be especially tricky for multilingual teams.
Communication Across Multilingual Teams
The downsides of real-time communication become even more dramatic when considering language barriers. Our teammates might struggle to follow along because:
- We talk too quickly.
- We use unfamiliar idioms.
- We speak with unfamiliar accents and dialects.
- Our internet connection is spotty.
No matter how or why a miscommunication happens, we put the burden on the individual to ask us to repeat ourselves.
Scheduling Is Complicated
Although synchronous communication is the most direct, the coordination required often comes with tradeoffs that chip away at its value. As you gather stakeholders, it’s unlikely that everyone will be able to make the call.
Looking back at some less successful meetings, I noticed a few common challenges:
- Teammates who would otherwise have really valuable input were unable to make the call. They were either on PTO, had scheduling conflicts, or it was outside their working hours.
- There was no documentation of the conversation, so those who missed the meeting were already behind.
- There was a high level of coordination overhead and plenty of interruptions. It also caused a lot of context switching and offered fewer opportunities for deep work.
- The group was missing context, causing the conversation to be rushed, and a decision made with incomplete information.
Benefits of Remote Collaboration
Asynchronous collaboration can require some getting used to, but the benefits are clear:
- Interruptions and context switching are minimal.
- Conversations are inherently documented and searchable.
- Everyone is included in the conversation regardless of location or schedule.
- Everyone is able to devote as much or as little time as they need to make sound decisions.
- The team can work during the hours they are most effective.
Additionally, asynchronous collaboration results in moving more slowly, which allows our team to make more thoughtful and informed decisions. But it’s debatable whether we actually end up moving slower in the long run. By removing the coordination overhead, we can make informed decisions without disrupting other workflows. Over the duration of a project, asynchronous decisions might enable your team to move much faster.
4 Keys to Successful Remote Collaboration
Reflecting on our time working asynchronously, my team has arrived at four keys to success.
1. Set Expectations
- How do we decide which mode of communication we’re going to reach for? We’re not trying to optimize away all real-time interactions.
- What response time can we commit to for async messages?
- What’s the escalation process?
- What documentation lives where? Documentation here is referring not only to software documentation, but also historical conversations, decisions, and context.
2. Consider Everyone
- Share the burden of working across time zones. Alternate the meeting time so that no one individual or group is always required to start early or end late to accommodate the others.
- Include the teams’ time zones when proposing an event. Look for tools to automate this like Timezone Butler1 for Slack.
- Be conscious of how work is assigned so that one group does not always get the important, challenging, and interesting work.
- Learn about current events that may affect your teammates’ wellbeing and/or availability.
3. Minimize Artificial Blockers
- Build trust with your teams and avoid requiring PR approvals from a chosen few.
- Minimize the number of handoffs to get something to production.
- Automate test suites, including QA.
- Automate deployments.
- Keep enough in the backlog.
4. When Meetings Can’t Be Avoided
Practice good meeting etiquette. On my team, that means:
- Share an agenda well ahead of time so that everyone can come prepared.
- Document the topics discussed and the decisions made.
- Consider a transcription service so your team can focus on the conversation, rather than taking notes.
- Be conscious of the time. A meeting running long for someone who is already staying late is frustrating.
Most teams will find themselves doing a hybrid of synchronous and asynchronous techniques. In fact, Doist has a lot of great blogs about how their teams work remotely together. Here’s an example of how they mix async and sync communication tools.
In addition to my own experiences, I’ve learned a lot from other companies that have embraced fully remote, async collaboration and actively blog about it:
About 8th Light University
8th Light University (8LU) is a semi-regular virtual event that is managed by 8th Light Inc, a global software consultancy. Topics focus on improving the craft of software development. Developers of all skill levels are welcome! Watch past event videos on YouTube or join the 8LU group to find out about upcoming events.