As workplaces re-evaluate remote, hybrid, and in-office policies, the question of whether distributed software development teams are as effective as in-person ones is being debated.
But early research shows that remote software teams might be good for business. An MIT Sloan Management study of 80 software development teams found that distributed teams can outperform colocated ones. What’s more, the researchers found that distributed teams tended to be more diverse, which increased their problem-solving capacity.
Individuals with specialized skills know that they can work effectively from anywhere, while also attaining better work-life balance. Employers should consider this a win. According to IBM, people who work remotely are 50% more productive. What’s more, organizations that embrace remote teams are able to break free from the geographic limitations of sourcing talent. This means they can cast a wider net to attract and retain the best-quality talent at lower costs.
Yet some companies are reluctant to transition to a distributed model. They argue that geographic and time zone differences create communication challenges, which inhibit collaboration and slow growth. Other detractors feel it’s impossible to develop company culture with a distributed model.
Yet the trend points to a future where remote software development teams are, if not the norm, at least commonplace. In my view, we should learn to embrace it. In this article, I’ll share what I’ve learned about creating culture and cohesion in a remote setting. I’ll also break down how Scalable Path leverages an agile approach to managing distributed development teams.
Table Of Contents
The Distributed Agile Approach: Working with Remote Software Teams
Companies like Wordpress.com, Basecamp, Github, Treehouse, Upworthy, Stack Exchange and many more are 100% distributed. The number of companies adopting some form of remote models is growing. According to a 2022 study conducted by Buffer, 72% of respondents said that their company was planning on permanently allowing some form of remote work.
At Scalable Path, we’ve been using the distributed agile approach since 2010. For us, distributed teams is key to client satisfaction and talent retention. When the right tools and methodologies are in place, software can be built more efficiently and with higher quality, and the teams are happier doing it.
Choosing a Project Management Methodology
A challenge for remote teams is determining how to run your team effectively. There are many different approaches you can take. Whether it’s agile or waterfall, when choosing a methodology, it’s important to understand how it works and if it meets your project’s needs.
Our team practices agile project management with scrum, but other popular options like Kanban offer unique features and that might be better suited to your project. I’d encourage you to research your options and get to know what framework is the best fit for your project and team needs.
While traditional agile methodologies can speed up your team’s productivity, there are additional techniques worth implementing to help build culture and strengthen cohesion in fully remote teams.
Developing an Agile Culture Within Distributed Teams
Sometimes people ask me questions like, don’t teams need to be physically together for culture to develop? Admittedly, it can be difficult for a team to build a positive rapport when they’re unable to catch up at lunch or hang out after work. But I’ve learned that culture goes beyond meals and libations. It’s about seeing a vision, aligning to a mission, and having loyalty to an exciting project. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned for building culture within distributed teams.
- Be introspective and iterate: In true agile fashion, organizations should be open to change. At Scalable Path, we’re always asking ourselves what’s working and what’s not. This helps us iterate and improve over time. Especially for companies new to the distributed model, it’s important to recognize you’re not going to get everything right the first time around. But with regular reflection and fine-tuning, it’s possible to improve over time.
- Have monthly inter-team meetings: It’s true that remote teams may overlap less with other departments than colocated ones. To make sure distinct teams get the chance to update each other and spend time together, we have monthly company-wide updates with our internal team. At this meeting, we share lessons, company developments, and goals, which makes everyone feel they’re part of a bigger mission. During these meetings, we also encourage everyone to share ideas and give feedback on ways to improve.
- Invest in personal development: Companies that support professional development tend to have lower staff turnover and higher motivation among their team members. Here at Scalable Path, we run an educational program that reimburses freelancers for educational expenses that contribute to their professional growth. Offering free training and reimbursement for personal growth goes a long way in developing culture. By encouraging and supporting employees to hone their skills professionally, they become more confident and report higher workplace happiness.
Supporting Your Remote Software Development Team
In my view, remote teams function best when there is a focus on transparency, collaboration, and mutual improvement. As a leader, staying engaged with team members and setting aside time to foster their growth is necessary to retain talent.
Here’s a great resource that breaks down tips for agile teams by role for leaders, teams and individuals:
Build Self-Sufficient Distributed Teams
Remote teams rely on trust and ownership for success and should be designed to run autonomously. Team members should be encouraged to solve problems directly, rather than being managed top down. Of course, for this to be possible, remote software development teams need to include people with all of the skills necessary to develop the product they’re working on. Make sure you build a team with all the critical skills. Equally important as skill set is staff availability and bandwidth. Team members should be dedicated solely to a single project. By ensuring an individual’s time isn’t split across different teams, you can avoid unnecessary bottlenecks and inefficiencies from context switching.
Establish an Onboarding Process
It takes work to successfully bring on a new team member and get them up to speed, regardless of whether your team is remote or colocated. While onboarding inevitably takes time away from software development in the short term, good leaders and project managers understand that thorough, effective onboarding is an investment.
I believe part of the job as a leader is paving a path for future success, which is only possible when all team members fully understand the project, team roles, and company processes. Establishing an onboarding program also helps integrate new team members quickly during periods of growth or high turnover. For a detailed guide to successfully onboarding remote hires, take a look at our guide to onboard remote developers.
Solid technical documentation helps everything run smoothly, especially at scale. Make it part of your company culture to document all important processes and procedures throughout the project. This should include an overview of the project, technologies being used, and your team’s long-term goals. Provide access instructions for relevant resources and include the steps required to get one’s development environment up and running.
Particularly for new hires, having access to reference materials helps reduce the feeling of information overload. What’s more, it saves time when you’re bringing on a lot of staff. Just be sure that you still engage with new hires: don’t pile on documentation and move on. Instead, use the documentation as an ongoing reference they can access as they get up and running, and make sure you conduct video or phone onboarding sessions.
Both for new employees and ones that have been with your company a long time, make a point of scheduling time to check in one on one. Ask how they’re liking their position, if they’re struggling with anything, if there’s any room for the company to improve, and if there’s anything you can do to help. This will let them know they’re appreciated and help uncover any issues that might need to be addressed.
Share the Company Vision
I believe that for work to be meaningful, employees need to feel a sense of purpose. But it’s hard for employees to feel motivated if they aren’t sure of the company’s vision, mission, or purpose. If you’re producing something that’s innovative or will benefit people, regularly bringing team meetings back to the bigger picture can go a long way to motivating your team. For more mundane tasks, the goal of producing something that is well-crafted can serve as a satisfying pursuit. Routinely meet with your team and provide updates on the bigger picture. For instance, share short- and long-term company goals, overarching objectives, and client feedback on the project so far. If you don’t have regular team meetings set, a good time to do this is when you’re approaching or passing a milestone.
Communication and Collaboration for Distributed Agile Teams
Ask any agile practitioner the most important factors of delivering a project on time and they’ll likely tell you it’s communication and collaboration. With distributed teams, effective communication and collaboration is even more pronounced. Fortunately, the tools and technologies available today for remote software development teams can nearly match the effectiveness of meeting face-to-face. Below are some categories of tools that remote teams should consider adopting.
Leverage Task Tracking and Project Management Tools
Project and task management tools are a must-have for remote teams. They serve as a reference point for distributed team members to quickly get up to speed on a project, understand what needs to be done, and share their progress. But choose your project management tools wisely. Physical backlogs with sticky notes may work for your personal task management, but don’t translate well to remote software development teams. Instead, use online tools that enable smooth and dynamic project and task management, easy prioritization (e.g. using the modified Fibonacci Sequence), visibility and transparency and better collaboration. Here are some project management and task-tracking tools: Trello, Jira, and Basecamp.
Organize Virtual Team Meetings for Collaboration
We can’t deny that in-person exchanges allow for all kinds of communication nuances that get lost in the virtual space. Non-verbal cues like facial expressions and body language make up a lot of human communication, but these nuances get lost in email and instant messaging. Fortunately, modern communication tools enable easy and seamless voice and video calls, which means we can approximate in-person meetings with regard to what we hear and see on people’s faces.
As a bonus, many tools also enable other forms of collaborative features such as screen sharing and whiteboarding. This allows everyone in a meeting to follow along with the speaker, and even give feedback in an interactive way.
Communicate Through Group Chat and Email
At Scalable Path, the bulk of our communication with clients, teams, and third parties is through Slack. That’s because Slack allows us to communicate synchronously, quickly solve problems, and jump on a video call if needed. Through topic-specific channels, we can communicate easily with a group of people about particular projects. From there, people can take conversations to direct messaging channels if the entire group doesn’t need to be involved.
When compared to email, we find Slack more appropriate for time-sensitive items that require rapid communication. Using the search function, we can pull up historical conversations and find relevant points fast. People that are new to a team or project can skim through relevant threads to get caught up.
That said, there’s a time and place when email makes more sense. For cases that are more formal or require a long-form message, like a vacation request or detailed project update, we recommend email communication.
Aim to Build Teams With Time Zone Overlap
Working with teams with significant time zone overlap allows tight collaboration without affecting work-life balance. In my experience, remote teams with large time differences negatively affect team dynamics and is unsustainable in the long term. What’s more, it usually requires duplicating leadership for each time-zone isolated team. Scalable Path assembles project teams with a healthy overlap in working hours so that team members can work with each other.
We’ve listed many techniques that are helpful for running an agile distributed team. Remember, however, that the most important thing for a team is to have a positive, safe environment to express themselves. Without the right culture as a foundation, tools and processes won’t get you very far.
The exact formula will be different for every organization, but the points outlined above are a great place to start. I find that these concepts are not just applicable to remote software development teams, and work well for many other businesses. Once the organization is comfortable with an agile distributed team model, there will be clear improvements in communication and collaboration. These translate into better delivery of valuable products to end users and stakeholders.