5 Lessons learned from working in a remote team

Otrek Wilke
8 min readJan 24, 2021
Photo by Sven Brandsma on Unsplash

During the current pandemia, we are locked down in our home, if we have a job that can be done remotely — like most office jobs. This sudden change in the work environment comes with a ton of things that need to be learned by those who are new to working from home.

Here are five things that I have learned during working from home and that might be applicable for any situation where you find yourself working in a distributed team.

1 — It is all about communication

The most important thing that changes completely is the way how we communicate. Communication doesn’t naturally happen face to face in the office space anymore, but we still need and want to communicate with each other. The first approach that probably everyone takes is just move all the meetings to video calls and replace the over the desk communication with even more calls. Now we end up in a never-ending series of calls. That does not feel productive, nor does it seem to make sense when the whole environment changed.

It even gets worse when you work in multiple teams that use the new flexibility to work in the hours that fit them; you’ll have calls from early in the morning until late in the evening.

Hence, the step in the right direction is: make communication more asynchronous. We have to write more, which can become tedious, but it helps each and every one of us to consume information when we can digest it and also send information when we have created information. When starting to write more, things can get messy too. First, every member of the team needs to have the ability to write understandable notes — write down the right information, and second, the information needs to be in the right place.

Writing good notes is a skill to learn, that is possible and will finally come over time as we write and read more notes. The latter is a decision to be made by the team and needs the discipline to stick to the decisions. If you write down everything, and the pieces of information are scattered across multiple systems, like email, messenger, notes, task boards, wikis, codebase, and others, people tend to miss out on information. When a team starts to work in a distributed mode, one of the first things to agree on should be, how to communicate and where to communicate.

And then there were all larger gatherings where management said something about the state of the company. As a side effect of these gatherings, we bumped into colleges we don’t meet every day. In a distributed work environment, we don’t bump into each other, hence these meetings missing out on this function. Here is a great potential to change these meetings to an asynchronous mode and send out well-produced video messages or well-written text messages. It’ll leave us with a better information experience, and as an information recipient, we can watch, listen or read, when it fits us best.

A call with more than a few people, very quickly it becomes a show of just some, everyone else is listening quietly and waiting for the meeting to end. Virtual meetings have different requirements than physical ones, they need to be moderated more than ever to include everyone on the call. The member organizing the meeting needs to be clear of the agenda and lead the team through the meeting, or name someone to do so. Organization and moderation of effective calls is a skill to be trained.

For an inclusive call, video is crucial, to notice gestures, facial expressions, and the attention of attendees.

2 — Manage to have some free time in virtual meetings

Though it is important to have a clear agenda in virtual meetings, it feels like calling each other, or talking to each other just in case we have something to discuss or do, sets a team apart. There need to be time and virtual space to talk about the things that we have talked about in the office cantina or when we bump into each other on the office hallways.

Working together in a distributed team is a challenge and a chance at the same time. The challenge is obviously for a team without meeting face to face, to have off-topic and free conversations that occasionally lead to ideation. But it is also a chance to get closer as a team: you have to communicate more, you might also invite your colleges to your living room and finally, you can’t be called into your boss’s office. Working on a distributed team is also a great opportunity to learn more about different cultures and ways of thinking. A distributed team increases diversity naturally.

Getting the off-topic conversation to start can be a difficult task, I’ve seen the concept of a virtual coffee kitchen, but empty all the time because people are too busy. Maybe that might work, maybe not. Maybe concepts like virtual BarCamps and hackathons with just a general topic might work, to get people more together. What works for a certain group of people is online gaming, together. Just moving physical concepts into the virtual world does not work every time. New concepts need to be found, that works for everybody not only the nerds.

3 — It works best for people with a specific work ethic

It is easier said than done, working from home all-the-time. It works best for people with a certain type of work ethic. If you can motivate yourself to do your job while you are at home and you can focus on your work, not on Netflix, you might feel like there is nothing better than working from home. No commute, you are in control of the environment.

But if you are not, and you draw motivation from meeting other people in the office or from going to the office, working from home might not be your thing. But it does not mean that you can’t work in a distributed team.

Photo by Garrhet Sampson on Unsplash

Working in a distributed team is in many ways similar to working from home. You don’t meet your team members every day, and you have to hop on a call or write a message to discuss things. Most important for working in a distributed team is to have the discipline to document all your decisions transparently, right when they happen. It is absolutely crucial to be up to date with current topics for everyone in the team.

Additionally, working in a distributed team does only work for a company or a part of a company when leadership lives the same way. Hybrid setups, with some people living the office style and some living the distributed, will take both worlds apart. The worst idea might be to name it a privilege and an informal rule, for the management to work in the office and let everyone else decide. That’ll probably kill distributed teamwork.

4 — Flexibility and autonomy comes with responsibility

Working in a distributed team environment brings a new level of flexibility. As communication becomes asynchronous, you are free to work when it suits you and not when everyone is in the office.

When you can decide when to work, it is just a small step to work in an autonomous way. That means, getting to decisions in a new way, where you have to ask for input, the expert in the topic can and has to make the decision. Can working in a distributed team lead to more knowledge-based decisions and less hippo based decisions?

As you work more focused on things, you get things done faster, but at the same time it is important to write more about the things you do, hence you have to accept more effort in writing about your work.

Writing down decisions and talk about results, leads to less knowledge inequality and maybe more discussion, and finally to more inclusive decisions. More inclusive decisions can lead to better products when everyone is focused on the customer — whoever that is. Better results come at the cost of more effort in the pre and post-processing of the communication.

5 — Image, light, and sound

Maybe it is the tech guy in me, but I did figure out many things about video imaging, movie lighting, and sound quality. A reasonable image quality leads to a better experience when communicating over video. Fine audio makes it easier to listen to whom you are listening to.

When you are on a video call and don’t do anything about the position of your camera, you either look like a frog or like a giraffe, your camera is mounted too high or too low. Since we tend to use laptops these days most people look down onto their camera. Some use a dedicated webcam above their monitor and hence are looking up.

Having the camera on a level with your eyes helps much. Framing yourself in the image and creating a contrast between you and your background improve the experience of communication even further. Using a smartphone, a GoPro, or a DLSR as the camera takes the image quality to another level. But most build-in cameras do the job.

Having a dark background creates the need for appropriate lighting. A key-light is implemented easily with a desk lamp. If you want it done right, there are ok options on Amazon for a reasonable budget. If you want to go all-in, you might consider using a hair-light to improve the lighting even more. But be aware, too much light might mess up your build-in or dedicated webcam. You need a better camera where exposure can be controlled.

Photo by Cameron Smith on Unsplash

And then there is the sound quality — this is super important. If you use only the build-in laptop microphones the sound quality is, well, not gorgeous. You are better off using a dedicated microphone, like from a headphone or the probably best option for work use a desk microphone. For example a Blue Yeti or Snowball or something similar like the Rode NT-USB. Yes, there are way better microphones on the market, but we want good sound quality and not a studio setup.

Conclusions

It is challenging to work in this new work environment. Maybe it’ll stay, maybe not, but probably it has already changed the way we think about work for a long way into the future. If we embrace change and continuously develop our ways of working, we can sustainably change our working culture to be more inclusive, more productive, and more fulfilling.

Still, there is much to learn, so, what did you learn from working from home? Are you working in an efficient distributed team? Or is remote work and distributed work just a stupid idea for you?

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Otrek Wilke

Data Engineering made easy. Writing about things learned in data engineering, data analytics, and agile product development.