Leading Remotely: From Tokyo to Melbourne

For the last few years I’ve been working remotely from Tokyo, with only short trips back to Melbourne to visit clients and catch up with colleagues. Working remotely has its fair share of challenges (and benefits), and being a technical lead for a team while remote can add a few more to both lists.

When leading any team it is important to be available to provide guidance when questions arise, support team members and monitor the overall health of the project. When there is 8000km between you and the rest of the team, this poses some challenges. The internet has been revolutionary in improving communication across large distances, but humans are complex and effective communication is difficult without all the normal social cues available.

Being available

The most effective way I’ve found to present my availability has been to have an (almost) always on video stream running from my desk. On most projects this is simply my laptop camera streaming live to an ipad that sits on a table with the team. This setup makes it easy for team members to see when I am there and helps reduce any unconscious barriers to reaching out. I can turn my camera off when I’m unavailable e.g. having lunch, and people know I’m busy. If someone has something they want to talk to me about, all they need to do is wave or ask as they would anyone else in the team. Sure, people can send a slack message, but I’ve found that the days when I haven’t used this setup, people are less likely to call out for help. It also helps me to feel a part of the team and take part in some more casual everyday conversations as they arise in day to day work.

Hanging out with our clients and the team on a recent project

Breaking into a conversation (and making yourself heard)

Meetings are a necessity and often one of the main ways of communicating with the wider business or tackling a larger problem as a group. However, larger group meetings can be a challenge when you are the only one that is remote.  Breaking into a conversation can be tricky; a poor field of vision, lag and an inability to judge and modulate your own voice can make it awkward to step into a conversation. Unfortunately these things can often lead to accidentally talking over the top of someone, and some awkward back and forward interactions until it is clear who’s turn it is to speak.  Being a tech lead in such a situation is a double edged sword. It can be difficult to speak up, so there are times when I cannot find a point in the conversation to initially speak up, and sometimes that is a good thing – other team members get to talk through and thrash out an idea and less experienced people can get a chance to present their ideas. It also means that when I do speak (and usually on top of someone, sorry), people listen. 

Here are some approaches I’ve found helpful in bigger meetings:

  • When there is more than one remote attendee, it can be better if everyone joins the remote call individually which levels the playing field without audio black spots. 
  • Encourage flexible working for the greater team. If everyone has had to experience what it’s like ‘on the other side’, they will have greater empathy and strategies for adapting. At the same time, everyone on the team can gain a more flexible work life balance (and reduce business risks in these coronavirus times).
  • Drawing pictures can really help in progressing ideas. From a remote position, this can be as simple as sharing a screen and drawing ASCII art for simple concepts. Collaborative diagram software like mural (https://mural.co/) are good for fleshing out larger designs / concepts in a group. 
  • Enable video streams. Some video conferencing software will turn video off by default when joining a call. However, if you have the bandwidth, enabling video can make interactions more natural, remove perceived barriers and help to convey emotion which can be otherwise lost.

The everyday ceremonies

Even with video and messaging apps, sometimes my view and ability to monitor a team is going to be obstructed. 

Standups and retro are great places to alleviate gaps, but I find that story kickoffs and handovers become critical to ensure that there is a shared understanding of what each story encompasses (and just as importantly, what it doesn’t). With remote teams in different time zones, it can be difficult to schedule these with all the required people in a timely manner that doesn’t leave people waiting for work to do. It is tempting to skip these ceremonies when key people’s availability is scarce, but they are really important in order to ensure there is alignment between product, UX and developers, and being clear on scope is essential to maintaining a good flow of stories.

Can you spot me above on the iPad!

Which leads me to my next point…

Card grooming (what to detail)

If a card kickoff has to be delayed due to availability in certain time zones, then there should be enough detail on story cards so that the people picking up the work can start to investigate and get context for what is going to be involved before the kickoff is scheduled. This is a difficult balance, not only for remote teams. Producing a lot of detail creates extra work and can create re-work (it is inevitable that completed stories will affect future ones as understanding continues to evolve), but equally, a lack of detail will leave developers waiting for people before they can get started. Adding links to stories with applicable reference documentation (APIs, cloud services, relevant blog posts) can give a starting point for developers to start to think about a problem at a contextual level before diving into the detail in a card kickoff.

Culture and mentoring

Ensuring team members don’t get blocked is one important part of leading a team, building a good team culture is equally important, and challenging when working remotely. Coffee catch ups, team lunches… The opportunity for normal, casual, social interactions are much more limited. 

Weekly one on one calls can work, but they will never have spontaneous rapport building of a coffee catch up. Pairing sessions on Slack can be really effective – screen drawing with the Slack screen sharing is a great feature. Sometimes I feel this type of pairing is even better remote, than in person as the more experienced person cannot be tempted to just take over the keyboard. I find these interactions great at also demonstrating the things I don’t know, and more importantly, the process I go through to problem solve. 

Celebrating wins is one of the most difficult things that I have found when working remotely. It is very hard to simulate a team lunch or celebratory beverage. I usually have to resort to making the most of the time that I have when returning to Melbourne in person (and relying on other people in the team to make sure those lunches happen when I’m not there!). 

Like everything, working remotely and trying to be an effective leader is a work in progress, it  involves juggling priorities, compromising and iterating. By continuing to concentrate on everyday ceremonies and making use of the features of modern collaboration tools, it is possible to alleviate most of the challenges with leading a team remotely.

If you have any similar experiences and ways of improving team collaboration and effectiveness from a remote position, I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can catch me on LinkedIn or feel free to reach out via email, aspinks@dius.com.au.

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