How a remote workforce will improve your development teams

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Few company execs have internalized the power of a remote workforce when dealing with development projects. Time-to-market is sharply improved.

The talent quality you can recruit and retain is far superior, partly because you can find the best talent anywhere, even if it’s geographically far from the intense metro area where your operations are headquartered. And communication, which is often oddly referenced as a telecommuting weak spot, is actually orders of magnitude better than a headquarters-based team.

And yet, with all of those benefits and many more, so many company execs still resist remote workforces. The reason is psychological: Headquarters employees falsely see the hallway meeting and conference room debates as ideal communication and can’t envision it being done any other way. It’s a have/have not situation, where the executives making the remote decisions are hardly ever themselves remote workers.

The problem with managing a remote workforce is that it’s quite different from managing a physically-present HQ staff. If managed improperly, it’s a remote-resistant manager’s best shot at a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Let’s start with the advantages. Remote teams boost employee morale because it delivers an easier and more efficient lifestyle. Those employees are better rested and take that no-longer-needed commute time and can split it among family, friends and work. That translates into better employee retention. Even better, remote means your team can get the best talent it can afford as geography no longer needs to be a deal-killer. If the best coder for a specific narrow area lives 5,000 miles away from your headquarters, no problem. That talent can also be less expensive, as employees tend to factor their local cost-of-living into salary negotiations.

How about communications? With the right tools in place—think Slack, Google+, GoToMeeting, Zoom, CoderPad, Microsoft Lync, Eclipse, Confluence, Basecamp, SharePoint, Google docs, etc.—idea-sharing and work-status updates can happen far faster and easier than any conference rooms have known.

But what about those hallway meetings?

A hallway meeting is not really about efficiency. It’s about happenstance. It’s about two or more people running into each other in the hallways by accident and conversations and ideas materialize organically, not forced or premeditated. Can those kinds of situations ever happen with remote teams? Not only can they happen, but they do happen and they happen in a better and more efficient way.

Workers will talk with each other on social media or Slack or via mobile texting—or even old-fashioned audio telephone conversations—about matters other than work. And during those discussions, new ideas will materialize. It’s always been about your people interacting. As long as the people have these ideas, today’s tools allow them to easily shared. Brainstorming will happen with remote teams and it will happen more often.

That said, those brainstorming sessions won’t happen solely by luck. Managing a remote team requires a new way of thinking and of managing. That’s why it’s so crucial to leverage team managers who have experience managing remotely. Far too often, project managers who have been trained in physical environments internalize bad processes, ones that are far too reliant on tribal traditions.

Another critical concern that goes away with a properly managed remote workforce: the lack of corporate memory. That’s where a handful of employees become ultra-powerful because they are the only ones who know how certain systems work or what has and hasn’t been done on projects for many years. Why are they so indispensable? It’s because no one maintained proper knowledge management procedures.

Every detail about projects should be entered into the system and indexed so that anyone on the team—including someone whose first day of employment was yesterday—can easily and quickly access that information. Otherwise, companies run into two intolerable situations. First, they create these indispensable employees, who are essential to the operation not because of their talent, but because they are the only ones with the proper institutional history in their heads.

The second intolerable situation is that the company wastes mountains of person-hours solving and resolving and resolving again the identical problems. In other words, a worker in Boston runs into a problem, spends 25 hours working on it and solves it. Then, a week later, an employee in Hong Kong runs into the same problem and spends another 25 hours and comes up with the same solution. Then someone in Chicago does the exact same thing.

With a remote workforce, the proper tools and the proper management, everything gets documented and indexed in ways that are easily discoverable. The lack of effective knowledge management procedures is akin to a magic fairy granting you a great wish: You can have the most powerful brain in the universe, but you’ll have no memory and won’t be able to write anything down. You may find a cure for Cancer, but you’ll be spending your time re-curing Cancer every day. That’s how many enterprises operate today, and remote strategies can help. It moves you out of situations where your employees can hold you hostage.

Telecommuting is not for everyone. There are employees who need the daily personal contact of a traditional office environment. That means that you must make sure that you’re not imposing a remote lifestyle on a worker who isn’t suited to it. That said, employees are generally quite good at determining for themselves if they would work well in a remote environment. Have yet to run into someone who thought they could handle it and it was ultimately proven they couldn’t.

But when a company has a remote workgroup composed of people who want to work remote, yes, all of the attitudes specified here happen. Those people are generally happier, more comfortable and far more efficient than they were telecommuting large distances and trying to be productive in a corporate environment.

Also, it’s even more critical in a remote environment to arrange in-person get-togethers from time to time. Even as few as one or two group events a year can do wonders.

That’s all morale-based. As for communication improvements, the reason for that is clean. Employees don’t have the hallway option anymore. That means they must place phone calls or, far more likely, communicate digitally. That forces people to write their answers, which boosts communication quality sharply. No more vague recollections of what someone said two weeks. It’s all being digitally captured. And even many group phone calls, using services like Free Conference, integrate audio recordings into the package. That’s why remote communications tend to be far superior to the hallway meetings and conference room discussions of the physical world.

When using a remote workforce to code, the advantages for your company are huge, but only if you have people experienced in managing remote teams already on your team. If you don’t, either get one or find a team that already has those skills. Maybe we can help?

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