The approach to development is starkly different in 2023 than it was just five years ago. What has changed? The vendor industry has grown almost fully decentralized, while many corporations opt to forego offices in favor of remote work. However, such a big corporate culture change requires rebuilding your work ethic.
Today, we will talk about how to manage a remote development team. The approach will be focused on making sure the members are collaborating smoothly, meeting their deadlines and goals, and that communication is as clear as it would be in-office. For that, we’ll use the experience that DigitalSuits has had in remote work.
As a team of professionals working remotely, we have faced all kinds of challenges. Wildly different time zones, misaligned communication styles, and a lack of transparency are some of the most common issues. Thanks to prudent management and a level-headed approach, we overcame these problems. Now, we will teach you how to do the same.
Creating a remote-friendly work environment
Before you launch headfirst into an ambitious project, some groundwork must be done. First and foremost, a company needs to establish the right conditions for developers to thrive. When it comes to managing remote development teams, we believe there are three base values you must establish:
- open communication.
It’s natural that working with a team from across the world, you might have some apprehensions. After all, you’re putting your ideas into the hands of people you don’t even see. Couple that with the fact that oversight is usually done by their on-premises employees, and it’s understandable that some doubts may arise.
However, collaboration is a two-way street, and you need to look at it from the devs’ perspective. They need your trust to work uninterrupted and have the discretion to make choices on your behalf. That way, your project won’t be stalled while you email back and forth or do obsessive quality checks. Believe in your own choices and know the team you picked deserves trust.
This means establishing a chain of command, of sorts, so that everyone knows who’s in charge of what. That way, a mess-up by a project manager won’t reflect poorly on the designer or developers. Similarly, accountability means that people can take credit for breakthroughs and stellar work, guaranteeing that their contribution is valued.
Assigning clear roles in the team will also help the developers manage themselves, so to speak. They’ll know whose opinion takes priority, what responsibilities each of them has, and how to approach unexpected roadblocks. It goes a long way toward conflict prevention, making the ultimate task of managing remote development teams easier.
Clear communication is essential, whether you’re working with your in-house team or managing remote developers. Let everyone know who the point of contact is, how (and when) to reach them, and what issues can be on the table. A structured chain of command will help keep the team steady and alert you early to brewing issues.
Whatever healthy communication approaches you’ve used previously should be applied here. This means developers need to be in the loop about any changes or plans. Discussions on major points in the project should involve the people working on it, and a general sense of openness must be fostered.
Selecting the right team members
Before we talk about the professional side of choosing developers, it’s important to briefly touch upon what “right” can mean. In addition to being experienced, a remote developer should fit into your mold. This means they must adhere to the same principles you’ve established for yourself and be willing to listen and communicate.
Don’t just settle for a team that has expertise, especially for long-term projects. Even though you might not be working in the same office, you will still be communicating every single day. Ensure that you have a rapport and can be confident in the potential of your work together.
Identifying key skills and qualities for remote developers
As you select a dedicated development team, it’s important to have online interviews that are as comprehensive as an in-person meeting. Prepare a list of questions beforehand and ask about more than just their qualifications. As mentioned, you need to know that their values match yours. It’s not just about the tech stack, but about this person being part of your squad.
Onboarding should be efficient, with all documentation and access sorted out before the hiring is done. Prepare the relevant information for the team members and appoint someone to be their guide for the initial stages. This helps make the collaboration smooth from the start. Managing remote software developers is all about being prepared, so pay special attention to it. Speaking of preparation, it’s vital that you communicate right away what’s expected of the employees. Beyond the actual technical tasks, you must establish the details of how the vendor must communicate with you, how often check-ins should happen, and so on.
Defining project scope, objectives, and deliverables
One of the most important tips for managing remote developers is that the basics matter. Have all the technical matters been resolved before you begin with clearly outlined performance metrics? The team must understand what’s expected of them, how they can achieve it, and what milestones they are trying to reach.
As a Top E-commerce Development Company, we know that even experts can’t thrive without clarity. Digital Suits puts an emphasis on starting off on the right foot and having quantifiable feedback. While the project can morph as time goes by, the objectives you set initially must remain relevant. In short: don’t throw curveballs at the people bringing your ideas to life.
Utilizing communication tools and platforms for effective collaboration
This is a multi-faceted point and a highly important one, as any communication you do will be done online. So even the tool you choose matters more than one might expect. While you might assume that something like Slack is the standard, regional differences may result in you having to run most communication through Zoom, email, or even some proprietary custom tools.
In addition to that, there are a few key points to address. In this section of our guide on how to manage remote developers, we’ll talk about the following:
- Managing time zone differences
- Scheduling meetings and check-ins
- Tracking and structuring communication.
Managing time zone differences
Gaps between time zones are the most obvious problem, especially when collaborating with teams on an entirely different continent. Realistically, you should have at least a two- or three-hour overlap where both you and the vendor are at the office. While that’s enough for a quick status update, it can be a bit of a shock for companies used to in-house development.
Scheduling meetings and check-ins
With the previous problem, scheduling a call becomes more complicated than usual. Our tip is to take quality over quantity and go for longer check-ins, with fewer of them per week. This should go without saying, but try to schedule calls at acceptable hours for both you and the vendor. That means calls that are not too early or an hour before it’s time to head out.
Tracking and structuring communication
This is particularly relevant for written communication, of course. Ensure that you have logs of any messages sent between you and the vendor, regardless of where they were sent. After each check-in and call, structure the covered points into a comprehensive report. We’d recommend having the vendor’s management sign off on it, as well, in case anything gets forgotten.
By keeping a log of the information shared between you, you have a chance to review what was said and promised. However, perhaps even more importantly, you can use it as a point of reference to improve your collaboration. Looking back at your communication can help find the problem points and address them, sometimes even before they become a big issue.
Navigating cultural differences
The discussion of how to manage remote developers cannot be held without accounting for the vastly varied cultures around the world. We’re not just talking about different attitudes to values such as inclusivity and diversity, although you should seek them in your vendors. After all, professionalism means respect and awareness of your partners’ cultures.
Now, in addition to that, there are also very different approaches people take to both business in general and feedback in particular. Some regions have unspoken rules, such as harsh but honest feedback being the norm. Others may be overly gentle when trying to review someone’s performance. You need to figure out how your team communicates and use that.
Tips for effective remote project management
The first thing to remember is that these developers have not worked with you as long as your regular team. Some of the things you may expect to be known from the start will actually need to be explained. Any jargon or approaches to internal processes have to be clarified, too. Basically, these people may be new to you, but effective management is about making them comfortable.
The second is prioritizing KPIs and deadlines over micromanagement. You might be tempted to watch over the remote team twice as much as you would the in-house staff. That would be a mistake, as you would be spending extra time on minute details and showing you don’t trust the team that you hired. Instead, give them metrics and track their performance.
Third, try to ensure video communication, even if you’re the only one with your camera on during calls. While it’s not a face-to-face talk, having a visual to connect to makes the team more likely to pay attention and really tune in. Make it feel like an engaging, personalized discussion, instead of a dry business meeting.
Agile methodologies adapted for remote teams
While remote teams have their own unique conditions and challenges, it’s absolutely possible to use Agile for them. This includes pair programming if the team is big enough and appointing a so-called boundary spanner, someone to fill the possible gaps in the team's knowledge. Having a tight structure with no weak points is a positive, regardless of the work type: remote or in-house.
You can also use an Agile approach to progress reports, with team members checking in at the end of every day. This helps retain momentum and start off the next day with a clear goal in mind. Plus, that way, you see the full picture at all times and can see what may be adjusted to improve the development process.
Identifying common challenges in remote team dynamics
In addition to building effective tracking, you need to have strategies for conflict resolution. Whatever you have in place for your in-house team should work too. However, be mindful that some conflicts may be brewing without you noticing them. Being proactive is the right choice here, as you’re not seeing a lot of interactions and need to initiate “team health” check-ups.
Most challenges usually arise from small things: someone coming to work in a bad mood, a mistake that derails progress even a little, or just different opinions on how to do something. Remember not to try to find the guilty party or make a big deal out of conflict resolution. Work things out in a low-key manner, indicating that a little trouble shouldn’t disrupt things.
Promoting work-life balance in a remote setting
A recent study has highlighted the most common problem for remote workers: a lack of work-life balance. This does not have to be the case, as their well-being is your priority when managing remote development teams. Since you have the ability to talk to your team on Slack, Zoom, or whatever your method of choice is, take advantage of it and discuss these issues.
Do individual check-ups with the employees to see how they’re doing. Try not to address these issues publicly, though, as that may make certain developers uncomfortable and less likely to share. Instead, simply indicate that metrics may be important but should not lead to burnout. A healthy and motivated team does better work than a stressed one, simple as that.
Integrating project management tools and collaborative software
It’s important to use relevant tools to manage remote developers and track progress. While this includes mainstays such as Jira and Trello, other options have emerged too. Creately and the relatively new Asana are both excellent alternatives, especially if you find it easier to structure thin