Time management in a remote team

In a last year’s conference about remote work, which was held entirely over the Internet, there was an interesting point pointed out by one of the speakers: as long as everyone has their own office, even though in the same building, we all actually work remotely already.

Leading a small start-up company with some of our workers being employed remotely, I could relate – however, not completely. I would like to categorize work mainly into 2 categories: the creative work, and the execution.

In the first one, there would be things like “how to design a certain feature”, and in the 2nd one, there will be things like “how to have them built quickly and with high quality”.

1.) The creative work

One thing we do regularly in our company are daily meetings on which we try to remove any roadblocks in our work, and every some time, the meetings take a bit longer to determine what to do in the near (or sometimes, when talking strategy, also in a more distant) future.

  • Get together physically
    On such occasions, the team gets together in one place – some of us physically, some of us over a videocall. And according to our experience, the videocall usually makes things suboptimal. Whenever we would just lean over to the screen and point something on it, we need to share a screen instead and make sure everyone is on the same page. Also, drafting things on paper and sharing it among team members is difficult in a remote team, even though it’s the most natural way of drafting things.
    If I also mention occasional “bleeps” in the videocall and a bit of lag that sometimes occur, you can imagine that the remote team meetings – no matter how well we try to execute them – are not the same as the live meetings.
  • Get smarter together
    One of the main phenomenoms that occur when there are multiple people in one place, solving a particular problem or trying to make a progress on a particular topic, is the fact that collective intelligence and creativity of those people is way higher than the sum of their individual intelligences and creativities. Having people “live” in one room on such occasions is paramount to having the best outcomes, and this is what it’s substantially harder to achieve in a remote team setting that gets together over the online media. If I try to translate that into time efficiency, I believe that “less good is produced in the same time in a remote team” from the aspect of creativity.
  • Make a team retreat
    This is also one of the important reasons why a majority of well organized remote teams do occasional hackathlon-style events where all of the team members go together to a place somewhere (preferrably by the sea or in a pleasant climate) for a few days (a week, sometimes two) in order to do the creative part of the job done and meet each other in person – and rightly so, according to the results. They’re often called “working team retreats”.

2.) The execution

  • Get alone
    However, when talking about execution itself, I can completely relate that working from an own office space in a remote location or working from another office space but in the same building as a colleague, doesn’t make a difference. For tasks such as writing documentation, writing software, and so on, the alone-in-room setting usually produces the best results. The reason for that is because to do those things well and fast, one must fall into “a flow”, a state in which the person doing the job keeps a bunch of task-related information in her memory while completing the task. To get into “a flow”, it usually takes some time, and every interruption means that the person falls out of that. I like to compare it to rebooting the computer while you are working – to get back, you have to open up all programs and files again, and then remember where you left off, before you can proceed.
  • Have quality breaks
    With this kind of activities, in my experience, it makes absolutely no difference if you are in your own office across the ocean, or in a building together with a bunch of other people. As long as you are in your own room or box, the work should flow the same.
    Of course, there are external factors such as whether you have the ability to take quality breaks in your work, socialize with the people you like while taking the breaks, and so on, but this kind of questions are beyond the scope of this post.
  • Use good methodologies
    As quickly as a remote working person starts collaborating with other remotely based coworkers, things regarding time organization become crucial: like how much of the work can be done in what timeframe, how busy is each of the team members, who could take on new tasks in order to execute them by the deadlines – and in the end of the day, how many tasks can a team as a whole take to not choke itself.
    While there are many methodologies for team’s time organization and optimization (we generally play SCRUM in our company), most of them being built on a complete transparency of tasks and time allocation for all members, there are situations in which a more person-oriented view is required: particularly with freelancers or part-time coworkers, which may have a bunch of tasks to do for a bunch of different customers or collaborators, but can not simply share their whole tasklog among all of those. For cases like those, and for the purpose of simultaneous time-tracking (which is important particularly when charging customers for custom work), we built a small tool in-company. The tool was now used for 1 year by our team both on-site and with our remote coworkers and collaborators so well, that we had to offer it to the rest of the world. We called it DayPipe, because it reassembles the day as a pipe of time. Only so much water can go through pipe in a particular timeframe, and same is with the work that can be done in a day. :)

Remote work, enabled by today’s communication technologies, offers a bunch of real benefits and it’s not strange that more and more companies are embracing it. As everything, it has it’s benefits and drawbacks, and based on our experience, we can say that the execution part can be done equally or even more effectively in a remote work setting. However, for the creative part, which is especially important in start-ups and companies trying to innovate (which should be at least all product companies in our opinion!), the in-person meetings are still very necessary. For remotely based teams, the “working team retreats” to a nice location are a good problem solver for that.

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