How not to suck at working on a remote team
If you are a freelancer, chances are you have already gone through the experience of working on a remote team.
However, if you have just started, or are thinking about starting your freelancing career, you might have some doubts about how different it is from working in an office or cubicle.
In either case, there’s always room for improvement and making your job nicer.
The Experience Of Working On A Remote Team
Ever since I left my 9 to 5 job, I’ve been working remotely as a freelance developer. I’ve had the pleasure of working with startups and companies from all over the world. As a result, I’ve had to learn to deal with very different kinds of teams and people.
However, especially at the beginning, it’s easy to mess things up and -probably unintentionally- create an awkward situation with your teammates.
Nobody wants that.
Your work environment matters. Even if you work remotely from home -or perhaps, especially when you do-, a good working atmosphere is essential.
When all members of a team have a nice relationship, remote work can be a blessing. Here, “nice” doesn’t mean “friendly”, it means “polite” and “respectful”. You don’t necessarily need to be friends with your teammates. If that happens, that’s great. However, in my experience, you don’t usually make friends with other team members.
Is It Me?
Unfortunately, throughout your career, you will sooner or later land in a toxic working environment. I certainly have gone through some of them myself.
In such scenarios, no matter what you do, it’s impossible to do things right. The relationship with your boss or teammates is always tense, they never seem to be happy with your work, and you start to wonder if it’s because of you.
Maybe you did something wrong? Perhaps you offended someone? Or maybe your expertise is just not on par with what’s expected from you?
Let me assure you that most of the times, it’s not you. No matter how polite, professional or kind you are, there will always be situations where the best you can is simply not enough. And that’s not your fault. It might not be anyone’s fault. Some people just don’t fit in certain teams and vice-versa.
Even though, in those situations, it’s usually better to just resign and look for a job somewhere else, sometimes it’s not that easy. For these occasions, I am writing a post soon called “How to survive when working on a remote team”.
However, in the vast majority of teams, there’s a lot that you can do to make sure that you don’t become “that guy”, and collaborate in building a pleasant, nice working atmosphere for everybody to work in.
What You CAN Do
These are some of the things that you can do to collaborate in building a nice working environment when working on a remote team.
Be Aware Of Nonverbal Communication
Nonverbal communication is essential for us, human beings. Research suggests that the majority of the message involved in any communication is nonverbal. This means that what you say -the actual words- play the less important role when compared to facial expression, body language, etc.
This fact, of course, has important implications for remote teams.
When you are writing to your teammates, using Slack, Whatsapp, Skype or just plain email, you are reducing everything to just words. That’s one of the main reasons why emoticons and Emojis exist. We need to express that missing piece of information.
If you happen to be calling them via Skype or any other video conference tool, the situation improves, but still most of the communication is lost.
As a result, you need to be clear on your message, because it might be easily misunderstood or misinterpreted. Emojis are your friend too. Try your best to avoid ambiguity in your messages.
If you want to tell a joke to a teammate, be aware of the fact that they might misread it and think you are criticizing them. A sincere apology is never out of place.
Cultural Aspects Matter
As a Spaniard, especially being from the south of Spain, cultural aspects were initially an issue for me. And they still are sometimes.
In Spain, we are used to telling jokes and have a -more or less- relaxed working relationship with our co-workers. However, some cultures -North European countries- are used to a more professional, formal working environment.
On those scenarios, I sometimes have found myself apologizing to some teammates because of a cultural misunderstanding, a special way of saying things, etc.
Different cultures approach work very differently too. It’s usual for North American startups to apply a more strict Scrum philosophy. When I started working with them, years ago, I thought I was being micromanaged. Suddenly I had to document everything I did, fill Jira tickets of the smallest of my tasks, and log my working hours. If that was not enough, I had 2 standup meetups a day, lasting for 40-45 minutes average. I thought I was easily “losing” 15-20% of my work time doing those things.
It takes you some time to realize that this is actually part of your work too. It’s not that they don’t trust you and need you to record every single thing you do. It’s just the way they culturally approach work.
Additionally, be aware that different cultures have different points of view on polemic topics such as gender role, sexual orientation, religion, politics, etc. It’s better to avoid those topics altogether but, if they appear, try to always be respectful and understand that your points of view may clash with your teammates’.
Last, but not least, if a startup is composed of family members or close friends, there will be an “inner culture” or a special vibe among them that you are probably missing. You must be aware of that too.
Ask, Ask, Ask, And Then Ask Some More
Every startup or company has its own policies, best practices and ways of doing things. What might be acceptable for a startup, might be intolerable for another.
It’s always better to ask in advance than regretting later. Don’t be afraid to ask your colleagues, CTO or boss.
Some of the things to consider include:
- Do they have a Scrum policy in place? Are you supposed to create and update your tickets, or there’s a Scrum Master doing that for you?
- What’s the level of granularity for your tasks? Some startups -especially American ones- dissect every functional requisite or screen of the application in thousands of tickets, while others just use general tickets like “Login Screen”. We all work better with an approach or the other, but you need to adapt to the rest of the team and the startup’s way of doing things.
- What are the preferred communication channels of the team? Do they use chats like Slack? Email? Video conference via Skype or similar?
- Who’s who? It’s important to know who you can ask about certain topics.
- How about Git? Do they have a repository, or you should use your own? Even though it may seem ridiculous, make sure to ask what are the best practices for commits and pushes, how often are you supposed to do it, if at all.
Different People, Different Approaches
As an example of the above, when I worked in LetGo, a second-hand buy&sell app that is now massive in the states, I enjoyed a great deal of freedom. The startup was Spanish, and so were most of my teammates, so especially at the beginning, even though we had regular meetings and tasks organization, we didn’t use Jira or any other ticket system, so I could work really fast and at my own pace.
Some would argue that this lack of control is terrible and can ruin a project. However, that approach didn’t stopped LetGo from launching successfully. Currently, they are one of the most successful startups in their business area.
Conversely, when working with my last startup, Seguru, I was supposed to give a single commit on every small functionality added or bug fixed, and do a push of all the commits at least once a day.
I failed to ask that initially and, as a result, I got to a somewhat awkward situation that could have easily been avoided. I should have been more proactive and ask in advance. However, this approach works and we are safely on our way to our first release.
Thus, I’m not stating that one approach is better than the other. There’s no right answer. Personally, I think both a total lack of organization and an excessive micromanagement can lead to a potentially disastrous situation. In my opinion, a middle point is probably the nice spot, but then again, that changes from team to team. Bear that in mind and ask. Always ask.
Again, remember: what is perfectly fine for a startup or team might be completely unacceptable for another.
Always Be Polite And Professional
I think this might be a common sense practice, but sometimes it’s easy to forget.
You should always be confident of your skills and expertise. Eventually, you will face criticism, deserved or not. In those situations, you should always treat your teammates politely and professionally.
That applies to the opposite situation too. Always be respectful and polite with your teammates. They might have different skills or experience than you.
Be Kind To People. You Don’t Know What They Are Going Through
Having a tight deadline or being under stress can get the worse of ourselves. In those situations, it’s easy to forget that the rest of our teammates are human beings, with their problems and their circumstances.
In some occasions, we get frustrated when things don’t work, and it’s easy to feel that we are being held down by someone in our team that’s not properly doing their job.
Before getting angry at them or blaming them for your problems, stop for a moment and think. Consider that these teammates may be under a lot of stress themselves, or they may be having some personal problems, health issues, or any other situation. I’m not stating that you should just ignore a potentially problematic situation for the team or the product. However, always be nice and thoughtful. You don’t know what this person may be going through.
It’s always better to approach the situation offering your help and politely asking if there’s something you can do improve things.
I know this is more easily said than done. I have run through some of these situations myself and have not responded as properly as I should. However, I think we all should try our best to help other members of the team. Your attitude can completely make a difference.
Don’t Criticize A Person, -Positively- Criticize Their Work
Never do negative criticism. That never works. Also, try not to take criticism to a personal area. When talking about something that can be improved or -let’s face it- is just plain wrong, refer to the product or strategy, not to the person.
Even when you do, make sure to do it in a constructive way. Even when you think something is a piece of shit, don’t say “This is a piece of shit”. Try and say “I think we could improve this by doing X, Y and Z”.
I know from my own experience that sometimes this can be hard. However, remember that we all make mistakes. Nobody’s perfect. No, not even you, and when you make a mistake, you would probably want people to be as nice to you, and as constructive in their criticisms, as you are to them.
But… Keep In Mind Your Worth And Value
Nevertheless, as I mentioned before, there are teams that will always make you feel uncomfortable. Every team is different, and you will feel better working in some environments than in others.
Thus, in those situations, you should always keep in mind that the most important thing is how YOU feel. You should be alright working on a remote team. Never underestimate your value or worth by the feedback you get from a team. You are a professional, and if you have tried everything and still you are feeling bad, maybe it’s not your fault, and you should look for another job, or talk to your CEO or boss about the situation.
Keep tuned for the companion article, called “How to survive when working on a remote team”.
In this post, I shared with you some strategies for working on a remote team. When we are working remotely, we should be extra careful when dealing with our teammates in order to build a nice, pleasant working environment. Applying a clear communication, being nice, polite and professional, and understanding that different teams expect different things, can help you enjoy working with them.
However, it’s always important to bear in mind that sooner or later, you will run into teams where it’s harder for you to fit and feel comfortable. That’s normal, and with time and experience, you will learn to deal with those situations. Always be professional and kind to people.
Those were my suggestions, but I would like to hear yours. Have an interesting story to tell? A piece of advice for remote freelancers? Share it with us in the comments below!