In my previous post, “How NOT to suck at working on a remote team“, I described some things we all can do to make our lives and the lives of our teammates better. However, no matter how hard we try, sometimes you’ll end up in a hostile working environment. If that happens, I want to share some secrets with you on how to survive when working on a remote team.
Know The Signs
When we land a new job, we are all thrilled and willing to start. Specially if it’s a project you have chosen to participate in. For me at least, starting a new project is always a very exciting moment.
However, sometimes, things start to go wrong soon.
Hostile -Or Toxic- Environments
Usually toxic environments follow a common pattern. You start to feel uncomfortable, but don’t know exactly why, or what’s happening. Perhaps you get the feeling that someone is inspecting your work like they didn’t trust you.
So you try your best to work hard and integrate with the team. However, no matter how hard you try, you are faced with distrust and a general feeling of not being part of the team or not being working enough.
You are in a hostile working environment.
Generally speaking, the warning signs you should look for is an everlasting feeling of discomfort, like something was wrong with you, or that there’s a piece that doesn’t quite fit in the way you work with the team.
Teams consist of people. Sometimes, it’s not the team, but one concrete person in the team that can’t work with you. Maybe they feel threatened by you, or are jealous because you earn more than they do. Perhaps you -positively- criticized their work but did it clumsily, and they took it personally.
This shit happens more frequently than your though. Let me tell you a story…
My Personal Story
In early 2015, Swift had just been released 6 months ago. I was completely thrilled about the new language from Apple. Even though that initial excitement has dwindled considerably now, I was an early adopter and an eager evangelist of Swift. I had already begun to code everything in the new language.
At the time, I started to work with a promising startup. Curiously enough, they had already designated a person that will maintain the app after I had developed it. This was due to some political and business decisions that had nothing to do with the development process. I had no problem with that.
However, the first thing this person did was elaborating a detailed report on why it was wrong to use Swift as a programming language for the project. Interestingly enough, this guy had never worked with Swift himself. Also, he didn’t even care to contact me and ask me about my decision to use Swift or the pros and cons of the language VS using Objective-C. He just presented the report to the CTO without saying a word to me.
Obviously, the CTO immediately contacted me, asking about the situation. Hence, I had to justify why I had chosen Swift and why it was a bad idea to acquire technical debt by sticking to Objective-C.
I was pretty pissed off at the time.
As time passed, it seemed I could not get along well with this guy, no matter what. Later, I understood that he was feeling threatened by me. He knew he would have to maintain the App later, and he had no idea about Swift. That’s no excuse for his behavior, but helped me understand what was going on.
Is It Me?
The previous story carries an important lesson. There will always be projects where you can’t seem to get along well with the team or a concrete teammate.
As I mentioned in my previous post, in these situations, we tend to think that we are doing something wrong. Maybe we offended someone or said something inappropriate? Perhaps our expertise is not on par with the expectations?
No, it’s not you.
Of course, there are many situations where we are not able to deliver our very best. We all go through those phases. The difference between a hostile working environment and a good one is how the team responds to this scenario.
We are all humans. Thus, if you are putting your heart and soul in what you do, but you are not able to deliver your best, there should be a transparent, open communication between you and the rest of the team about what’s happening.
Quitting Is The Best Option (If You Can Afford It)
So, what can you do when you find yourself in these kind of situations?
Easy, move on.
You will feel happier and liberated. There’s an important lesson that you learn when you work for years on some -luckily not many- crappy projects and companies: your time is worth more than any amount of money.
We only live once, and we spend a lot of time at work. Thus, it’s important to be happy with what you are doing, and the people you are working with.
However, sometimes is not that simple. Maybe you need the money or you feel like you should finish the relationship with your customers in the best way possible.
Tips To Survive When Working On A Remote Team
If quitting the project is not an option, or you need to hang in there for a while, these tips will help you avoid further complications.
I know some of these measures may seem too exaggerated or over-the-top, but I have gone through enough awkward situations in my life to know that they will make you sleep better at night until you can get out.
Of course, these measures may not apply if you have an amazing relationship with your current team.
Even though it may be a hassle, one of the best things you can do is documenting everything. Seriously. Document everything.
And I mean everything.
Don’t accept any request or task unless it’s sent to you by email. If your team does stand-ups or meetings, where you are given new assignments, send a quick summary of the expected actions on your side after the meeting, and have someone send you back an email with a confirmation.
Also, document the work you do. Do regular commits and make sure that you can access the log later, or write down every day the hours that you have worked and on which parts of the project.
If eventually things get worse, you will be able to probe that you complied with your work. Additionally, I have been in startups where the CEO would get angry and ask “Why did you work in this for a week?”, forgetting that he had asked for it on a standup meeting a week ago.
Defend Your Work
If you do a potentially polemic technical decision, like incorporating a framework or library, or using a concrete language or algorithm, make sure to communicate it.
Describe the reasons why you decided to do it, and make sure you get a documented -i.e: email- confirmation that they agree with your decision.
Also, don’t let others criticize your work consequence-free. Without taking it personally, of course, explain the reasoning behind what you have done and the technologies you have chosen.
Be professional but firm. If someone insists on systematically attack your work, ask this person about alternatives or suggestions to improve things. Try to bring the conversation to a positive spot.
Help Others, But Don’t Be A Fool
It’s ok to help others and leave aside your work from time to time to lend a hand to a colleague…
However, don’t forget that your work comes first. If you are busy or have deadlines creeping up on you, and your working environment is not welcoming, take care of your stuff first.
If you do help someone, make sure the rest of the team knows about it. Of course, do this in a humble way, like mentioning that during the daily standup:
“Today apart from doing A, B, and C, I helped Peter with X, Y and Z…”
You don’t want to look eager to say you helped Peter instead of working on your stuff. Nevertheless, clearly specify what you spent your time on.
Don’t Do Any Criticism
If you find yourself in a toxic environment, or working with a hostile teammate, it’s better to avoid any criticism, even positive.
It might sound extreme or unprofessional, but this is different from only doing positive criticism when you are working in a normal, welcoming team.
Let’s be clear. When you are not comfortable at your current job, and you really want out, you don’t care about the project’s output. And that’s ok.
Thus, don’t focus on criticizing or trying to improve anything. Focus on your stuff and delivering the best work possible. Trust me, it helps.
Avoid The Stockholm Syndrome
When we are in a stressful situation, and our relationship with our team or some teammates is just not working, we tend to look for a friendly face. Someone that may understand us. Someone we can talk to about how we are feeling.
Don’t look for friends in those situations. They are your teammates. Nothing else.
I tend to fall in this trap too often. You won’t believe how many times I’ve been in a team where someone pretended to be my friend to get something from me.
Be professional and nice with your teammates, but don’t fall in the trap of considering them your friends.
Keep Your Goal In Mind
If you find yourself unable to sleep at night, stressed or in a constant nervous state because your work is making your life sour, it’s time to ask yourself some questions.
If you want to quit, quit. If you need to wait for the right time, do your best to deliver a quality work until you can step aside.
However, try to emotionally detach yourself from the project.
I know this is easier said than done, but keep your goal in mind. You are no longer part of the project in practice, so just finish your work elegantly and look for other projects.
In this article, I talked about how to survive when working on a remote team when you no longer feel comfortable with some or all of your teammates.
If you find yourself in a toxic working environment or with a hostile teammate, it’s better to step aside. However, when that’s not possible, I described some suggestions to help you sleep at night and have a nicer transition when you finally are able to quit.
Hope it helped. Did you find yourself in this kind of situations? Have a story to share? Don’t hesitate to do so in the comments.