Problems of distributed teams and methods for solving them

    Our team has been growing and successfully developing since 2009, despite the fact that the vast majority of employees do not go to the office. They sit in their Moscow and St. Petersburg apartments, Lviv and Kharkov dachas, Minsk and Nizhny Novgorod houses, Thai condos and Turkish bungalows. When we hold another business meeting in a beautiful Moscow office with a potential client, we inevitably hear the question: “Where is your office?” We answer honestly: "In Nizhny Novgorod, but in fact, most of our employees do not go there, they work from home ."
    There is a short pause, during which, most likely, the customer imagines something like this picture:


    For more than six years of work, we have encountered a small number of difficulties "removed", and with a significantly greater amount of distrust and myths about remote work. The Remote book pleased us and seemed to say “you guys are on the right track,” but, unfortunately, did not give useful tips on difficulties. Therefore, in this article I will collect those tips and solutions that will help not to step on our rake and not to reinvent the wheel.

    Before proceeding to the analysis of problems and solutions that will be structured into categories (organizational, communication, infrastructure and self-organization), I will briefly answer the question “are we satisfied with the remote format after 6 years of work?”. A clear yes:
    • We can choose the best of the best in our business, including people with reduced mobility, or, for various reasons, not having the ability / desire to leave their village, which is significantly remote from IT centers.
    • After placing a vacancy on LV, we get about 40-50 responses per day (which is 10+ times higher than the “office” indicators). This provides us with high competition and allows us to be picky.
    • During working hours, we work, and are not distracted by a smoke from the coffee machine, and we don’t sit with glass eyes trying to remember “what did I do before he came up and distracted me with my urgent question?”.
    • And we do not waste time in traffic jams, we are not charged with negative from the surrounding reality of the subway. And yes, we sometimes meet. We try to do it in warm countries for a week - we can do something!

    In general, the advantages for us were obvious from the very beginning, and over time they were only confirmed. But then the problems of the task will go .

    1. Infrastructure problems

    Offices and business centers are usually well thought-out so that employees always have electricity, internet and coffee. In a remote place you have to take care of everything yourself!

    1.1 Internet / electricity may be lost at the very moment when the employee must participate in an important call with the client.

    The solution is simple: 2 Internet lines are required. Mobile Internet in reserve is a must. Problems with electricity seemed far-fetched to us only until we ran into them. It was thanks to them that we developed the rule “only laptops, no stationary computers” (for fans of five monitors, a laptop is not a hindrance - if there is electricity, at least). 2 high-speed Internet + mobile per month will cost an average of $ 20-30 in Russia and $ 30-50 in Belarus. In Thailand it’s more expensive (it’s better to take both mobile phones), in Turkey it’s cheaper (also excellent mobile Internet in any field).

    1.2 There is no shared network storage, you can lose the necessary files

    Solution: pfff, in the 21st century this is not a problem. Github, GoogleDrive, Dropbox, OneDrive, Yandex.Disk ... What's important here:
    • One admin for all storage
    • Regular cross-archiving of all repositories
    • Regular archiving of all storages to a separate resource not accessible to anyone

    For the above three points, we never had problems, although we heard about them from colleagues in the remote workshop.

    But, at first, we had difficulty finding information: “where is what? So they threw me a link on Skype to Google Doc, where is it? ”... The decision was the regulation on the placement of files in directories and their naming. Since then, knowing the type of project and its name, you can immediately understand where daddies with his official documents should lie, where with the workers, and who should have access there.

    1.3 Potential Data Security Issues

    The first kind of problem is unintentional : open Wi-Fi, viruses, laptop loss / theft. Here the solution is simple: centralized installation of anti-virus, corporate policy for setting a password. Some of the most secret X-Files are available only after connecting to a remote machine with SSL.

    The second variety is industrial espionage. Here, for example, an employee of our company will post some mega-secret document in the public domain. In some large, but not very adequate companies that I know, this is solved by tape-sealed USB ports and work computers without Internet access. And, yes, they sometimes put condoms on their mice so as not to get infected. In general, we postponed this issue until we got access to the documents under the heading "top secret", and for now we have limited ourselves to a competent NDA and careful selection of employees.

    2. Organizational problems

    To be honest, I do not believe that in remote work there are any organizational problems that are absent or appear less in standard office work. But according to the results of many discussions, I have accumulated a whole bunch of fears and concerns expressed by people who have never worked with a remote person. Let's analyze them too:

    2.1 Remote employees are more difficult to manage, less clarity and control

    This statement most often sounds like an excuse for executives working in a remote format. In fact, without an adequate organization of work, the problems are about the same. Standing with an employee over his soul and peering at his screen is not a solution. What is the solution for us:
    • Each employee (manager, leading specialist or beginner) should always have both a global strategic plan for at least six months and specific tasks . Specific! With deadlines, in the task management system. Depending on the level of specialist, tasks of different sizes. For beginners - no more than a day. Several weeks are also possible for mothers.
    • All tasks are in TMS (we have this redmine), the status of who is working on which is set, the deadlines in case of shifts change immediately, tracking progress is a pleasure.
    • Every morning - discussion of tasks for the day . By departments, by projects, in-house stand-ups. In some projects, we’re exchanging written “what are your plans for the day?”, In some - fixed calls. As a standard, coordination of plans per day takes every employee no more than 10 minutes, with the exception of projects where the customer insists on a thorough call in the morning - there it comes to half an hour.
    • Every evening - a report. We were not able to use standard systems, so we washed down our own, in which the employees in the evening indicate on which project how much time was spent, what type of activity and what result. We implemented the accounting system easily, through the explanations of “why?” And requests not to spend more than 2 minutes a day filling out the report. This is quite enough for a clear understanding of the situation!
    • In all innovations, discipline is very important , therefore, a specially trained employee daily checks for completeness of reports and the relevance of tasks for everyone. Probably, if not for this, we would slide into chaos and bedlam :)

    2.2 Possible knowledge transfer problems

    From the very beginning, we were afraid that an irreplaceable employee would go on vacation - and without him we would not find any insanely important information. Therefore, we immediately began to collect and structure everything . First there were google files, then google folders, then the above-mentioned rules for placing files appeared. And once we realized that it would be even more convenient to make an introductory google file with links and descriptions of all the important google files and google folders to keep it open all the time or at least in bookmarks. And this file is just a whole window into the big google world of googlodoks :)

    Now I recall the problems that were in the companies where I worked in the office with the transfer of knowledge, and I understand that the remote is VERY disciplined in this regard. In open space you can shout "What is this? Where is it? How to use? ". And after a month, forget and scream again. On a remote site, writing in Skype and writing in an instruction are the same costs in time, therefore, when a question appears, we choose the wiki extension, and not a personal answer. As a result, no one again asks again.

    Summing up the organizational "problems" - they are no different between office and remote work. In addition, the likelihood of losing information sent in writing is significantly lower than in the case of oral discussion.

    3. Communication difficulties

    In terms of communications, of course, the differences between remote and office work are obvious. You can’t come up, ask, go chat in the smoking room. Something is better, something worse. Let's go through the points:

    3.1 You can’t come and chat live

    Lord, thank you so much for that! The effectiveness of remote work is largely determined precisely by the fact that you are not pulled every 5 minutes either to solve the next urgent issue in life, or to discuss office sandwiches.

    Written communication becomes more structured, the stream of thoughts in writing is streamlined. To make it easier to find information, and its flow does not interfere with concentrated work, we adhere to the rules:

    • All urgent questions - by phone. We respond to Skype and mail when it is convenient, and not immediately right now . At first, such an arrangement seemed terrible to many, but now I have 5-10 calls per week on my strength.
    • Skype is the main tool for operational communication (telegrams, if anything, perform the same functions no less successfully, but we still have Skype because of habit). The default mode is Do Not Disturb. Chats are divided into departments and projects + of course flood. Flooding in work chats is a terrible sin, which is punishable by socially useful work . If you are not the host / master in this chat, turn off notifications, but put / alertson on your nickname.
    • With each employee - their agreement on the speed of response . If you work directly with a client or, God forbid, technical support, please be kind to configure your mail client to check mail every 5 minutes. In other cases - relax and work!
    • A terrible problem occurs with different time zones. With an employee living in the States, for a long time we could not establish interaction due to too large differences in time, and as a result, she got the tasks that required the least communication. Fortunately, all of Eurasia makes it possible to equalize working hours by 10-19 MSK, and in some cases it is even convenient for us that employees living in Thailand go to work several hours earlier than the rest. In any case, according to the schedule, we agree individually and cannot guarantee complete freedom - it is important to stipulate this from the very beginning!

    3.2 Lack of personal communication can lead to demotivation

    For some people, this is exactly so , and there is nothing to be done about these extroverts. Several extroverts have been working in our company for several years, they suffer, but they love the team too much to leave. But in general, in the selection process, we began to concentrate on introverts, for whom remote work is a dream. Of course, we try to compensate for this point:
    • Local meetings with "pieces" of the team (in the direction or according to the project, usually up to 5 people)
    • Joint holidays in various countries, warm and not only
    • Interest Flooding Chats
    • Etc.

    As a result, despite the remote format of work, we managed to achieve friendships and close acquaintances.

    BUT! There are shy employees, like me, who are very glad that there is no need for continuous communication, and there are people who find it too difficult. The only solution found for them is to try to include them in the work on the same project, and here they call up all the time there (sort of like working;)), chatting in floods, etc. But the long-term solution is one: look for remote introverts, especially since we clearly prevail in IT.

    4. Self-organization difficulties

    Each employee on a remote site, it would seem, has a huge advantage: colleagues do not pull, bosses do not drip on the brains ... But there are worse difficulties: wives, children, dogs, escaped coffee and a burnt omelet. Not everyone will be able to work in such conditions, so we try to recruit remotely mature enough people who do not require control and sincerely love their work . But for them there are a couple of useful tips:

    4.1 Workspace must be allocated

    Work and non-work are 2 parallel lines that should not intersect. If children are at home, a separate office is needed. Demanding wife - earplugs.

    But even if no one is distracting, sliding into Facebook climbing or playing games is very simple when no one is above the soul. Therefore, an important rule is that a work laptop is just for work. That is, you can’t open social networks on it (except for those cases when it is required to work), launch toys and DO NOT work in any way.

    Over time, you begin to get used to and switch. Even in a familiar home apartment, after a couple of months of work, you very quickly begin to feel your laptop as the main workspace, and a specific chair or sofa gradually becomes an office. As a result, including a work laptop in the workspace, you immediately find yourself in the “I work” state.

    4.2 Working rituals help you enter the stream

    Sometimes you take a work laptop, sit in the OFFICE work chair ... but you don’t want to work ... At first it can be difficult, and rituals really help here. For some, this is special music; for some, headphones help. My ritual is always the same:
    • Make coffee
    • Write tasks in your favorite notebook
    • Through "I do not want" to execute any of them, the simplest and fastest, to delete from the notebook ...
    Further, I no longer notice how I am completing the last item from the list, and the working time for today is drawing to a close. The main thing is to start!

    4.3 It is very important to be able to relax

    With the competent organization of the process and the presence of clear concrete tasks, employees do not have so many opportunities to rake about. It may seem that this is good - but not always! First, we develop a habit to just work at work, and then we don’t notice how the borders are erased in the other direction: we start working in the morning, in the evening, and a little at night.

    Each remote worker and each leader has their own religion in this regard, but I sincerely profess the religion "working too hard is too bad . " Work is necessary for life, and not vice versa, therefore, it is very important to be able to be distracted:
    • At the moment when working time for today ends, you must expel yourself from the workspace . Rituals also help here, for me it is a special music, which means "the work has finished for today."
    • If you as a manager see that an employee at work burns for 15 hours a day - no need to rejoice. Some especially zealous must be taught to relax!
    • When no one distracts you, there is a risk of making money, and it can take a long time. The Ministry of Health warns: this is dangerous! Firstly, it is fatigue and overwork that no one needs. Secondly - a decrease in work results, impotence, lowered immunity and other things that scare us all so often. The best solution would be reminders on the phone (before Google sent me SMS messages - it's a pity that they removed this feature). Every 1.5-2 hours, you must definitely get up, walk, hang on the horizontal bar . You are not in the office - there are more opportunities!
    • Dinner. It should be. Full dinner. Distracting from work. Chewing food and even realizing its taste. Without burying yourself in the monitor!

    Thus, at first we do not allow ourselves to gouge during working hours. Then - we do not allow ourselves to work in the hollow. The first month or two can be complicated and requires discipline, but over time, everything falls into place, and the bottom line for the employees is only plus in the form of 2 hours saved daily on the road, which is 250 working days a year for 21 days (including sleep) or 31 days without taking into account sleep. Nekhilaya such + 10% increase in your waking time!

    General conclusions

    Of course, there are companies to which the remote is unacceptable in any case. These are complex infrastructure projects without the possibility of remote access, and teams of pronounced extroverts, and just conservative teams, accustomed to personal communication.

    But if you want to work more efficiently, choose the best of the best and save 10% of your life on the road, then the remote is far from as scary as it seems at first glance.

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