21 Jun 2020

How to lead a fully distributed software development team

Distributed teams are not a new concept for the technology sector, with many companies already having embraced the benefits of ‘blended’ teams comprising a mix of in-house (mainly on-site) developers and others working from one or several remote locations.

Still, very few businesses had taken it to the next level by having all team members to work from home, until the global Coronavirus pandemic made fully remote teams – at least for the short term – the new standard.

For team members used to working on site, it’s a sizeable transition. But arguably the biggest challenge lies at the feet of the team leaders.

In this article, we’ll explore the key leadership considerations associated with this new dynamic, and identify how to get the best out of your new, fully remote team.

The impact on CTOs

Leading a team of entirely remote employees for the first time can be a strange experience – especially if you’re unfamiliar with remote work yourself.

Daily routines are thrown out of sync, and office-based, interpersonal relationships need to be replaced by other approaches that work across locations, borders and timezones. 

Processes and platforms must also be adapted to help the team continue to work as one. 

Some members of the team may also find it difficult to adjust to a day less regimented and routine, and will likely require more support and guidance. 

There is obviously no “one-size-fits-all” answer to the challenge of leading distributed staff, but having built and managed distributed teams for years, there are a few elements we see as being key to success.

What leaders can do to adapt

First things first, take a moment to recognise the benefits of remote working. Yes, this period of change will be a challenge, but it also eliminates commuting time for your teams and minimises the distractions of the office – which can be huge drivers for productivity if managed well. 

Systems and tools 

Next, let’s get the tools question out of the way. For the tech industry at least, implementing these tools is the easy bit. It is likely that most team members, including those previously based on-site, will already have access to collaboration tools as a result of previous co-working. Still, certain aspects, like security and support, will need to be properly reviewed and managed for the new set-up.

If you’re holding meetings via conference calls, you can start by making the obvious switch to video for greater engagement and connection. As well as providing important face-to-face interaction at a time of isolation, video calls make it harder for your team to do other things during meetings, ensuring their full focus and attention on the matter at hand.

At the same time, not everything has to be a meeting. Look to other ways you can share feedback or instruction with the team – such as screen-share videos recorded through Loom or Bandicam. 

Instant messaging tools like Slack are widely used by development teams already, so it should be easy to lean on these tools even more. Great for project collaboration, they are equally handy for one-to-one interactions with employees, to keep them engaged and help them feel a little less isolated.

Finally, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of making all your virtual meetings and communications feel too robotic and formal. It’s important that you try to foster a good ‘virtual’ working relationship with your team and encourage them to work well as a community. 

Take time to ask how people are, and don’t feel uncomfortable about discussing non-work-related topics. WhatsApp groups are ideal for building this sense of community, providing a platform for less formal chat and often humorous interactions.

It’s place you can show you care, too. Working at home for an extended period of time can be a lonely experience, so chit-chats, birthday celebrations and thank you messages are needed more than ever.

Trust and flexibility

Now’s the time to put your faith in your team. The vast majority of them will do what it takes (and more) to get things done, so don’t put in place team-wide controls for the very few who won’t ‘play the game’.

Focus on outputs. Distance will mean that you will have less direct influence on the means – but that’s no bad thing at all. Outputs are what really matter.

Embrace the flexibility the model offers too. Your distributed teams will be better placed to meet business objectives if you let them enjoy the work/life balance benefits offered by the flexibility of working from home.

Ensure communication is at the core 

The combination of distance, poor internet connectivity and non-native speakers can enhance the likelihood that misunderstandings will happen in a distributed set-up, but try to ensure that communication flows constantly within and between teams by using multiple channels.

Make yourself available to your teams, and proactively ensure that team members are encouraged to seek support at all times. 

Sometimes, people (especially the ones not familiar with working in a distributed team) will struggle with questions or issues and won’t know who could help – wasting precious time by trying to solve it themselves.

Using group channels can help when people are unsure of who to turn to.

Share – again and again – the vision, the purpose, the plan, the challenges and the achievements of your team. Remember that top people don’t work for a salary, they work to achieve something they can be proud of. 

Feedback has therefore always been a vital cog in the development process, and its importance is only heightened when teams are working from home. Successes must be celebrated, and not sitting in the same office doesn’t change this.

After all, a strong and positive company culture is not based on fancy offices and perks – it’s about doing something great with great people. 

In summary

In these difficult times, one of the key challenges for team leaders and CTOs lies in managing the morale and engagement of the team, while keeping project momentum and development standards at a high. 

Successfully steering through these challenging times may provide a platform for fully distributed teams in the future – providing businesses with even greater flexibility once the crisis is over.