The main challenge of being a remote developer can be summarized in one word: “Communication”.
In the third part of our “Becoming a top remote developer” series, we'll be sharing our thoughts on how to overcome this challenge. We’ve identified bad communication as the main reason why perfectly competent developers fail at remote jobs. Communication doesn’t come naturally to everyone and remote work requires special efforts to be made if we want to be top performers. Let’s explore some of the things we like to do to ensure we are communicating effectively.
The challenge with remote communication
Although we’ve explored part of this subject in our previous posts (part 1 "Be Reachable" and part 2 "Be Visible"), it’s important to remember why remote communication is difficult. When working remotely our main way of interacting with our team is through the written word. We send emails or chat most of the time. Non-verbal cues are lost. Body language is lost. Smiles, frowns and attentive stares are all lost.
Our communication is missing an important component: It’s rock and roll without the bassline. It’s stale, it’s boring, and it does not convey the mood. What happens is that the reader is left to fill in the bassline with whatever they think fits. “Will this be ready today?” could be interpreted as both a genuine question or an impatient remark depending on how the reader imagines the writer was feeling.
Here are a few techniques to help return the bassline to your song. Let’s talk about them.
Meet your team
Meet your team, in-person If possible. Meeting your team can be an expensive proposal, but having met your coworkers or clients face to face is invaluable as part of getting to know each other and understanding each other. You don’t need to meet right away, and you don’t even have to meet regularly, but meeting at least once in a while definitely increases the chances of a remote team working effectively. Many companies with remote teams will have annual or bi-annual company retreats where the whole team gets together and spends a weekend partying, working and enjoying themselves. Companies that hire remote workers often ask them to come to HQ every 3 or 6 months for a face to face with the rest of the team. Consult with your team and try to arrange a face to face so that you can meet everyone. You’ll discover your coworkers’ personalities, you’ll find out who is serious and who can take a joke, you’ll learn about your team’s interests, accomplishments and goals, and it will bring all of you closer. You will no longer be chatting with an unknown entity on the other side of a screen.
Chief among your concerns as a remote team member should be having a time to speak on a regular basis. While spontaneous communication is important, it’s rarely enough for you to truly communicate effectively with your team. Setting up regular interactions with your team and your clients will take you 90% of the way in terms of ensuring good communication.
Having a weekly or bi-weekly video call with our team members is one of the main things we do at Blue Coding to ensure communication is flowing smoothly and freely. It’s the next best thing after a real face to face. It provides a lot of the social cues and non-verbal communication that you get from an in-person meeting and gives you a sense that you’re talking to a real person.
For the best experience with video calls make sure you have a decent headset and noise-canceling microphone (we like the Logitech h390), a decent webcam (most laptops these days are good enough), and a quiet space where you can speak in privacy. If you live with your mom, let her know not to interrupt you during your weekly call (seriously, we’ve seen this happen more often than we’d like to admit).
Video calls are the perfect space for your weekly check-in: share progress on important features, bug fixes and improvements, discuss challenges implementing specific portions of code and float ideas for new features or changes. We recommend preparing for your calls by taking notes on things you’d like to discuss and sending a recap of topics discussed after the conversation.
Other scheduled communication
There are many other types of regular communication that you could use to ensure your team hears from you regularly and important pieces of information are being shared with your team. Daily reports, as discussed in our piece on being visible is also useful to ensure that the latest updates are promptly conveyed. Some teams use Scrum or their own version of an agile methodology and have daily standups either as a Skype call or using tools like Jell. Using video calls alongside some of these written forms of communication is a great combination that really helps get communication flowing.
Sharing is caring
Aside from the regular business aspects of communication, being a top remote developer will also require you to take the extra steps of sharing more than what’s business as usual. Lists of features, bugs and reports are definitely important, but we need some space for other types of communication. You can share your thoughts on where the project is going in a carefully crafted paragraph aimed at helping the rest of the team acquire a broader vision of the business. You can share the latest trending post in Hacker News, articles on the most important developments in tech or the funniest meme from your Facebook developers group this week.
A lot of the best remote teams we’ve seen provide special spaces for this type of informal sharing. Sometimes it’s a weekly email thread, sometimes it’s a #random Slack channel, sometimes it’s a Skype party call with all of your teammates. Speak with your team and set this up. Share anything that you think will be interesting to your team or will help them improve their work.
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