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Compliance / Culture / Observability

Build a Highly Productive Work-from-Anywhere Dev Team

Being able to support WFA teams on a large scale has not been a core competency of most companies and their IT departments. If you are going to spearhead the WFA team, you will need to ensure IT can support your employees remotely and with ease.
Jun 23rd, 2022 7:00am by
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Roger Gross
Roger Gross is the Director of R&D, Physical Endpoint Products at ControlUp. Roger has 30 years of experience in software R&D and electronics, initially as a developer then as a technical leader. He has set up and lead international software teams headquartered in Silicon Valley and Cambridge UK at companies including Intel, Citrix, Novell, BT and several start-ups. Roger currently works from his home office in Vancouver Canada where he is spearheading ControlUp’s WFA effort.

It’s no secret that the work-from-anywhere (WFA) world is emerging, and companies everywhere are figuring out how to enable people to work and live where they want.

The benefits are many: Attracting and retaining top talent, helping employees have a better work-life balance, and much more.

Statistics show that working from anywhere will be an indefinite shift for many. In the fall of 2021, two-thirds of employees in white-collar jobs (67%) reported working from home either exclusively (41%) or some of the time (26%), according to Gallup.

After much trial and error, companies are finding the WFA culture is working. One Stanford University study showed a productivity increase of 22% among remote workers.

Employees cite working from home allows them to be more present with family (86%), happier (84%), and better able to manage work-life conflict (83%), according to the State of Remote Work 2021 report by Owl Labs.

Here at ControlUp, we set out on a mission to make working from anywhere possible for our global teams.

As the director of research and development for physical endpoint products, I spearheaded the international work-from-anywhere software engineering and development organization. Here’s what I learned on our journey of building a highly productive team.

Get Buy-In

With a WFA initiative, getting buy-in from the whole organization is key to making it possible. And that will, of course, come from the top.

This must happen so departments like human resources can handle sourcing talent and onboarding WFA employees and so that IT has the technology they need to manage computers remotely to ensure productivity.

Will you get buy-in right away? Probably not. You must look at the situation from all angles and be ready for pushback. I had previous experience managing a remote team prior to my role at ControlUp, so I was confident that it could be done.

I presented the many benefits of a WFA scenario (which I’ll outline in this article) and showed that I was prepared for the drawbacks.

One drawback to be aware of is accessing applications hosted inside the corporate firewall from outside. A good solution is to setup a virtual private network for these activities.

Be IT-Ready

Being able to support WFA teams on a large scale has not been a core competency of most companies and their IT departments.

If you are going to spearhead the WFA team, you will need to ensure IT can support your employees remotely and with ease.

Many IT departments are figuring out the hard way that supporting droves of remote workers with outdated tools designed for a time when everyone worked in the same office is not working.

However, businesses are now exploring how they can use available technology to optimize remote environments, prevent user downtime and resolve IT issues faster.

Here at ControlUp, we’ve built our core technology and product to power the work-from-anywhere world. So, we are lucky to be able to use our own product to power our WFA teams to make remote work more flexible and reliable.

Know-How to Hire and Compensate

Being able to hire from anywhere in the world expands your talent pool, and that is a real advantage for your software engineering and development team.

With 63% saying work-life balance is important when picking a new job, enabling a WFA culture is attractive to potential employees.

You’ll need to prepare your candidates for what life looks like working from anywhere. When I’m interviewing, I’m 100% transparent about the potential downsides.

I talk about how teams in different locations work and that the candidate may have to get up early or stay around late because of the time difference or that they will have to make decisions without their manager.

Chances are, if they accept the position knowing all of this, they will be a good fit.

Compensation and benefits are not a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to the WFA team, either. At ControlUp, we decided we would do whatever it takes to hire within a particular region.

For example, European teams get more vacation than other areas, but the salaries are generally lower. On the other hand, if we’re hiring in the Bay Area, we’ll have to pay more for that talent.

We ask our team members not to compare compensation and benefits packages, but we’re quite open about our approach. The bottom line is that we compensate with what’s competitive for the area, the individual’s experience, and so on.

Navigate Time Zones

When you have teams in different time zones across the globe, you need to be more organized.

What we’ve found is that grouping teams together by time zone helps ensure that every team has everyone they need to deliver on a particular area of the product–developers, testers, product owners and so on. This empowers them to make decisions, which I’ll talk about in the next section.

You’ll also need to consider things like how you’ll conduct meetings. We decided that it was important for all team members in all time zones to have three meetings per week where everyone was present virtually.

Some deal with up to a 10-hour time difference, so they have their meetings in the evenings; others get up at 6 a.m.

What we’ve found in most cases, though, is that it naturally works out. Those in Europe who have evening meetings typically don’t have dinner until later anyway compared to those in the U.S., for example.

Empower Autonomy

With distributed teams, you don’t want to micromanage. If people in the UK are waiting to double-check everything until the U.S. comes online, it simply won’t work. Empower your WFA employees to make tough decisions even if they might be wrong.

I personally take the view that making a decision, even if it’s the wrong one, is preferable to waiting and not making a decision. Most bad decisions are not fatal, and you can always back up and reimplement them.

Be prepared that not everyone is cut out for making decisions on their own. It is the manager’s role to coach and empower teams to make decisions without them. Most importantly, when they make the wrong decisions, there shouldn’t be any big consequences coming from management.

Practically, you’ll want to give each team a particular area of the product that they can work on so that they have that autonomy.

For instance, rather than having a monolithic design where you’re all working on the same thing, consider a microservices approach to break up the software into smaller, more isolated components to work on. This makes it much easier to work on the product remotely and asynchronously.

You’ll need to be organized and thorough to make this process work. When we first started, we weren’t putting enough detail into our tickets because we were used to asking someone during normal business hours to clarify. But normal business hours were no longer in a WFA scenario.

This led to gaps in information, then the gaps were filled in incorrectly and we had to go back and redo the work. As time went on, we got much better at this.

Make Communication Easy

In a matter of a couple of years, technology like video conferencing and instant messaging has become the cornerstone of work communication. (People have even turned “Zoom” into a verb.)

And many prefer it. According to the State of Remote Work 2021:

  • Seventy-one percent say remote meetings make it easier to present to a group
  • Seventy percent say remote meetings are less stressful
  • Sixty-seven say remote meetings are just as productive as in-person meetings

What we’ve found at ControlUp is that virtual, real-time conversation positively impacts our velocity. We’re talking things out when we need to versus waiting for a meeting room to open up in an office.

One surprise has been how much more effective we are at troubleshooting bugs and new features. We debug live using instant messaging and can get to the bottom of issues quickly.

Plus, there is an audit trail of all of the conversations we’ve had.

This, combined with the teams working asynchronously on small components, allows us to do weekly product releases. Most previous teams I have worked with only managed two-week or three-week sprints.

This has transformed how we develop and ship products because if a feature isn’t ready to ship, it catches next week’s release bus and doesn’t hold up the current release.

That also means the need to do hotfixes is reduced because we are only ever a week away from the next update, so resources can stay focused on R&D and less so on deploying updates.

Of course, standup meetings are different in a virtual world. We do daily standups, but we do them on instant messaging using a rolling method versus a hard 15-minute stop, which can take some getting used to.

People start in the morning when they come online. One person does their standup and the next person that comes in can comment on that and do their standup next.

By the time I come online on Pacific Time, it’s usually halfway through. At this point, I’m looking for the blocking issues so I can try to unblock them. If there’s something that needs more attention, we’ll have a Zoom call to discuss it.

Schedule In-Person Events

Many companies are looking at a future where there is a hybrid working environment that mixes remote work with office time. And, in fact, studies show that 45% of those working from home full time preferred a hybrid arrangement (Gallup).

At ControlUp, we understand the importance of in-person collaboration. We took a slightly different approach to the hybrid model, though. Without the expense of an office space, we use that budget towards in-person, quarterly events.

One of the difficulties for remote software engineering and dev teams is designing a big product feature.

We schedule hackathons each quarter where we spend about five days together working on a big feature as a team in the same room. We literally write it and design it and get it to a prototype stage so that we can go back and turn it into something that is shippable to customers.

Sometimes we use the code, sometimes, we throw it away. But during the hackathon, we learned enough about that feature so that we know how to do it properly.

There’s also something very special about seeing the people in person that you chat with or video with every day. People are excited to be in the same room to collaborate.

Of course, not everyone will be able to make every event every time; you’ll need to offer the ability to video into the event when that happens.

Final Thoughts

Enabling a work-from-anywhere organization takes commitment and thinking, and operating in new ways.

In the scenario I’ve described in this article, we built our WFA team from the ground up. In most cases, that is going to be easier than working with pre-existing teams. However, if you’re committed, you could likely reorganize teams and hire where gaps exist in any given location.

What we’ve found is that it’s easier to attract and retain top talent, teams are more productive, and it can be more economical in the long run without the extra overhead that an office space presents.

In all cases, working from anywhere does not mean working in isolation. With the right technology complemented by in-person events, you’ll find that the bond can actually be as strong or stronger than a team working in an office.

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