The Future of Work: Collaboration in Distributed Engineering Teams

By Taylor Veino

Contrary to the “lone genius” trope that films and grossly overstated autobiographies would have us believe, software is the product of collaboration. In the same way that engineers need to protect their uninterrupted focus time to produce solutions, we also need unfettered access to the input and expertise of our team.

You know this. You also know that the nature of our work is changing. Whether we are ready or not, the Future of Work is here, and the way we collaborate inevitably needs to adapt along with it.

Ok, I’m sorry. “The Future of Work” sounds like a ridiculous marketing ploy from 1998, hovercar graphics and all. But I hope you know what I mean - specifically for senior engineers, the days of arriving at work with our briefcase at 9, drinking burned coffee in a windowless office kitchen, and clocking out at 5 are long gone.

Our industry is now equipped to handle - and is actually best suited for - remote, flexible work. No, I don’t mean writing ten lines of HTML from a coffee shop for an hour and calling it a day. I’m talking real, full-time, collaborative engineering teams that are comprised of experts who are unconstrained by geography.

We spend a lot of time here helping freelancers and clients alike navigate this new terrain, and folks overwhelmingly have the same concern: how the hell are we supposed to get better at communication and collaboration if we’re not breathing the same stuffy air?

Our answer? Embracing remote work can actually make your team better at, well, being a team.

 

Benefits

Efficiency 

A distributed team makes for fewer interruptions and meetings for the sake of meetings. According to a study at the University of California, Irvine, it takes an average of about 25 minutes (23 minutes and 15 seconds, to be exact) to return to the original task after a single interruption. It may not seem like a big deal, but those pop-ups hack away a huge piece of your productive hours of work. A flexible, remote work environment allows your engineers to block out solid, uninterrupted deep work time.

Here at Gun.io, we see our clients win from a flexible team environment every day. In one recent case, a client came to a Gun.io Professional Freelancer with a project that was dysfunctional and taking longer than expected. Our developer was able to rewrite the entire front end on a new framework and make it run faster with 9,000 fewer lines of code - and in just 15 hours of his time. Our engineers have reported that they can complete functional lines of code 2.5 times faster remotely than if they were on site.

 

Better Communication

Communication is already hard, even before you remove someone's face and replace it with a screen. But once you learn what works for you, it can sometimes be even better than face-to-face. Virtual communication, unlike in-person, allows your team to have real-time conversations about projects without having to schedule a meeting or pop into someone’s office, interrupting their workflow.

Rather, using Slack or another communication platform can aid in facilitating questions, concerns, and updates as needed - and allows the recipient to manage when and how they’re “interrupted.” Plus, these solutions level the communication playing field for team members whose shyness may cause them to withhold valuable feedback. Not to mention that Slack enables daily office conversation and GIFs that need to be shared.


Still nervous that transitioning to a remote team will hurt the communication norms you’ve slaved over?

Here’s what our team (and thousands of our remote freelancers) has learned:

  • Maintain a visual element 
You can maintain the face-to-face element you are accustomed to when you transition to a distributed team. Implement video conferencing for weekly standups to add a personal element to your team’s work. There is a lot of merit and retention that can result from interacting face-to-face - even if it’s screen-face to screen-face.

  • Get a little personal

Check in with team members briefly before a group meeting or 1:1 to maintain a level of connection with them before jumping into the nitty-gritty.

  • Respect their time

Just because virtual communication is so easy and convenient doesn't mean you should entertain a 20 email long thread. That counteracts the productivity time and clutters inboxes when a quick phone call can resolve any pressing matter.

 

Virtual communication is not a cheap alternative to everyday in-person communication; it simply works better. It allows for inclusivity and effective feedback by creating a neutral space for employees that may not be as outspoken as others.

For some folks, a Slack message is a more organic way for them to feel like they are a part of a conversation. They can speak up and share their input more freely than they might in a crowded on-site meeting. Usually, the feedback you most need to hear is that which doesn’t get shared, as it’s from an employee who doesn’t feel comfortable sharing.

Second, you ensure elevated productivity across the board. Collaboration can be a time-consuming task. Through scheduling in-person sessions and circling back several more times over the course of weeks, you absolutely obliterate true productive work time.

Virtual collaboration allows for daily tasks and bigger projects to work in parallel to one another; you can kick a digital file back and forth for approval, all while knocking out your smaller to-do’s. If that isn’t efficiency, I don't know what is.

 

Better Collaboration 

I know what you're thinking: “If virtual collaboration is so great. why isn't everyone doing it?” We get it, collaborating remotely rather than in-person can be an adjustment. You might be intimidated because you don't know whether putting the work into virtual collaboration will present a big enough payoff.

It’s evident that communication and team efficiency can be elevated in an appropriately-organized remote team. Coincidentally, those are the building blocks of collaboration: appropriately prioritizing work, communicating progress, making the most of uninterrupted brainspace, and pooling problem-solving resources.

Collaborating across a distributed team also gives you an advantage for the following:

    • Allows you the agility to experiment with different testing and collaboration processes
    • Facilitates checking egos: asking questions via Slack feels less intimidating than in-person
    • Organizing and keeping archives of your decision-making and problem-solving history via             Slack: you can use this to quickly bring new teammates up to speed
    • And again, levels the playing field for different communicators

 

Getting Started

And one more time, louder for the folks in the back: VIRTUAL COLLABORATION ROCKS. Ready to try it out?  To find what works for you, you can start by checking out this ultimate list of virtual collaboration tools for engineering teams to start implementing best practices. And if you’re ready to take the full plunge and build up a team of senior, remote engineers, get in touch. That’s our jam.

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