Remote Working Strategy at spriteCloud

Remote Working Strategy

COVID-19 has brought drastic changes to the way people work almost overnight. The most visible change is the move away from offices to remote locations, which typically is a person’s own home. In fact, the WFH (Working From Home) update on a person’s online social spaces is the new normal. A person who is not WFH is doing something out of the ordinary.

For many ICT industries, working remotely is a natural fit for the job. Developers, DevOps engineers, UI/UX designers, Web Designers, Software Test Engineers, can all work remotely with a minimal loss of productivity as long as the company culture and business processes support it. If the organisation culture has a negative view of remote work, then nobody will make a success out of it. 

Running a company that supports remote working for employees is not like running a company where all your staff come into work in a physical office space. Remote working means an entirely different set of work processes must be put in place that is different from onsite employees. At spriteCloud, we embraced remote working from day one. That was over ten years ago now. We learned how to make it work with a high degree of success through a considerable amount of trial and error, and adopting other company’s best practices. With this article, I want to discuss that journey and shine a light on the good, the bad, and the ugly lessons we learned along the (hard) way.

Management Culture For Remote Working

Perhaps the most critical success contributor to any remote working strategy for a company is the support of the top level of management. If the executive team are all-in on the concept, then consequently, the management teams won’t be afraid of trying new and different strategies until they hit upon the combination that works for them. A team that isn’t afraid of failure generally ends up succeeding.

spriteCloud’s executive team all came out of one or more start-ups, collectively. We were very used to remote working well before we started our company. Not all of the staff we hired in the early days were used to or practised at, remote working, so the Founding team also became a mentor group for the first group of hires, which in turn became a mentor group for the hires that followed.

Our staff members are software test engineers who test the client’s applications on the client’s premises or from our office. Either way, they practice remote working principles in dealing with us or with the client’s team. To be great software testers in our environment, they also need to practice good remote working skills.

When remote working is not supported

By contrast, one of the companies that we worked with for many years was a start-up whose management team did not support remote working at all. 

Employees in this tech-heavy company used to complain about it all the time to some of our company managers, in the hope they could change their minds. When I raised this with one of the Engineering managers, he said he didn’t want staff working remotely because it was too hard to manage people, and the staff might not work properly, (which is to say, work at all). The culture of fear that came from the top killed any experimentation with remote work that would have led to a success with it. Instead, they insisted on people travelling into the office, regardless of the time it took and the expenses it generated. One observation was, they had a tremendous staff churn rate on the technical side. While remote work policies were not to blame, they sure were a significant contributor.

remote tester
Our software testers are chosen for their ability to work well remotely and that skill is further trained.

Remote Working Staff Culture

The previous example is a perfect lead-in for this section about your staff, and how well they will adopt (and adapt) to remote working. All HR recruiters, managers, and company executives know, no two staff members are exactly alike. They all have different skills, personal traits and work ethics that make them useful and allow them to fill a role that’s needed in your company. But it all starts with good hiring practices.

Once the executive team has decided they will support remote working as a staff choice, and you have managers that are keen to experiment and implement it. You then need to recruit the type of people who will best succeed at this as a working model. For spriteCloud, this became an essential hiring criterion given our business model.

The built-in 'Starter' trait

We’ve found our best success is with people who come with a built-in self-starter trait.

How do you find it? In people that come from freelance backgrounds, or start-up types that know what it is like to work anywhere, anytime. Generally, younger people adapt to remote working very fast because they are used to changes at a fast pace in consumer tech-life in general. This isn’t to say 50-plus-year-olds can’t do it. Indeed a lot of us (me included), have been involved in general consumer tech-life since the Commodore 64. We, as individuals have enough experience that we can move with any current trend, which in itself, is a trait worth having on your team.

The people who won’t make a transition to remote working are those that get stuck in a repetitive cycle and like it that way. How do you spot that? Well, in an interview, I like to ask what sort of online tools or services someone likes to use, and why? If they mention something I know of personally, I ask if they know any competitor tools and if they have tried it for comparison. Within a few minutes, it’s easy to see if you are talking to someone that is curious and always looking for better ways to work, or if they are still stuck in 1999 (and maybe trying to go backwards). Stay away from slow-moving types; this is precisely the individual who won’t move to remote working with any degree of success.

Self-starter
Self-starters a great normally and necessary for the success of remote teams.

Self-starters, mentoring, and trust

We’ve found our best success is with people who come with a built-in self-starter trait.

How do you find it? In people that come from freelance backgrounds, or start-up types that know what it is like to work anywhere, anytime. Generally, younger people adapt to remote working very fast because they are used to changes at a fast pace in consumer tech-life in general. This isn’t to say 50-plus-year-olds can’t do it. Indeed a lot of us (me included), have been involved in general consumer tech-life since the Commodore 64. We, as individuals have enough experience that we can move with any current trend, which in itself, is a trait worth having on your team.

The people who won’t make a transition to remote working are those that get stuck in a repetitive cycle and like it that way. How do you spot that? Well, in an interview, I like to ask what sort of online tools or services someone likes to use, and why? If they mention something I know of personally, I ask if they know any competitor tools and if they have tried it for comparison. Within a few minutes, it’s easy to see if you are talking to someone that is curious and always looking for better ways to work, or if they are still stuck in 1999 (and maybe trying to go backwards). Stay away from slow-moving types; this is precisely the individual who won’t move to remote working with any degree of success.

Remote Team Structure

Once you have your recruitment profiles tuned to get the right people, you need to think about how you will structure people into teams that will be supportive of remote work.

Line managers

Team structures are important for the fact that any group that is allowed to work in an unorganised way will ultimately descend into unproductive chaos. Depending on how far you buy into management science and all of that literature from the last 30 years, you need to have at the minimum a company organisational chart that puts people into a group of between 5 – 7, with a Line Manager. The Line Manager then manages that group from an HR perspective. Line Managers will undertake performance reviews, approve holiday requests and expense claims, and most other day-to-day activities that keep staff well being and morale high.

Your staff does not have to be managed by Line Managers as a rule. This is particularly true of technical staff members who work on billable customer projects, or the company’s commercial software product(s). People within these teams can be assigned to projects based on their skills fit and then managed by a technical lead such as a Scrum Master or Project Manager, for example. These technical leads function as the work activity manager, but they don’t look after the HR activities that the Line Managers do.

At our company, we have a mix of work activities for our technical staff. The majority of staff work on billable client projects, with a smaller group working on the development of our software, Calliope Pro. Calliope Pro is our proprietary test results reporting and monitoring tool for increasing development team efficiency through better collaboration. Our staff’s Line Managers and Project Managers are not the same people. All our Shared Services staff, which includes the commercial team, finance and administration, recruitment, marketing, and HR, are managed by one individual, which is their Line Manager.

Calliope Pro allows all development team stakeholders to ability to report test results in one central dashboard so that team stays up-to-date on code stability and can fix bugs quicker. It also give teams insights into where and when a regression was introduced. 

In situations like now, where a global pandemic has forced many to work remotely, Calliope can help give added transparency on QA to development teams working remotely. Learn more about how Calliope Pro can help manage remote working development teams in a recent article.

Give it a try for free today and see how your team can benefit from quality assurance transparency.

Actually, team structures are the one thing that is not directly influenced by remote working. Regardless of where a person works, they should know exactly where they fit in an organisation chart and know who their direct line manager is. Turning this into digital teams in a software communications tool, like Slack, is a piece of cake.

Maintaining structure

Back in our early years, we thought we’d experiment with a flat type of management structure that didn’t include Line Managers. We got to about 20 people before the whole organisation started to collapse into chaos under the weight of too many unorganised people. It didn’t take a genius to recognise that this wouldn’t scale with more people. And our desire as a business was to take us up to around 70. We were fortunate that one of our senior team had experience with building organisation charts and so we implemented a first version that worked very well. We recognised that this wasn’t something you do once, but keep doing for as long as you have an organisation. So for anyone that is scaling their business, one of the most practical lessons I can give you is, make an organisation chart, and then use it.

Remote Working Tools and Services

When working remotely, you don’t need a lot of specialised tools, but you do need each tool to integrate to give you a full communication and work management strategy. Here is where it gets personal for each company. There is no right and wrong with tool choices, only picking a tool that is the best fit for the job in your company, that fits a budget.

Here are the tools we use at spriteCloud for our company work. I won’t go into all the tools that our technical testers and software developers use, because we allow these individuals to pick their own tools and solutions that best fit their way of working or are required by clients.

  • Google G Suite
    • Google Mail. Business edition. All our email and calendars are here for the whole company.
    • Google Drive and Google Docs for document management and collaborative document writing.
    • Google Meet. This is a standard tool for video calls, and has become incredibly handy while working remotely.. Individual teams are allowed to use other solutions if it is a better fit for a particular job, but Meet is our company default solution.
    • Google Analytics, Google Tag Manager, and Google Search Console YouTube, and Google Optimise for our marketing group.
  • Slack. It’s pretty much the gold standard for online communication solutions. It’s based on IRC, which has a glorious 30-year history, but they custom fit the UI to make it something modern and exciting.
  • Harvestapp. For company-wide time-tracking
  • Forecastapp. For staff resource assignments to both customer and internal projects.
  • Todoist. Group task management.
  • Trello. Quite a popular project management tool which our marketing group uses as a project task manager.
  • Zendesk Sell. Our CRM for our business development teams. Other CRM’s offer more integration with marketing and forecasting, like Salesforce or HubSpot.b
Tools
Success at managing remote teams often require using the right tool at the right time.

Remote Work Practices and Processes

Working remotely is not like working in an office when you are a company. In an office, people gather around the coffee machine, they meet together throughout the day in meeting rooms, and eat together in the kitchen at lunchtime. All that facetime means, without even trying, you’re getting a lot of communication happening between groups and individuals. Informally people will discuss what they are doing, what’s blocking them, and how to resolve it. When you go remote, you lose the facetime aspect of working, so you have to compensate by upping your level of communication online. Here are our guidelines for remote working communications.

  • When you start work in the morning, you come online on Slack and say good morning in both the big company Announcements channel and the channel for your workgroup(s).
  • When people come back from lunch, we ask they give the same shout-out so we know they are back and working the afternoon shift.
  • Your Slack status has to be green to show you are working. If you’re not green, you’re not working. That’s the simple rule. By getting everyone to follow it, you know who’s at their desk doing their work, and who’s not.
  • In your workgroup channel you shout out what your main work activities are for the day, and if you are blocked on anything and need help. A workgroup may try to formalise this with a rolling morning scrum meeting on a call to do the same thing. For those people that don’t have groups that do scrum calls, we ask them to give this update, so it’s clear what they will be working on. A simple bullet-pointed to-do list works fine.
  • During the day, if someone gets blocked on something, we ask them to call it out at the time that it happens. Particularly in a group channel, because then the group leads can help organise a resolution in a timely manner.
  • At the end of a working day, we ask for technical team members to send an “end of the day” report, that gives bullet point information on the main activities undertaken, successes, blocks, and what they will do tomorrow.

We ask everyone to be proactive with their online communication. It’s important to overcompensate for the lack of personal interaction with communication when you work remotely, so everyone stays in touch with one another. For remote work, silence can be a real killer, so leaders pay attention to ensure their team members are present and talking.

The guideline I outlined was refined over a 10-year period. We use a lot of these guidelines when communicating with our customers when working on projects with them. The idea is to keep the customer and their team together, and to keep a high level of transparency for ongoing work.

Building and Maintaining Company Culture

Company culture is perhaps the hardest component of a business to define and capture, as well as build. We know company culture when we see it, but deliberately creating it is a tough job. In our company, building a strong, inclusive culture started with creating company values. As a group, we came up with these:

  • Openness: Frequent and transparent communication, sharing knowledge, information and informed opinion.
  • Social: We are social, communicative and easy to get along with.
  • Quality: Doing it right when no one is looking. (Henry Ford)
  • Passion: Doing what we love with intensity.
  • Respect: Due regard for the requirements, expectations and value of others.

These values give us the guidelines for how we work together, both in-person and remotely. 

Company Values Session
The whole organisation got together to decide on and form the company values at spriteTalk.

Communication etiquette

From a practical point of view, everything with our company culture is driven through open and transparent communication between all staff members and definitely starts at the top. We have several dedicated channels in our real-time communication tool – Slack – that we use for culture building purposes. Some Slack channels serve as a virtual “water-cooler” for staff.

  • #announcements – The formal channel for serious messages. Generally used by the management team, but is open to any staff member who has something they need say company-wide.
  • #random – Informal channel used for anything and everything; good jokes, bad jokes, memes, discussions of the day, polls for Friday lunch. This is one of the most important channels as it keeps everyone together, all day, every working day.
  • #line-managers – Formal channel for the line managers to keep an open channel with each other to discuss staff management issues that need quick attention.
  • #<groups> – any workgroup has a chat channel specific for them. These are the most used channels. They are the online equivalent of an office workspace area. 
  • #complain – This channel is there to allow staff an outlet for frustration in a safe space. Generally, managers aren’t members here. We have found that staff do help other staff to resolve issues, which is much more preferred than having staff sit and brood on issues that bother them and have no way to get that frustration out.

For years we’ve used these as the minimum online groups needed to build a company culture. Individual companies will need more or less of these. Still, the idea of large and small, formal and informal groups, gives you a good foundation for bringing your company together as teams and keeping them together, so they don’t end up feeling like your company is just their payroll provider.

Dealing With Toxic or Underperforming Staff

As is the case with any organisation that works from an office, you will encounter toxic staff in remote working constructions. Where it’s a little bit more tricky with remote work is trying to determine if the toxic employee is toxic because of their lack of understanding of the etiquette of online social rules, or if they are genuinely an antisocial asshole.

Toxic
Is a toxic employee toxic because of their lack of understanding of the etiquette of online social rules, or are they genuinely an antisocial asshole?

Identifying toxicity

The place to start with any toxic remote employee is to accurately identify what the specific problem, or set of challenges, is with them. The biggest problem we see with remote communication is that chatting online by its very nature is 2-dimensional; it takes away all the important physical connection factors between participants in a discussion. To some people, this makes them feel like they can stop filtering what they say, and everything they type is a straight out brain dump to the screen. People who are very nice in person can turn into the sort of individual you’d rather slap than talk to online. However, there’s a big difference between someone who is having a bad day, to someone who genuinely is misbehaving. Once you’ve got the offending issues on paper, you need direct action quickly.

Remediating toxic employees

Pull the toxic employee into a direct video call, not another instant messenger chat, and bring the issues to them in as close to a face-to-face environment as possible. Then ask them to account for their behaviour. We’ve seen cases where some people legitimately didn’t know they were offensive until the behaviour as called out. This is particularly true in multicultural organisations with a diverse spread of cultures. One cultural group may think their behaviour is actually just talking, while someone else thinks they are rude and argumentative. By putting these issues on the table in a non-confrontational manner, you create an atmosphere of learning for the employee. You will have the opportunity to educate and reinforce what your company attitude and mindset is in terms of online communication in a way that is most conducive for a positive result for both of you.

Despite the best procedures in place for staff problem resolution, every so often you are going to come across an individual that just cannot be changed. I’ve personally worked in a very high profile start-up where some of the engineers had such primadonna attitudes, they talked to many other staff like they were trash. The effect of this over time was obvious; it broke team cohesion completely and brought about and reinforced an “us-versus-them” attitude between groups that needed to get on and solve tough problems.

Our attitude to genuinely toxic employees is to remove them from the wider group as quickly as possible. At spriteCloud, we don’t tolerate badly-behaved primadonnas. Individuals don’t achieve anything on their own; a team is always needed. So our view is that the team must be nurtured, not the ego of any one person. If all else fails, cut this person out of your organisation’s online channels, and start a serious grievance procedure, and an exit process. You might be worried that you won’t find someone that good at their particular job again, but believe me, you will. And an individual that is a positive cultural fit is a force multiplier for productivity, not a productivity killer.

Just Do It, and Learn on the Way

Over the years I’ve heard just about every reason – excuse – under the sun why an organisation should not allow remote work. In The Netherlands many managers won’t allow remote working because, they think it’s too hard to manage staff; or that people won’t work if they aren’t being watched by someone; of that home workers are too easily distracted by pets, or kids of spouses; or that online workers don’t organise work properly. The reasons are endless, yet when I bring up the reality that most open source software they are using is built by purely remote teams, they say, that’s different

My advice to organisations wanting to stay remote, now that they are remote, is to just do it and learn on the way. No two organisations are alike, so you must be prepared for a degree of experimentation. Fortunately, our experience is, online teams are fast; they are quick to identify issues or problems; fast to come up with solutions, and fast to implement these into practice. Allow your organisation the room to make mistakes and grow, and by doing so, you are also showing your employees trust and respect. In a short space of time, you will have a remote working organisation, that’s custom made just for you and your staff.

spriteCloud's Bottom Line

So believe it or not, that’s the short version of our remote working experience. When you’ve been doing something every workday for over 20 years, you can go into a lot of detail. If you’re just starting your remote working journey, let me leave you with these last pieces as dessert.

What did we win going remote? Happy employees, and productive employees, because employees that can work anywhere, really do tend to work anywhere and everywhere.

What did we lose? That all-important group-hug feeling that comes with old fashioned human contact. Very few people are born complete hermits and don’t need it. You must work hard to balance everyone’s feeling of belonging and human connection in an online environment. It can be done, but you can’t ignore it with an attitude that it will take care of itself because it won’t.

What would I not do again, if I could do it all over from the start? I would ensure to communicate from day one of a staff member joining the organisation what they standard operating procedures and expectations are for remote work. This would include social etiquette standards for polite and respectful communication and group participation. And I wouldn’t put up with the brilliant person being an asshole to others just because they are brilliant. You don’t need another asshole any more than you need another hole in your head. Set the boundaries and make sure people stick to them.

So I hope this journey into online remote working has been interesting. If you’d like to know more about how we do our remote work, or how we can work for you remotely, get in touch with us. We’d love to talk to you.

Andy

Author: Andy

Andy is a Founder/CEO of spriteCloud and Principal Software Test Consultant. He has 30 years experience in the ICT field, with the majority of it in software testing roles. He holds a B.Informatics, Hons degree from Griffith University, Australia. Andy loves anything IT tech and is an avid reader of UFO conspiracies.

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