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Common fails in a remote software team (and how to fix them)

Alfrick Opidi

Working remotely, especially for software teams, is on the rise. Ditching the nine-to-five routine and having the freedom to work from home, the beach, or anywhere else comes with several benefits. However, it also poses some challenges that, if not addressed, can affect the productivity of remote software teams.

For a virtual engineering team to work flawlessly and realize its objectives, it must be ready to overcome the challenges and address the dynamics that may hinder its performance. Here are six common reasons for failure in remote software teams, and how to fix them:

1. Communication bottlenecks

Working remotely can improve the productivity of teams, enhance satisfaction levels, save thousands of dollars per year, and bring several other benefits to an organization. However, poor communication is one of the biggest roadblocks in a remote software team.

Without clear and lucid communication structures, especially about the three W’s - WHO does WHAT and WHEN - a distributed team cannot function optimally. If communication is not crystal-clear and to the point, misunderstandings can occur within the team and affect the delivery of projects. For example, if a team member uses jargon, local or regional terms, or obscure phrases, their message may be misunderstood.

To reduce miscues and misinterpretations, team members should communicate frequently, provide regular updates about their allocated tasks, and ask for clarification whenever necessary. Furthermore, if someone wants to explain complex concepts, they can opt for video conferencing tools that let them engage in real-time face-to-face interactions and improve social cues, which are critical in increasing understanding.

(It’s also important to document the results of such video calls in writing, so that follow-ups can be made and ensure that everyone is on the same page.)

2. Isolation

Working remotely in a software engineering team can be exciting: no commute, home comforts, and the ability to work from wherever you want. However, working remotely without having sufficient social interactions can make employees feel lonely and detached. In fact, according to a 2018 study on the state of remote work, 21% of freelancers and employees believe that loneliness is the biggest struggle with working virtually.

To avoid feeling isolated, engineers working virtually should make time for human interaction. Finding time to socialize by going to a co-working space, attending a social event, going to the gym, or visiting friends can boost social wellbeing.

If physical, in-person meetups are organized by a team or company, the remote members of the team should be encouraged and enabled to attend. Such occasions promote team bonding and prevent any member of the team from becoming invisible.

Furthermore, when teammates are talking to each other, they should strive to go beyond the usual project updates and work-related stuff. Knowing what’s going on with each other’s lives beyond the software they are developing can ward off loneliness.

How are their families doing? How are they spending their weekend? Getting to know remote colleagues better can enhance relationships and build camaraderie within the team, at the human level—not the machine level.

(Editor's note: At Clubhouse, we have a weekly Google Hangout for all team members to just shoot the breeze. Sometimes this is focussed around a specific topic, sometimes it isn’t.)

3. Technical hiccups

Technology is the weakest spot in remote-first software development teams. While a co-located teams benefit from the ability to speak face-to-face, without the need for video conferencing or IM, remote teams have to rely on technology to make things happen. Therefore, unreliable or poor technology makes it difficult for a remote team to achieve its goals.

It’s important for organizations to invest in comprehensive technical setups that can support the functions of distributed teams. Depending on a very limited set of tools or having an unreliable Internet connection is a recipe for collaboration nightmares and very unpleasant experiences.

To overcome remote limitations, distributed engineering teams should have the right tools that make collaboration and online meetings seamless and efficient. If a tool doesn’t work well, or is unintuitive, the team should go for another one and prevent future hiccups, which can be costly and time-consuming.

There are several tools that have been designed to centralize communications and make remote work more satisfying. A distributed company should invest in reliable video conferencing software (e.g. Zoom, Google Meet), collaboration tools (like Slack), and project management tools to ensure everything runs smoothly.

(Editor's note: At Clubhouse, we use a mix of Zoom and Google Hangouts for VC, Slack for sync and a-sync collaboration and, of course, Clubhouse for project and task management)

4. Poor motivation

Working remotely as a software engineer may sometimes feel like a completely different cup of tea to being co-located. Actually, it’s the same tea, just a different cup. As such, a virtual team needs enough ingredients of motivation to make the tea tasty!

In a co-located team, it’s easy to tell when a colleague lacks the energy and excitement to carry out their day-to-day duties. For example, signs of demotivation may include low energy, habitual lateness, and lack of interest in activities. However, when working with colleagues from other continents, where video calls and email messages are used for conversations, it is difficult to tell if someone is disengaged.

Poor motivation in remote teams can be overcome by encouraging openness, honesty, and transparency. If remote developers engage in positive conversations, demotivating elements can be uncovered and addressed before they raise their ugly heads.

Furthermore, the goals and roles of each engineer and the team as a whole should be clear. This way, each member of the team can feel empowered with a vision and purpose to realize their stipulated objectives. Without shared goals and priorities, everyone can be pulling in different directions, leading to a loss of focus, demotivation, and unfulfilled obligations.

5. Interruptions

When working remotely, interruptions are sometimes unavoidable. For example, during a live video call, a colleague’s kid may burst through the door, a dog may bark uncontrollably, or the doorbell might ring.

While every team member should do their best to prevent interruptions - such as designating a working space and communicating their work schedule with other - disruptions can often be opportunities to show that we’re all human, and that these things happen. Such occurrences can be used as icebreakers and opportunities to know each other better. They can foster relationships and stimulate commitments within the team.

6. Absence of a remote culture

Having a strong remote culture is important for the success of a distributed engineering team. Venturing into telecommuting head-first without understanding its ins and outs is a recipe for disaster. If a distributed team does not harbor shared values and goals, then accomplishing the company’s goals can be difficult.

It’s easier to build a culture in a centralized working environment where employees have more face-time to share ideas. It’s harder to build a company culture where team members are far away from each other, but it’s worth doing.

Success in remote work requires a culture of discipline, thoroughness, and responsiveness. The team members should be able to trust each other, regardless of the distance between themselves. It’s important for every engineer working remotely to be on the same page with everyone else, whether the company has adopted a remote-first or a remote-friendly culture.

("Remote-first" refers to a culture where an organization hires a distributed team without the necessity of a physical office location, while "remote-friendly" refers to an organization that has co-located employees, and physical space for them to collaborate, but also supports the ideas of remote work.)

Wrapping up

Remote software teams can be very effective at creating great products and propelling a company’s growth. However, such teams need to avoid some common pitfalls that may prevent them from accruing the benefits of working remotely. With good remote practices, the right processes, and reliable technology a distributed engineering team - of any size - can create, and releasing top-notch tech products.

Do you have any other tips on how remote software teams can be successful? Let us know in the comments below!