How to Foster Better Remote Engineering Collaboration

It’s easy for software engineers to code, build, and deploy remotely. But it’s much harder for software engineers to brainstorm and collaborate remotely. What has been the impact of remote on engineering collaboration? And what can engineering leaders do to empower their engineers to be more effective with remote collaboration?

Quod AI
July 15, 2020
in
Webinar
How to Foster Better Remote Engineering Collaboration

Quod AI had the pleasure to host a panel discussion with four ASEAN based engineering leaders to discuss strategies and tactics for facilitating remote collaboration for software engineers:

 

The discussion was moderated by Mark Birch, Founder of DEVBIZOPS and former Director of APAC for Stack Overflow.

In this blog post, we share the insights from our panelists.

 

Over-communicate and be transparent

We built a culture of broadcasting as opposed to narrow knowledge travel. We watch for private to public chat ratios to gauge psychological safety and how well we empower others to speak freely.

— Nicolas Embleton, VP of Engineering

For engineering teams to thrive in a remote world, transparency and knowledge sharing are key. It’s easy to forget to share information or to forget to include someone when they are not physically close by.

When it comes to communication, there are four channels to consider in a remote world:

  • Engineer to engineer communication: to share, learn, and resolve technical issues.
  • Manager to engineer communication: to align everyone towards the same goal.
  • Engineer to manager communication: to raise issues.
  • Engineer to product/business communication: to raise issues.

Engineering leaders should aim to foster a culture of information sharing often found in communities that exhibits four characteristics: 

  • Transparency: document as much as possible.
  • Open: broadcast, share, and make information easy to find.
  • Inclusive: remember to include relevant teammates.
  • Safe: empower your engineers to speak freely.

Tip: Hold weekly office hours to engage members from non-engineering departments

 

Contextualize your communication

When you get a message on Slack, you don't know if it's urgent. You don’t know if you have to reply within an hour or a week. The context is lost.

— Ishan Agrawal, CTO

“What do you mean?” and “Can you clarify?” are likely to be the most asked questions on Slack, put out there begging for an immediate response. Every messaging and chat application is often noisy, disorganized, and difficult to follow. But you can’t blame the tool though, at its core it is meant to be a synchronous channel built for speed..

To scale engineering teams, communication needs to be organized. Set up guidelines, rules, and purpose around each of your communication channels (Slack for chat, JIRA for issue tracking, Confluence for documentation and wiki). 

Tips:

  • For Slack and similar tools, use threads as conversation topics (especially in large rooms). Start with a single sentence with a clear purpose (solving a specific problem). Conversations will be easier to follow because the topic can be used as an anchor for context.
  • Organize your rooms with a clear purpose. Beware that room topics can be too wide (lack of focus) or too narrow (room overload).

 

Rethink the way you document

Being distributed from the start, we had already adopted certain cultural habits like proper documentation, the way we communicate, the way we make decisions. We amped on that culture; for example, making sure that documentation is at a certain level.

— Ishan Agrawal, CTO

Documentation has always been challenging but it’s more important than ever in a remote world. Simply put, relying on ad-hoc updates for deeper technical topics and challenges is no longer feasible as team size and code complexity grows .

Strengthen your documentation habit. Encourage written communication (meeting notes, etc.). Build a culture of writing things down and encourage others to participate in the decision-making process. 

Tip: Give your engineers opportunities to write in “plain English” after meeting with product or business teams and to share with those teams for clarification. This will help them improve their written communication skills.

 

Move your documentation to code

It's hard to find things on confluence. We moved documentation to markdown and scripts on Git. When a script breaks, we fix it. Living documentation is something that people use often and it helps a lot.

— Laurence Putra Franslay, Engineering Manager

Working from home comes with plenty of distractions when you are also with your loved ones or children. People have different schedules and it’s harder to get instant answers like when in the office. You just can’t rely on the convenient tap on the shoulder to get help.

Move your documentation to places where they are easily discoverable and can be easily updated. Git is the obvious place as it is near and dear to many developers.

 

Set clear work boundaries

Just keep a basic discipline and maintain a routine. Over time you'll get the hang of it.

— Renu Yadav, Engineering Manager

The lines between work and home have blurred. It’s harder to disconnect and not to answer the odd Slack message or email at 11 pm.

Engineering leaders must set clear expectations and clear boundaries to help their staff separate home from work.

Tips:

  • Encourage your teams to set up a routine and a strict schedule.
  • Empower them to say no to requests that will unnecessarily impose on personal time unless absolutely necessary.

 

Proactively engage to avoid isolation

There are many kinds of personalities on a team. It is very hard. You can’t force people to play games or to be on Zoom on Friday evening. You have to switch it up, do different things. 

— Renu Yadav, Engineering Manager

For a lot of developers, work and home tend to intermingle. When you take away the ability to connect and create relationships, you quickly feel isolated. Building connections and relationships are difficult to do on a Zoom call, especially for introverts and new hires.

It’s not possible to force people to engage over video calls. However, it’s possible to try to create an environment that can foster serendipitous encounters and stronger relationships:

  • Organize online games and trivia / quiz contests.
  • Have drinks online like a Dev Bev Bash.
  • Setup random coffee bots that connect two people for a conversation.
  • Create social video calls. Try at least 5 people to make them less awkward.
  • Allocate a block of your time for open office hours.

 

Watch the full recording of the panel

Nicolas, Laurence, Renu, and Ishan shared great stories on how they have managed their engineering teams. Check out the full video to hear additional thoughts and commentary from our expert panelists.

Watch the full webinar on Youtube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bfbBY1VWvdk

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