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Remote Realities: What does dev team culture mean now?

6 June 2024 , by Alexandra Hanson

In early 2020, businesses of all types and sizes had to shift to remote working structures almost overnight. Four years on, and many tech organisations are still focused on remote-first structures.

While there are plenty of benefits to working remotely – including the fact that the majority of developers prefer this setup – there are some unique challenges that this arrangement brings. This makes it essential for tech leaders to understand how to create a positive team culture in these distributed environments.

In a recent webinar hosted by OfferZen and Deel, Eline Fruytier (Sales Manager at Deel) sat down with Michael Tempest (Senior Engineering Manager at Spendesk); Tobias Mende (Interim Tech Lead and Tech Advisor); and Nadia Vatalidis (Director of Talent Acquisition at Camunda) to discuss what culture looks like in a remote environment and how to lead productive teams across borders.

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The culture challenges of remote work

Remote working has always been a feature of the tech industry. However, over the past year, we’ve seen a return to the office push from companies. Two of the most common reasons for this are concerns over productivity and team culture.

While it’s easy to identify whether productivity has been affected, culture is harder to quantify. It’s also important to developers, who are unlikely to tolerate rigid work environments where the focus is on time spent working rather than the value of their outputs.

“We have to become more flexible for the generation that simply doesn't tolerate sitting in an office from nine to five and doesn't find that productive or meaningful, but does want the opportunity to deliver exceptional work,” said Nadia.

This goes hand in hand with another challenge: enabling autonomy. “Autonomy is important because people will have different working hours, work in different time zones or have different schedules in general. Therefore, they need to be able to make good decisions on their own,” noted Tobias.

While it’s important to facilitate this independence, you also need to ensure that team members aren’t so autonomous that they start to feel alone at work.

"When I first started at Spendesk, it was my first full remote role. It was fantastic, but I leant into it too hard, and I felt quite isolated,” Michael shared.

Strategies for creating a great remote team culture

The most effective way to create a great remote work environment is to be intentional about the culture you want to develop. If you’re not deliberate about this, a culture will develop organically – and it may not necessarily benefit your team’s productivity or morale.

Michael, Tobias and Nadia outlined a few key strategies to help tech team leads foster a thriving remote culture:

Make your vision clear

Teams can only take advantage of the flexibility that remote work offers when they know what they’re meant to be doing. “You have to have an aligned vision; a real, clear understanding of what you’re delivering to give people the flexibility to work how they want to,” explained Michael.

Operationalise company values

It’s not enough to write your values down in your documentation; they need to be embedded into daily operations. “Company values and operating principles should probably be at the top of the funnel when it comes to culture,” said Nadia.

These values, she noted, should be reflected in how employees engage with each other, how leaders communicate with the rest of the team and how the company recognises and rewards its people.

Embrace flexible communication

Clear communication is critical in remote settings. Here, there needs to be a balance between standardising how team members communicate with one another and encouraging flexibility around these interactions.

“One important thing is really making it explicit what types of communication we use. What we have asynchronous communication for and what we have synchronous communication for,” noted Tobias.

By establishing clear guidelines on when and how to use different communication methods, teams can enhance productivity and reduce misunderstandings.

Balance synchronous and asynchronous work

It’s essential to balance collaborative and deep work. While asynchronous communication can be extremely useful for ensuring that your team members have the space to focus, there will be certain tasks that require real-time collaboration for the best results.

“It’s great to think from an asynchronous perspective first. Is there a way to do this that gives somebody that focus flexibility to do this on their own time? Or do I have to synchronise this?

“Creative activities often need time for deep work when we’re uninterrupted, but if we have new problems that we need to solve, we can make better decisions as a team. For example, I'm a big fan of team programming sessions, because often the quality is much higher. And for me, that has to be synchronous,” explained Tobias.

Prioritise one-on-one meetings

Regular one-on-one meetings are essential for understanding team members’ needs and building trust. "One-to-ones are a chance for you to talk to them, and them to talk to you about whatever it is that is important to them," said Michael.

He added that these meetings should be driven by team members, rather than leads. This approach helps leaders build relationships, trust and stay connected with their teams, which will help them to identify and address any issues as they arise.

Invest in social connections

Building strong social connections in a remote environment requires deliberate effort. “If you aren’t investing time into socially connecting with your team, it's going to be really difficult to create an amazing culture and to get to know each other,” said Nadia.

Michael also emphasised the importance of in-person meetups and regular team-building activities. "The value of having team building on a regular cadence where you actually show up in person is incredible. It's about getting together, being together and really making the most of it; spending real quality time together," he added.

Use the right tools

Leveraging the right tools and support structures is essential for helping your team navigate the complexities of remote work.

“If you’re building products for people, it’s all about enablement. You’ve got to create space for people to have time and space to connect, but they also have to have the right tools to do that, the right documentation and learning materials, and give them access to these things at the right time,” Nadia explained.

“Make sure that you have a singular documented source of ‘truth’ for your team. This is where you write down processes and where to find things – and sometimes even share updates asynchronously – so that you’re able to benefit your team by keeping them informed,” Tobias added.

Creating a thriving team culture in a remote-first world

Creating a positive remote work environment requires intentionality and flexibility. A clear vision, established company values and guidelines around communication in this environment are invaluable for distributed teams.

The right tools and support structures – whether that’s a great digital whiteboard or one-on-one meetings – will help your team navigate the complexities of remote work to ensure they’re able to remain engaged, productive and connected, no matter where they are.

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