Working with a Remote Team

16 Apr 2019 - Tony Naccarato

In an ideal world, your team would all be in the same office working together in perfect harmony. For some of us that this is not a reality, especially with remote working becoming more common among teams. At my current company, I am fortunate enough to work with a remote team of developers based out of Ukraine.

There are some challenges with remote teams like time differences, culture, and language but at the end of the day, you still need to work together in order to ship the experience. There are some lessons that I have learned that might be helpful in any remote team situation. It comes down to a few main items.

  1. Communication needs to be at the best possible level.
  2. Have empathy for each team member.
  3. Find ways to create together so everyone is part of the process.

I’d like to remind you that in some way we are all remote workers. Even in the same office, we can’t always have in-person conversations. Being on the opposite side of the building or on another floor is just like being a thousand miles away.

Communication needs to be at the best possible level.

Communication needs to the main focus and it needs to be at the best possible level. This is something our team is always improving and it happens by failing, learning from our failures, and trying new ways of communicating.

When your main source of communicating is Slack and video conferences, you sometimes miss the visual cues that help you understand what is being said. When working with someone from another country you need to be clear in the words you are using. Sometimes there is a different understanding of the same word. You need to be aware of this and when you don’t understand, ask. If you don’t know the intent of someone else’s message, ask. Don’t try to guess or read into it, just ask.

Most of the conversations we have with our remote team member are related to the outcomes we are working on. Some of the time there are disagreements on what the priorities are and in those cases, we need to be cautious of how we interact with each other. We all have different ways of reacting when there are disagreements. For some of us, it is to control the situation, for others, it is to comply and go along with whatever is said, and another is to withdraw ourselves from the situation.

All these scenarios create roadblocks for communicating and getting the work done. Other people don’t think the way you do, and what makes sense to you might be confusing for someone else. If we can understand where others come from we can find the value and embrace those difference to help us communicate and work better together.

Communicating at the best level means we respect and look for the value in what the person is saying and keeping the communication positive. For some reason, it is easy to criticize and complain. Don’t give in so easy, you can always agree to disagree without offending or putting others down.

When you understand the differences in each team member you can start to build empathy for each other.

Have empathy for each team member

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. To have a great remote team you need to be communicating at the best possible level which allows you to have empathy for each of your team members.

Everyone is on the team for a reason but we still come from different cultures, have different beliefs, and have different levels of experience. Having empathy is hard. As Seth Godin said, “We’re not wired to walk in someone else’s shoes, it’s not our first instinct.” It’s hard but that is not a reason to not do it. You could learn the native language if your team comes from another country. At least, get to know the culture and customs for those you work with. This will help you walk in someone else’s shoes.

Visit to Ukraine to learn more about the culture.

If you are feeling frustrated over a process, someone else on your team is probably feeling the same way. If you don’t feel a conversation is going in the right direction, instead of controlling, complying, or withdrawing, try speaking up and talking about it, you probably aren’t the only one thinking it. Empathy takes work but will ultimately increase your communication level and open up more opportunities for your team to create together.

Remote teams require more…but you have this priceless opportunity to work with any human in the world!

Find ways to create together

Sometimes the conversation about the problem and solution aren’t enough. You need to look for ways to create together.

At my current company, we have a great structure for discovery, design, and testing. The intent of this process is to have the product and engineering teams creating with each other through the whole process. That way everyone is involved and no surprises come up when development starts. Because of location differences and time difference, we can’t always include the whole team so we’ve had to alter the process to meet our needs.

Before we begin the discovery process we create a summary statement that identifies what we will be talking to the users about. This is presented to our remote team to get them familiar with what we are doing and allow them to give input into the process.

As we begin our discovery process the product team documents and creates notes based on what we learn. We create an insights sheet for each person we interview that includes a quick overview of the person and some of the big insights that we learned as we talked with them about a given topic. This includes goals, needs, pain points, and workarounds they are doing. We also include some small “Tidbits” that support the big insights and things that were said that are relevant.

We also create a needs map that consolidates all the major insights from each person we interview. These are smaller statements that are more precise and digestible. This allows us to group similar ones together and see repeating patterns across all those we interview.

The real power of this comes when we need to communicate back to our remote team what we have learned and get them quickly up-to-speed. Instead of having them listen to hours of interviews we can give them a few simple sheets and they can see who we interviewed and what we learned from them. They can also see the repeating data and patterns.

The next part of our process is creating wireframes together. This involves getting the product designer, product manager, engineering team and any other stakeholders together and everyone creating a solution to the problem. It is a great way to get everyone’s opinion and it makes everyone feel ownership for the experience that they are building.

This type of collaboration is difficult with remote teams but we still try to do it whenever we can. The most successful times that we have done this is when we have traveled to the same location. Even though we are remote there is a power that comes from taking the time to travel and come together. Of course, this can’t always happen so other methods that we have used to collaborate on designs are video calls and pictures of everyone’s ideas that we can share while we talk about them.

Even though working with remote teams has its challenges, they can all be overcome by finding time to create together, building empathy for each other, and improve the communication within the team. This will allow you to deliver a great experience for your user.