There’s an increasing number of fully-remote companies out there who are and have been thriving for years. Flexible working policies have been on the rise for sometime, and for many of us, the occasional/regular WFH day has been pretty standard.
But there’s a difference between sometimes working from home on Fridays, and doing so every single day. And in the week before lockdown, the number of people working from home rocketed from 1.7 million to 4 million. Switching to this format when you’ve previously spent most of your time working face-to-face with colleagues can be quite a culture shock—and one thing that can be particularly tricky for leaders and managers is tracking the progress of remote teams.
No more rolling over to other people’s desks…
There’s a lot to be said for the things that we take for granted when working in our offices. As soon as real-life interaction with colleagues is restricted, it can be disorienting and unnerving, and it becomes exceedingly apparent how much we rely on casual conversations; rolling over to people’s desks or chatting over the coffee machine to keep up-to-date on projects.
In a way, the lack of these things could actually be enhancing our productivity. Fully-remote workers often cite an improvement in their focus, and this article on synchronous vs asynchronous communication goes a long way in explaining why that’s the case.
However, there are potential pitfalls when we’re not used to this way of working. Without implementing the right approach to projects, teams run the risk of falling down rabbit holes, pursuing the wrong tasks, or not resolving miscommunications quickly and effectively enough.
The three key elements
At HubbleHQ, we operate in squads: cross-functional teams working together on targeted projects. Shifting to remote working risked making it difficult for squad leaders to visualise the progress of their teams’ work—especially given that they are not necessarily their line managers as well.
Nevertheless, we’ve always had a flexible approach to working from home, and even before the lockdown, it was normal for there to be a handful of people doing so on your typical day. As such, we were pleasantly surprised when we went fully-remote in light of COVID-19. Organisationally, we were already pretty well-prepared for a distributed team, and we’ve distilled that down to three key elements: using the right tools, implementing the right processes, and adopting the right attitude.
Using the right tools
There are tonnes of tools out there that enable distributed teams to work effectively and track team progress. A two-second Google search will bring up a multitude of top-notch platforms, so we’ll just focus on the ones that we’ve used and that we think work well.
On top of our messaging systems (we use Slack), video-conferencing tool (Zoom), CRM of choice (Hubspot) and the eternal Google Sheet, these are the primary tools we use to keep on top of team progress:
Project management is much more appealing in a colourful and easy-to-use tool such as Monday.com. Favoured by our marketing team in particular, Monday.com has an intuitive interface powered by plenty of useful features designed to optimise tracking, automate the mundane, and tailor your “boards” to reflect the specific project that your team are working on.
From simplifying HR tasks to executing marketing campaigns, Monday makes tracking performance on all types of projects incredibly easy, with its huge spectrum of analytical tools, charts, and graphs.
Whilst Monday is top choice for our marketers, Jira is an integral tool for our tech team, as it enables everybody to see what’s being built and who’s working on what at any one time. It’s transparent and comprehensive, making it easy to spot bottlenecks and hone in on specific tickets—and whilst its interface is a little bulky, it’s well-equipped to optimise the processes of engineers working in a variety of squads.
The HubbleHQ tech team used to use Trello—but switched to Jira given the extra functionalities it offers for tech teams. However, both tools are based on the concept of Kanban—a popular framework used to implement agile software development, but which can also prove effective for other non-tech teams, too.
As such, Trello could be a good option for those who don’t need the specificities that an engineering team does.
Our tech team also use Pull Panda to track pull requests and optimise their workflow.
Pull Panda’s ability to generate dashboards and leaderboards enables engineering managers and team leads to visualise the size and frequency of everybody’s PRs, give concrete data points on team contribution, and identify and eradicate bottlenecks.
We’ve found that it greatly improves the productivity of our engineering team, and its integrations with GitHub and Slack make it easy to incorporate into existing processes.
productboard does for product teams what Jira does for engineers. It allows PMs to monitor and share with wider teams and stakeholders exactly what’s being thought about in the product team, why it’s being thought about, how it’s being handled and when it’ll be worked on.
For product teams juggling new feature requests with questions around the status of their product roadmap, productboard is an effective and accessible way of sharing the essentials with the wider team. Its Slack integration also makes it easy to pull in ideas and insights of the wider team as they’re going about their normal business, without the hassle of them having to create new tickets.
Implementing good processes
Introducing routines that can quickly identify blockers or challenges that team members are facing is fundamental.
Like Kanban, many of the processes that we’ve implemented at HubbleHQ originate from agile working processes. By nature, agile project management prioritises people over process, so all of the ideas below are entirely dependent on how they work for you as a team. We’ve found that they make us more productive, but don’t be a slave to them if they don’t do the same for you.
When starting a new project, kickoff meetings are an effective way of making sure that everybody knows exactly what’s going on. We use them regularly at HubbleHQ for projects in all squads and departments.
Whilst the exact content of a kickoff meeting will be dependent on the project, it will generally involve establishing the who, what, why, when and how; from ensuring that everyone knows their responsibilities to determining a realistic timeline. A kickoff also gives team members a chance to air any initial questions, concerns, or ideas.
Starting a project on the right foot is especially important when working remotely, as it can be even harder to spot when things start going awry. Any misunderstandings that arise from poor communication at the start of a project can equate to a lot of wasted time and effort, so giving everyone the necessary information from the outset will pay off in the long run.
Daily standups were commonplace at HubbleHQ before went remote, and remain an integral part of our day. Even teams who didn’t do them before have now adopted the habit, as they go far in ensuring projects are progressing as planned—and if not, why.
Our standups last 10-15 minutes, and require each team member to:
- give a quick update on the previous day,
- share their plan for the current day, and
- highlight any blockers they have.
It’s worth noting that visualising team progress is as much about celebrating successes and keeping teams motivated as it is spotting problems. Daily standup ensures that recognition is timely and regular.
Once a project (or a specific phase of a project) is complete, a retro is a good way of looking back on how it went in a neutral, non-personal way. Retros lean into the idea of continual improvement, and ensure that teams are working in the best way possible by reflecting on a regular basis.
There are a number of formats that a retro can take; this article gives detailed instructions on how to run a good one.
Finally, we try to ensure that our 1:1s take place as normal during this time. While they’re often easy to de-prioritise—especially when you’re at home, in the middle of focused work, and don’t fancy a two-person Zoom call—1:1s are a place where the overarching themes which may be impacting a team member’s work can come to light. Rather than just a “task update”, an effective 1:1 focuses less on the micro and more on the bigger picture, and can identify the things that may not be obvious in wider meetings or over Slack.
The Update, the Vent and the Disaster is a classic but valuable resource for conducting effective 1:1s.
Adopting the right mentality
Finally, tracking team progress in a newly-remote team can require a good degree of trust. It’s easy to fall into the habit of micromanaging teams once teams they’re out of sight, when actually the opposite may be what brings out the best in them.
Our CTO Tom says: “At the end of the day, all of the tools and processes that we use above are to enable communication and collaboration—not check that people are working. Many people associate working from home with a certain work ethic (or lack of), so it can be easy to feel the need to control people’s time and keep tabs more stringently. But by giving people more autonomy to work on what they’re meant to be working on, it can make them much more productive.”
It’s also worth bearing in mind that at this time, people may be tackling a whole variety of new challenges—especially those balancing work and childcare, caring for relatives, or just generally trying to handle a lot of major change at once.
Not sure what to do about your workspace during this time of uncertainty? Find out the many ways in which HubbleHQ can help below: