blog from additiv

Six lessons in managing distributed teams that work on complex systems

By Guy Levy, Senior Software Architect, additiv and Yann Kudelski, Head of Product Management, additiv

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by additiv
| 01/04/2020 12:00:00

“Can you hear me now?” — Tech is not your biggest issue

At additiv, we’re fortunate to be a digitally-native company. By using a distributed, remote-work model, we can continue to provide first-class services to our clients even in times of global crisis. At the same time, we can ensure the livelihood and security of our most valued asset — our employees.

Let’s be honest: remote work is not a panacea. Distributed teams have many advantages but at the same time, they also have shortcomings compared to co-located teams. Contrary to popular belief, this applies to knowledge workers too because collaboration and teamwork are critical to success. We have experienced this firsthand.

In our API-first approach, we strive to integrate and simplify complex financial systems in the wealth management industry to make them more accessible. For us, meeting face to face and working on ideas together produces better results. However, it’s not always an option. It may even become a privilege going forward.

The networked economy and the nature of software development nudged us towards remote work. We embraced this opportunity to:

  • access the best people on their terms
  • give people more autonomy, more freedom, and more ownership
  • provide software engineers with time and space to work on their own after collaborative sessions
  • keep operations nimble, adaptable, and optimize costs

Unusual times, counter-intuitive approaches
This global emergency is testing our abilities to adapt, work together, and figure out new ways to collaborate. Throughout this process, we might encounter deeply ingrained attitudes that hold us back.

For example, you may fear some team members will fail to follow through or that their productivity levels will experience a massive drop when working from home. If that’s you, you’re not alone.

“Remote employee managers are most concerned about reduced employee productivity (82%), reduced employee focus (82%), lower employee engagement and satisfaction (81%), and whether their remote employees are getting their work done (80%) — OWL Labs — State of Remote Work 2019

But, despite this commonly-held concern, the same study reports that remote employees actually work longer hours — almost twice as frequently as on-site ones do. This means, somewhat counter-intuitively, the burnout risk is higher for employees who work from home.

To maintain high energy levels and employee motivation throughout periods of prolonged uncertainty and physical distance, we — at additiv — focus on six key areas. We hope you’ll find these ideas useful and we’d love to get your feedback.

1. Reasonable expectations
When you can’t see your team members face to face, it’s difficult to gauge their state of mind, emotions and energy levels. You can easily miss early warning signs of burnout or even simple frustrations in a video call.

That’s why setting the right expectations is essential: there will be stumbles and falls, there will be delays and miscommunication. We’re compelled to go through this and figure it out together.

To relieve some of the pressure, emphasize there’s no glory in overworking and that adapting to this new setup will take a few weeks. It also helps to show your team that you trust them to deliver their best work under the current difficult conditions.

Pacing ourselves through this adjustment leads to better results, less frustration and disappointment, and stronger morale.

Working from home — or elsewhere — implies being absolutely clear about setting expectations. It also compels both employees and managers to take a closer look at their habits and shortcomings. This increased awareness can boost quality in both objective results and peer-to-peer or hierarchical relationships.

2. Principles over tools
Tools help, but no tool can fix a broken workflow or strained relationships between team members.

As a manager, sharing, communicating, and upholding a few key principles can go a long way. The more complex a system is, the more independence your team members require to make small decisions that have a big compound effect on the business.

Give people time to think. This is especially important when working on complex systems. Rushing judgement or decisions, or expecting immediate responses results in unnecessary risk.

Promote a culture of sharing. Information, insights, failures, wins. Learning together is a fundamental driver of our achievements.

“Speaking only helps who’s in the room, writing helps everyone. This includes people who couldn’t make it, or future employees who join years from now.”

This guideline from Basecamp highlights the importance of documenting work and keeping an internal knowledge hub that’s reliable, accessible, and up to date. It doesn’t have to be a fancy one at first. Its simple existence can get team members excited about working together on a project that’s useful and that improves everyone’s work.

3. Granularity and independence
Our technical team is located in 4 different countries. When looking to scale our ability to develop new features and bring them to customers faster, we found it helpful to split our services into smaller building blocks.

Based on our API-first approach, this granularity enables our teams to operate more independently, without interfering with each other’s work.

Naturally, this involves more sophisticated DevOps because breaking a complex product into smaller pieces means you must make sure you can piece it back together. This is just the type of issue managers in companies everywhere have to figure out right now.

4. Hybrid teams, hybrid products
Because we’re offering a hybrid wealth management product, we’re also a hybrid team and we fully embrace this approach.

Our work allows our customers to offer their clients 24/7 self-service or the option to sit with their advisors for a deep-dive. That covers a wide range of use cases and our quality standard is seamless integration between all these options.

The fact that we operate in multiple environments means our remote team members bring their unique market insight and a rich pool of experiences to draw from. We get to serve our customers whenever and however they want to be served.

5. Challenging, rewarding work
Finding software engineering talent is difficult for everyone and we have experienced this throughout Europe. Offering remote work as an option broadens the universe of potential candidates and it can also attract specialists looking for a personal challenge.

When you don’t have the option of in-person interactions, the only way to evaluate someone’s performance remains their work. And, almost always, the work speaks for itself.

The freedom to work without the limitations of the office is especially appealing to those who generate value by tackling intellectual challenges. Fortunately for us, we have plenty of like-minded people in our line of work. We know that individual contributors perform better when they work on their own and we provide them with that mental space.

At additiv, there is more freedom to work remotely without compromising security because of the cloud infrastructure we’re using.

6. Basic things become essential
Besides the high levels of uncertainty we are currently dealing with, there’s also the fear of not knowing how your team members are communicating, prioritizing, and collaborating. The Pavlovian response involves falling back into bad habits like “full break during oversteer” or micromanagement. Don’t! Instead, “turn into the slide” and practice servant leadership even more. Trust and empower your team(s), avoid becoming a decision making bottleneck, and make yourself a lot more available.

Make one-to-one meetings a habit. Whether you can do them in-person or online, one-to-one meetings can significantly increase your ability to work with the other person and build a trusted relationship.

You may not be able to meet face to face, but you can stay on top of communications (to support, not to control) and be as inclusive as possible, making sure that conclusions, decisions, and news are shared throughout the team and company.

Conduct regular updates for the entire team. Remind people often that they’re part of one team and not just strangers working on the same code base. We don’t do this perfectly, but we’ve made significant progress over the last two years that we feel proud of.

Technology is here to provide everything you need, but your less obvious challenge is to choose the right mix for your team and company.

Just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should
The ability to stay efficient and effective during a crisis is based on strong foundations that make remote work necessary but not the gold standard. When managing distributed teams, apply this simple rule: just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should always go remote.

In normal times, stick to few, ideally self-sufficient, co-located centers so people can physically work together if they want to.

Frequent visits between business locations and team building events have a powerful bonding effect. People who worked and socialized together during normal days will work better when required or choose to go remote. They will be better at picking up nuances in voice or written communication — even without video.

After you meet your colleagues’ kids face to face, it’s less of an issue when they pop behind them during a deep tech dive video call just to ask if they can play Minecraft.

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