Don’t Build a Culture in a Remote Engineering Team. Create One

On the face of it, building a culture in a remote engineering team may seem like a huge challenge. But smart leadership teams are increasingly viewing remote engineering teams as a positive when it comes to creating culture. They are embracing the digital transformation and making it work for them. Here, we look at some of the best ways to create a culture in your distributed engineering team.

Start from scratch

With remote working on the rise, technical leaders are seeking ways to build a culture in their remote engineering teams. But building is the process of putting blocks in order and all too often, tech leads simply take what works in an office environment and transpose it into the virtual world. But they should embrace the blank canvas offered by distributed teams and start by deciding what they actually want and then working to embed it.

Provide clarity on company values

There can be no ambiguity when it comes to culture. Clearly stating the values of the company and what it stands for is crucial. Individuals in distributed engineering teams need to be on board with the company culture so that the quasi-organic working culture complements and enhances it. Any individuals who feel left out or that they are an afterthought will quickly become disengaged.

Video call your remote engineering team

Remote engineering teams do not always enjoy the chat and banter of physical interaction so it’s important to consider this and use video calls to add that personal touch. Some things are best said ‘in person’ as body language and facial expressions will ensure you convey the correct tone. This is particularly true when delivering constructive criticism. Delivering what might be deemed as negative feedback via message or email will appear cold and doesn’t afford the individual their right of reply. Video meetings also bring people together and allow leadership teams to reinspire individuals and re-establish consistency. Just make sure the time is productive so everybody walks away from it better-informed than when they arrived.

Leverage collaboration tools to encourage innovation and add a bit of fun

No matter where you work, chatting and inside jokes help form the culture. Often, these emerge organically through daily interactions in the office and are ‘owned’ by the workforce not the company, making individuals feel part of the whole. Remote engineering teams miss out on this crucial aspect of team bonding. Using collaboration tools such as Slack provides a place to recreate that banter. Asynchronous chats, emojis, GIFs and memes – all of these can help create a feeling of togetherness. Provide the platform, encourage its use, and maybe join in once in a while.

Create regular rituals

Find ways of getting individuals together regularly for work purposes. This could be for sprint planning or backlog refinement. The important thing is to get your remote workforce together in a productive way so that culture develops organically and they see value in the time spent together.

Build trust and provide recognition

By their very nature, distributed engineering teams work on trust. Each individual must trust each other, and technical leaders must trust their distributed workforce. Individual motivation comes primarily from the desire to succeed. Don’t let that stop you from giving recognition for a job well done. We all like to be praised once in a while and by recognizing individual performances and successes, you help to instill a culture of positivity. This can be done individually via a quick message, but occasionally it’s good to praise individuals publicly, either as part of a team video call or via Slack.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes

Distributed engineering teams consist of people with varied backgrounds, experiences and confidence. Some will feel happier to contribute ‘crazy’ ideas from afar, while others will be reticent to speak up on video calls. As a leader, it’s important to embrace creativity and encourage contributions. Ask for ideas and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Remote engineering teams won’t necessarily see the fallibility in their technical leaders and this can inadvertently lead to a culture of fear about adding to virtual meetings or challenging the status quo. Inviting feedback is even more important with distributed engineering teams than co-located teams. There are fewer opportunities for individuals to ‘pop in for a chat’ with leaders so anytime they have something to say, no matter how small, it can start to feel quite formal. By being open and honest about your own mistakes you help create a culture in which individuals feel free to express themselves in their work and in their opinions.

Get involved in local communities and sponsorships

Wherever they are in the world, each individual is part of a local community, and has local issues they care about. Learn more about your team and their lives, what they care about and what’s going on where they live. Get involved with some of the challenges which are most important to your team. Not only is it  good PR, it also makes individuals realize that they and their community are important. It helps to forge links within distributed engineering teams and brings together individuals with common interests. This alone will foster a culture of togetherness despite distance.

Of course, in-person meetings are still important and should be encouraged. But it’s vital that technical leaders recognize that these enhance the culture, they do not establish it. Whether remote or co-located, the culture in any team is defined by what individuals do on a daily basis. For leaders, creating a culture is a form of mixology – they must cultivate what they want it to be while nurturing the organic growth of the culture from within the team. This is equally important and equally achievable irrespective of whether you work with a co-located team or a remote engineering team. Don't hesitate to contact us if you have any questions or if you are looking for a right partner to help you build and grow your remote engineering team.

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