How to Harness Diversity & Distance: 5 Tips for Strong Remote Dev Teams

This article outlines the five factors most critical to the success of remote, diverse development teams. Each factor is both a challenge and an opportunity for developers and leaders.

For the past 9 years, I’ve worked as a remote developer with clients from Europe, North America and Asia. I’ve served alongside teams of developers from all over the world, with some teams representing more than 20 different countries.

I love working on cross-cultural, remote development teams. While challenging, I’ve found that with the right perspective and some practical adjustments, these teams can develop as much, if not greater, trust, communication and productivity as traditional teams.

Better Business with Remote, Multicultural Development Teams

While developers definitely benefit from healthy remote-team experiences, they aren’t the sole beneficiaries. Delivering through Diversity, a 2018 report by McKinsey & Company, reveals early insight into the competitive advantage that diversity and inclusion can offer businesses. The authors hypothesize that companies who embrace greater diversity are able to make better decisions, find top talent, better empathize with customers and facilitate greater employee satisfaction.

From my own observations, I’ve discovered that businesses who build teams of remote developers experience a variety of positive results:

  • Remote teams can be more productive than traditional teams. As a result, their clients often experience time savings during development.
  • Culturally diverse teams tend to think more strategically and objectively than homogenous ones. As a result, the products they develop deliver greater financial results for their clients.
  • Rather than creating developer-driven products, diverse teams tend to press into user demands, creating sensitive human-centered solutions.

Remote, multicultural teams will face challenges that can make or break them. Achieving results requires support and awareness from both leaders and developers. I’ve found the following five factors most critically impact the success of cross-cultural, remote teams.

1. Thoughtful Communication

Excellent communication is an essential skill for any developer; but on remote, cross-cultural teams, it is even more critical.

Given a healthy environment, I’ve found that developers on cross-cultural teams often become better communicators — every email or instant message requires more thought. Team members are forced to think through exactly what they mean and communicate it more clearly and explicitly than they otherwise would.

The process of thinking about what you are going to say before you say it actually benefits the whole team. It causes people to anticipate areas of confusion and examine their reasoning as they develop their stance on a given topic. Questions and feedback are necessary and routine, helping the whole group question assumptions and identify false logic together.

Here are some ways developers and leaders can take advantage of communication strengths on cross-cultural, remote teams:

  • Closely monitor team communications. Look out for miscommunication that leads to misunderstanding and toxic negativity. If needed, get professional coaching for your team or take them through an online communication course.
  • Frequently remind team members about events and announcements. On remote teams with diverse language backgrounds, important announcements are not always understood or received. Instead of assuming negligence, make sure to reiterate important news and ask for feedback to verify that the news has been received. Slack offers helpful customizations for sending reminders and announcements.
  • Be sensitive to time zone differences. Modify workflow to both respect developers and harness the strengths of working across time zones. Intentional, routine communication becomes foundational to success when multiple time zones are involved.

As long as communication remains positive, intentional and consistent, remote developers will be able to make the most of uninterrupted, focused work time.

2. Diversity and Inclusion

Companies with inclusive work environments are the ones that benefit most from diversity. When each person feels comfortable sharing their perspective, a variety of ideas leads to innovation.

Harness the benefits of diversity and inclusion by building strong relationships within teams and helping each team member see the value of their work in the long run. A sense of belonging empowers people to commit and serve. When remote team members feel like they are part of the company they work for, they become unstoppable.

3. Proactivity

Proactivity is crucial in remote work environments because time zone differences make communication slower and harder. When building remote teams of cross-cultural developers, companies have to hire people who are proactive or are willing to learn to be proactive. That’s one of the reasons I love working on remote teams — people who take ownership and initiative tend to be more positive and fulfilled.

Proactivity is especially critical in certain development situations, like in my current role building custom software at Praxent.

There are no predetermined answers when building products that have never been built before. Every solution I develop has to come from my own research and analysis.

Proactive Developers: Sometimes developers receive unclear, poorly defined requirements, inspiring lots of questions. Rather than simply flagging the issue and waiting until the next sprint to hear from the project manager, proactive developers study the urgency, complexity, and the importance of the issue, then work to identify possible solutions until further clarification is possible.

Developers who stop working and wait days or weeks to get responses to their questions slow productivity considerably. Remote teams aren’t successful without proactive developers who solve problems and take initiative rather than tossing responsibility back onto someone else and waiting for direction.

Proactive Leaders: Proactivity is also important for leaders on remote teams, particularly when it comes to communication. Making sure requirements are crystal clear and developers have what they need to move a solution forward requires leaders to plan ahead during daylight hours.

4. Trusting Company Culture

Isolation can cause remote workers to feel disconnected from the rest of the company. When people feel disconnected, they are less likely to be vulnerable and more likely to act defensively rather than collaboratively. Conversely, distance can leave room for doubt, tempting leaders to mistrust remote team members without cause.

It’s important to recognize the tendency to make assumptions about people. Building strong relationships disproves assumptions.

Leaders can work to prevent isolation and cultivate trust with remote team members by going the extra mile to build relationships:

  • Include remote team members in company affairs to the same degree as on-site employees
  • Invite remote team members to attend critical meetings, even if it’s via video conferencing
  • Take the time to catch them up on important news or changes from the office
  • Allow for casual conversations that build personal connections

5. Productivity (The Greatest Strength & Greatest Challenge of Remote Teams)

Remote work comes with a lot of freedom and a lot of potential for focus, making productivity both the greatest strength and the greatest challenge of remote teams.

Developers need the freedom and the skills to set clear boundaries between their work and personal lives; otherwise, they end up jumping back and forth between work and other activities throughout the day.

Productivity Tip: Schedule Focused Time

Without focused personal time, people are distracted from the relationships that matter most and the activities that help them recharge. Without focused work time, most people can’t make any real progress; yet, they still feel drained at the end of the day.

Productivity Tip: Schedule Team Time

When working across multiple time zones, teams can fight the tendency to be distracted by setting a time when everyone on the team is able to work together virtually, even if it’s just for a few hours. (Just be respectful of schedules — nothing is worse than having a 12:00 a.m. meeting every day.)

Productivity Tip: Get Creative with Time Management

There are a lot of time management philosophies and techniques that can help remote workers be productive. One thing they all have in common is taking breaks in order to make the most of focused work time. I have found the Pomodoro time management technique to be particularly helpful.

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