oDesk Interaction Designer Shipra Kayan knows remote collaboration inside and out. She has worked with oDesk’s distributed development team for almost four years, collaborating solely over email, shared documents, Skype chats and Google Hangouts. She has gotten to know many of these developers quite well after talking to them on almost a daily basis for years, but had only physically met the handful of developers who have visited the oDesk office.
Shipra wanted to change that. With the goal of experiencing firsthand what the development team—and all of our users—do every day, she set out on a trip to Macedonia and the Ukraine to work side by side with many of oDesk’s core developers.
Now about one month into her almost six-week trip, Shipra has shared invaluable lessons about remote collaboration and what it’s like to turn the usual in-person/remote arrangement upside down. She has been faithfully documenting her experience and reflections on her blog, What Eastern Europe Can Teach Me.
We miss her terribly back in California—though we did, in a marvelous demonstration of ‘always-on’ technology, set up an awesome ‘Shipra Station’ where anyone walking by can stop and chat with her—but we are really enjoying reading her blog. We thought you might enjoy it too, so below are some excerpts.
What I learned from working remotely in the first 5 days
1. I feel quite disconnected from HQ
I have very little idea of what’s going on there. I haven’t really connected with Shane or Albert since I left, and we used to connect almost every morning. While I don’t have specific questions for them, I have major FOMO. [Editor’s note: We’ve gotten better about this! Check out point #2 here.]
2. I used to take the Internet for granted
Internet in Macedonia is definitely quite good; all the cafes are WiFi-enabled. However, there are small things I notice—like the dev servers are slower, and it takes longer to upload Jing videos (probably because of location and not Internet). Also, the one time our Internet at the apartment did go down, I felt like it was my fault personally. When it used to go down in Menlo Park, it went down for everyone—and I never felt the need to apologize for it.
3. Co-location is awesome!
Being awake and working at the same time makes an unbelievable difference. To have the team in one place, and have it so you can quickly see something as soon as it’s working, and make decisions on what’s ok and what’s not—it’s golden. Also, being able to celebrate little milestones as they happen is fun. For instance, Darko just finished his unit test successfully and we did a little jig.
4. Agile is even more awesome than co-location.
Sometimes we confuse the benefits of co-location with “working on the same things at the same time.” For instance, even when I am at HQ I usually have to write questions for later, or send an email—mostly because the person I am looking for is not at their desk. But with Agile, we have a team of people available to discuss any issues that crop up, and we avoid the need to wait for answers or consolidate all questions for the 15 minutes a day that we meet—which results in being able to push through that last 5% and get something “done.”
How we make “remote work” work
There are a lot of things we are still figuring out in terms of remote collaboration and how to make our remote teams work better together—especially as we move to agile. However, our product is a testament to the fact that you can build world-class software with a completely distributed development team. Here’s what I think we do differently from other companies in that regard.
1. We are dedicated to making it work
I am sure there are many companies in Silicon Valley that would balk at the idea of a completely distributed development team. It’s probably not the easiest way to do things, however, it’s quite cool—and having a team that thinks it’s cool is important to making it work. We are constantly trying out new collaboration technologies, we keep everything on the cloud, and we work hard at making our distributed nature work to our advantage. Our founders have consistently led by example on this front, and they are the drivers behind our dedication to making this work.
2. Our remote team understands our mission
This is a non-negotiable requirement for making remote teams work. Our distributed team is not motivated by free lunches, or memberships to the gym—they are motivated by what we stand for. We are lucky to have a remote team that has a deep understanding of—and commitment to—oDesk. They all have personal stories about how oDesk affected their lives and their friends’ lives, and have a vision of what it means to the world at large.
3. We have tried to find the right mix of autonomous versus collaborative tasks
We have daily check-ins to keep the team cohesive and “feeling like a team,” but with Agile stories, there are a lot of decisions team members can make autonomously within their story. You don’t want each person to work completely independent of others, because that will result in an inconsistent product. However, our distributed nature requires that we avoid a hyper-collaborative atmosphere, since it’s disruptive to actual productivity.
4. We make the effort to get together in person
We invite our remote team members to visit the U.S. office, and now I am visiting with the team out here. While we feel very productive when we are together, the effects of meeting in person last longer than the two-week visit. I know that I subconsciously trust the folks I have met in person more than the ones I haven’t; I am more likely to ping them on Skype to ask a question, or just to say hi and share a joke. More on this later.
Want to read more about Shipra’s experience? Check out her blog!
For those of you who work with remote teams, what are your strategies for making it successful? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!