From global giants to local businesses - companies across the globe are ramping up work from home (WFH) to halt the spread of COVID-19 and keep their people safe. Amid this new reality, we all face the challenge of transitioning to remote work and managing distributed teams

And while some companies are just getting used to working remotely, most IT outsourcing service providers already have proven processes in place. N-iX, a leading Eastern European IT outsourcing provider, has over 1,000 software engineers working in its development centres in Ukraine. In a couple of days, the company was able to smoothly shift to the WFH mode avoiding any interruptions in its operations. For over 18 years, N-iX has provided software development services to businesses based in the USA, the UK, Western Europe, Australia, Middle East, and Asia. So managing a distributed workforce has always been a part of our business and we've perfected our remote working practices over the years. In this article, we reveal our best practices for leading remote development teams during these turbulent times.

Challenges businesses face when managing distributed teams

With the global spread of COVID-19, all businesses rethink the way they operate and rebuild their business strategies. Large companies that have to send hundreds and even thousands of people to work from home stand up against even bigger challenges. However, a lot of companies have already accumulated a sufficient amount of knowledge about remote work. Global Workplace Analytics shows that the number of people who work from home has increased by 140% between 2005 and 2019. The most common challenges managers of remote teams face include:

1. Communication

Communication is the key to the success of any remote team. And during the quarantine when people are even more distanced from each other, it's important to ensure effective communication across all channels and audiences - within your team and across your entire organization.

2. Productivity

A lot of managers are worried about the productivity of their teams while they work remotely. However, surveys show that the productivity of remote workers is even higher. According to CoSo Cloud, 77% of remote employees say they're more productive when working from home, and 23% say they work longer hours than they would on-site. Remote work and working from home are not the same though, and not everyone can stay productive away from their traditional workspace.

3. Tech infrastructure

Among the biggest challenges companies faced during the COVID-19 quarantine were technical ones.  Supplying hundreds or even thousands of employees with laptops and other devices, preparing all the necessary software, making sure their VPN can handle sudden spikes in remote users - these are just a few challenges IT teams had to tackle.

4. Security

In the office, companies thoroughly protect their networks and devices. However, during a massive transition to work-from-home, the sysadmins just can't come to everyone's home and set everything up, can they? Therefore, your employees will often have to use their own devices and insecure public WIFI networks. Read on and learn how to ensure security during the quarantine. 

5. Team spirit and morale

These are emotionally challenging times for many people. And although 86% of people feel that working remotely reduces stress (FlexJobs), long-term isolation may be depressing. Business leaders and their managers have to be realistic about what is happening but in their communication with people, it's important to keep a positive outlook.

Transition to remote work: key steps

#1 Prepare your tech infrastructure 

54% of HR leaders indicated that poor technology and/or infrastructure for remote working is the biggest barrier to effective remote working (Gartner).

It is challenging to continue with business as usual if your tech infrastructure is not adjusted to alternative types of work. First of all, your IT team should check whether your existing infrastructure can support a sudden surge in employees accessing on-premise and cloud applications from remote locations.  

Those companies that have moved to the cloud or use software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications, should experience less technical difficulties. But not all businesses have gone “all in” on the public cloud. Many of them still rely on private data centres to host their business-critical applications or use private cloud. 

Also, members of the IT team have to consider the hardware remote employees will use (company-issued or personal devices), and the networks they’ll be on (public or private). 

At N-iX, we have over 1,000 software engineers who work on projects of different scale and complexity for clients across the globe. And although we are used to remote work, we had to get ready to help all our employees move to WFH. Here is the process our IT team followed to avoid disruptions in the work of our distributed engineering teams.

We recognize that not all software development teams can work remotely due to tech restrictions, such as the complexity of hardware (gaming and embedded projects). So we have left the office open for those who need it making sure that it is safe.

#2 Maintain security

40% of companies reported seeing increased cyber attacks as they enable remote working (Threatpost). 

When switching to remote work, a company should make necessary security policy changes and clearly communicate them company-wide. All employees should receive the instructions on how to connect to the company’s VPN and use their work PC via Remote Desktop Protocol. Besides, they should be updated on data protection rules to be able to safely exchange documents or information electronically. Companies that have their security policies rigorously documented (on Confluence or other document management platforms) will be able to avoid mass confusion among employees.

Also, it is important to ensure secure sign-in to corporate systems with multi-factor authentication. CIOs and their teams need to run security audits to make sure that the company and clients’ data is safe. 

Members of remote development teams should have access to all systems they need to do their job effectively. So the IT team needs to update system access to avoid data leaks - either expand access or limit it for those who are not authorised.

#3 Provide your employees with all necessary collaboration tools

Remote working shouldn’t change your employees’ day-to-day work. Buffer’s 2019 State of Remote Work report claims that communication and collaboration are among the biggest challenges of working remotely.

So you should give your distributed engineering teams the right tools to collaborate efficiently in the digital environment. It is also important to monitor the quality of the software you use and change them if they don’t meet your needs. These tools range from messaging and videoconferencing solutions to CRM and ERP platforms.

With the start of the COVID-19 crisis, a lot of the companies that provide collaboration software gave free access to their tools or opened their pro offerings to all users. For instance, several providers such as Microsoft, Google, Slack, Zoom, and others are making chat, videoconferencing and other collaboration services free during the outbreak. 

While some companies have seen their stock prices plummet, communication software such as Zoom has surged in popularity. Its stock price has climbed dramatically. At the same time, they are facing a huge load on their systems and need to adjust the infrastructure to meet an increasing number of users.

However, you shouldn't experiment with collaboration software during a large-scale transition to remote work. You should choose a limited number of tools for your organization. If your distributed teams start trying out different applications, there will be a lot of miscommunication and loss of productivity. So choose specific software and communicate company-wide that everyone should stick to it.

Next, you need to make sure everyone uses these channels effectively, so set some ground rules

  • always be in time for all virtual meetings;
  • send out the agenda for every meeting;
  • always use the camera;
  • dress appropriately even when you work from home;
  • listen actively, join all group discussions but don’t interrupt;
  • send follow-ups after each meeting;
  • use Slack for team communications; make sure your account contains all the information - your correct name, a position, and a photo;
  • use Google Hangouts for team video-chats;
  • report your work in the reporting tool at the end of each day;
  • CC your co-workers or a manager on important emails to keep everyone in the loop.

#4 Help your employees stay productive

IT outsourcing companies are used to working remotely. When we at N-iX started our first partnership with Novell 18 years ago, our team was located in Ukraine and we worked remotely with Novell who were in the United States. Since then, we’ve collaborated remotely with clients in the UK, Germany, Sweden, Australia, Japan, Israel, USA, and many other countries. Also, some of our clients have several distributed teams in different locations working on one product. 

So this practice was in place long before the coronavirus outbreak, and IT outsourcing companies have mastered remote work for years. The difference is that it wasn’t applied to the whole workforce on such a massive scale. Some businesses simply had no need for building up remote working practices. And here the experience of IT outsourcing providers will come in handy.

Staying productive at home might be more challenging for some of your people. They might not have a working space at home, they may be distracted by children and family, they may have a bad Internet connection, to name a few. So you need to support them every way you can. 

Here are a few productivity tips that prove to be effective for our employees during remote work:

  • Focus on communication more than ever

A short meeting is better than a long message. During work from home, all employees should emphasize communication: prepare the agenda, be on time, listen actively, send follow-ups to make the most of online meetings.

  • Use Agile methodologies

The value of Agile at this time couldn’t be bigger. It’s not by chance that tech companies across the globe use Agile methodologies. Sprint planning, daily stand-ups, demo sessions, retrospectives, backlog grooming are important Agile ceremonies your distributed teams should adopt while working from home.

  • Make a clear working schedule

If your employees work from home, it doesn't mean that they should be available 24/7. Ask them to indicate their working schedule and stick to it. It is important to emphasize that they don’t have to interrupt their family time to complete pending work as well as let personal calls or housework disturb their working schedule.

  • Socialize with your teammates

People who work remotely can start feeling lonely very quickly. To stay emotionally close to your employees, you can organize some activities to combat loneliness and anxiety during this period of isolation. For example, a special coffee time meeting every day to talk about topics not related to work, virtual group workouts or multiplayer online games.

  • Establish the daily morning routine

Encourage your remote employees to follow the morning routine they normally have when they go to work: do some exercise, have breakfast, get dressed up for work, drink coffee with friends (but now via Skype or some other video conferencing tool). This all will help get their mind ready for work.

  • Don’t forget about professional development and knowledge sharing

You shouldn’t overlook the professional development of your employees during remote work. Your company should promote and organize online workshops, meetups, personal training and mentorship programs to keep employees motivated and engaged.

  • Keep up your business ethics

Working from home is not a vacation by any means. You should stay even more professional than ever - be in time, be prepared, follow on your commitments, and focus on quality.

#5 Align your corporate communications

Most businesses have started to experience financial difficulties when COVID-19 arrived. Your company might need to take some painful steps in order to survive. Also, your employees who work from home might fear they don't get all the information. Don’t let the panic take over, communicate with your teams about what is happening. 

It's important to develop effective internal and external communication plans to keep your distributed teams and clients informed about the impact of the crisis on your businesses and how you respond to it. By now you must have a business continuity plan for the time of the outbreak. Also, you must have already implemented some cost optimization measures and changes in operations. Control the narrative and tell your employees about these changes.

Here are a few messages you could add to your corporate communications:

  • Your company has a business continuity plan in place;
  • There is a strategy group that works daily on adjusting your business strategy to meet the new challenges;
  • You are on track with all your projects, you continue to provide quality services to your customers;
  • You are actively monitoring the situation on your clients' side;
  • Your growth won't be as strong as you expected but your business has a solid foundation to get through the crisis;
  • You have implemented the necessary cost optimization measures to ensure business continuity;
  • Your top priority is to keep all your employees, clients, and partners safe.

How N-iX can help you set up your distributed team

N-iX provides quality software development services to businesses across the globe. We help our clients expand their software development capabilities and hire world-class engineering talent. Here are a few facts that prove our expertise in building and managing remote development teams:

  • smoothly switched 1,000 software engineers to work-from-home in a few days;
  • over 18 years of experience building and managing distributed software development teams;
  • flexibility and vast experience in using Agile methodologies and practices, which are perfect for managing remote teams;
  • a secure and scalable IT infrastructure designed with remote work requirements in mind;
  • our tech experts have experience working with various collaboration and communication tools to integrate smoothly with the clients' processes;
  • seamless integration of multiple teams in different locations;
  • a result-oriented attitude and high professional ethics standards.

Managing distributed engineering teams is a skill every business needs to master today. Getting back to business-as-usual won’t happen overnight. And the line between onsite and remote development teams is hardly visible today. Companies are no longer limited to local tech talent pools. They can choose the brightest minds from across the globe without the need to overpay for expensive talent in-house. If you need help with setting up a remote development team, contact our experts and we'll be happy to help you.

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