I’ve recently been reflecting back on our transition to remote work—particularly on how we got it wrong. Then, how we got it right.
We recognized early on in the pandemic that we weren’t going back to our offices, and by August 2020 had rolled out a permanent hybrid-remote policy. So, fortunately, our employees didn’t experience the whiplash of multiple canceled return-to-office dates with each new Covid variant.
As a leader with twenty years of experience managing technical teams, I needed to figure out the fundamental difference between in-person and remote work.
The communication threshold is the conscious decision whether to reach out to someone to ask a question or share an update.
I’ve observed that it requires a greater degree of comfort and motivation to contact a colleague when you’re physically distanced. And it progressively increases the less frequently you work with someone. This seemingly small factor has an outsized impact on work outcomes across technical teams.
For example: let’s say I’m a developer who needs Ben to finish upgrading a shared library so I can submit my merge request. Here’s how that scenario may play out in different environments:
In person: I look over at Ben’s desk and see he’s chatting with his neighbor. I decide it’s a good time to drop by and ask him how it’s going and when he thinks his change will get reviewed. I get a status update and ten minutes later, I’m back at my desk proceeding with other work.
Remote: I glance at our Slack channel on and off all morning, watching for an update. I think about Slacking him at noon but hold off, thinking, “it’s not urgent and, for all I know, Ben is working on a production issue now.” There’s no status update by the end of my workday.
While the impact here is minor, at scale these interactions accumulate and, even in a medium-sized company like Enigma, lead to a significant loss of team effectiveness.
Once we understood the subtle impact remote work has on our communication norms, we were able to develop techniques for more effectively working together.
It requires a greater degree of comfort and motivation to contact a colleague when you’re physically distanced. And it progressively increases the less frequently you work with someone. —Ryan Green, Chief Technology Officer, Enigma
In late 2020, we undertook our first large, cross-functional project as a remote company. While we delivered a major product innovation on time, it wasn’t a pleasant experience for anyone. Our higher communication thresholds meant we weren’t communicating or managing dependencies effectively. This led to multiple cases of last-minute notice, rework, late nights and unnecessary stress. It became clear we needed better tools and methods for delivering complex projects as a remote team.
After a retro on the project in early 2021, we made five calibrations to improve our ability to deliver high-quality products as a remote team:
In a remote environment, the cognitive cost of staying in sync is higher. You can’t just turn around to ask a question, so more questions may go unanswered. We’ve become very disciplined about sharing information.
In a remote environment, coordination between different teams is more challenging. While individual teams may have daily stand-ups to coordinate efforts, there’s no virtual equivalent of walking over to chat with someone on a different team (polling someone regularly on Slack to ask for updates generally isn’t appreciated).
The solution we’ve adopted is to require a detailed project plan and a short weekly project sync for every piece of work that will require more than one engineer sprint. This simple technique has allowed us to complete all 15 projects this quarter within two weeks of the projected completion time—without teams putting in extra hours.
Planning sometimes gets a bad rap. Much of this comes from organizations that use plans to coerce teams into signing up for unrealistic goals. We use plans as a tool to improve the quality of our engineering and data science work. Plans allow us to see where we need to cut scope to provide breathing space to build maintainable systems (simple designs, high-levels of automation and testability, effective documentation, etc.).
We also know that plans cannot account for surprises that inevitably require additional time to work through. Planning is a cognitive tool for thinking realistically about the future so we can provide a high degree of predictability and transparency to everyone involved.
The higher cost of communication in a remote environment revealed that we had underinvested in documenting our systems and processes. We repeatedly observed our most experienced people resorting to asking simple questions about our systems on Slack that they couldn’t answer. This clearly illustrated the cost of relying on an informal system of “tribal knowledge.”
Now, we have a policy of adding every question we answer to our “SMB Knowledge Base,” which we think of as a product and technical spec for our entire platform. We’ve also built out a robust “how to” section with actionable instructions for common tasks.
This investment in documentation has allowed people to be more self-sufficient in understanding the what and why of our systems. Plus, the act of writing out long sets of instructions has highlighted parts of our system that are overly complicated and candidates for automation and streamlining.
Enigma employees frequently cite that one of their favorite things about working here is “the people.” Through the pandemic we lost many of the in-office rituals we had developed, like Friday team beers, weekly board game night, and team lunches with new joiners.
Despite our best efforts, reenacting these activities virtually resulted in an unsatisfying facsimile. There’s just no substitute for spending time together.
We make it a priority to bring the team together in person at least twice a year (for folks who are comfortable). These are work-lite, social-heavy affairs that allow old friends to reunite and new connections to be formed. In 2021, the engineering and data science team gathered for retreats in upstate New York and Savannah, Georgia.
In a remote setting, it’s harder to get a read on how engineers and teams are doing professionally and personally. In the office, you can look around and see who’s been heads-down the whole day and who’s there every evening when you leave. There are dozens of micro-interactions each week, like short conversations in the kitchen, where tone and body language offer clues about a person’s wellbeing and mental state.
These cues are less obvious in the remote world. As a result, we’ve had to become more intentional about establishing norms to promote a healthy work-life balance. Small changes, such as asking team members to queue up after-hours emails and Slack messages to send the next morning, and conducting regular PTO audits to encourage people to take at least one week of PTO per quarter, have made a difference.
Most importantly, the investments we make in planning help to set expectations and make our work more predictable so people can more fully enjoy their lives outside of work.
In 2021, we delivered projects of a higher quality at a faster, more sustainable pace than at any point in Enigma’s history—including when we were co-located in an office.
In retrospect, the involuntary transition to remote work – and the effects on team communication that come along with it – has been a blessing, forcing us to think carefully about how we work and find new ways to collaborate. There’s certainly more to learn and we’re excited about getting even better in 2022.
The investments we make in planning help to set expectations and make our work more predictable, so people can more fully enjoy their lives outside of work. —Ryan Green, Chief Technology Officer, Enigma