How to keep remote teams happy (and productive)

Rethinking team management in the COVID era

managing remote teams
  • Job burnout levels are rising, particularly within IT organizations.
  • To ease the burden on remote workers, some companies are rethinking Agile strategies.
  • Planning and new practices can reduce the technical problems remote teams face.

A year of working from home has taken a measurable toll on employees. In a fall 2020 survey of 1,500 workers that studied job burnout during the pandemic, 89% said work life was getting worse, and more than half reported increasing job demands.

What’s more, modern approaches to managing teams, especially the Agile and DevOps methods dominant in most IT organizations, are exacerbating the difficulty of working remotely, some management experts say. IT departments have doubled down on such methods to meet the increased demands on their time. But managers must ensure remote workers are connected and secure, and adopt or expand the use of new collaboration tools like Zoom, experts say.

IT teams, like many others, suffer from an often-ignored reality, that the way modern teams work can leave members feeling lonely, burned out, and unmotivated.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, we jumped right into crisis mode — rules went out the window and work shifted dramatically,” says Gretchen Alarcon, vice president and general manager of HR service delivery at ServiceNow. “A lot of people are still in this crisis mode mindset where everything is urgent and important. Leaders of teams need to take a step back and prioritize based on what will drive the most impact.”

“Organizational silos have become more visible as we’ve been working remotely,” Alarcon adds. “The need to look at technology that centers on the employee, as opposed to the functional department, is a shift in thinking that needs to happen.”

The price of speed

Most corporate work teams today are characterized by constantly changing membership, replaceable roles, part-time commitments, and short lifespans, wrote Constance Hadley, a lecturer in management and organizations at Boston University’s School of Business, in a December 2020 article in MIT Sloan Management Review. That can make organizations “faster, more flexible, and more efficient,” Hadley said. It can also make members feel more lonely than in more traditional teams.

Agile teams, characterized by short standup meetings, frequent testing, and rapid product iteration, are an extreme example. Agile techniques have come to dominate software development and DevOps because they promise faster and higher-quality results. Research shows they are more likely to pay off than traditional, top-down approaches to IT project management.

Unfortunately, Agile’s strengths can break down when done remotely, a challenge that at least a third of organizations expect will continue until the pandemic is behind us. Decisions that required a simple five-minute, in-person whiteboard session can, on video conference, take a half-hour or more. Meetings that once were arranged on the fly require complicated orchestration of online schedules, sometimes involving people in different time zones; the sorts of informal encounters that build team solidarity are rare to find through virtual meetings. Efficiency suffers, as a result.

“The key in Agile is communication,” says Larry Edelstein, a sales engineering manager for Perforce Software. “That’s best when people know and trust each other, so a team that’s been together for a while is intuitively likely to be more successful.”

Careful planning can help overcome some of the difficulties of remote teams. To speed approval of its DevOps team’s software improvements, a Fortune 100 financial services company developed an automated, low-touch review process, says Alan Zucker, founding principal at DevOps consulting firm Project Management Essentials.

When the team worked together before COVID, each approval of a new production deployment was done manually—a messy process that started with a request to a vice president, who often had to forward it to a director, who in turn asked project managers to sign off. But with everyone working remotely, it might take days to get a response.

With the new system, approvals often happen in hours. “Now it’s automated, and doesn’t require the same level of human touch or interaction,” Zucker says. “It just flows so much more quickly.”

Making Agile more agile

Steelcase, a global maker of office furniture, began to adopt Agile methods three years ago in its 800-person IT organization, says Tracy Brower, a work environment sociologist and a principal with the company’s Applied Research and Consulting group. In that time, Agile has helped IT more quickly and efficiently deliver upgrades to the company’s ordering, customer-service, and manufacturing systems, Brower says.

But moving to all-remote work has forced the company to rethink how its Agile teams work, including sharing information within and between teams. Before the pandemic, Steelcase relied on the typical in-person features of Agile teams: daily standups, sprint planning and reviews, and retros (meetings to review each software iteration). Just as important, teams on different projects could overhear details at the coffee machine or informally share project updates.

Working at home made daily standups virtual, and the company created “meta-scrums” in which key members of one team would regularly connect with members of other teams. Instead of making project plans and updates visible mainly to the leaders of individual teams, Steelcase updated its technology so that each team can share details about the work of other teams.

Such transparency, access to information, and access to each other have significantly reduced isolation and burnout among the team’s members, Brower says.

Planning and new practices can help address the technical problems faced by remote teams. But it takes active intervention by managers to tackle the emotional and psychological ones.

The fast pace of Agile meetings are great for moving projects along quickly, but they can leave little room for more informal interactions—chatting about youth soccer games, or arranging after-work drinks. “A huge part missing in Agile is that informal communication,” says Hakan Ozcelik, a professor of management at California State University, Sacramento. “It’s almost like the central nervous system is lacking.”

Planning and new practices can help address the technical problems faced by remote teams.

When Agile teams go remote, the regular business can be handled through emails and Slack conversations, but the personal touch is more easily lost. Members not only feel alone and disconnected, but the team’s social glue becomes weakened, eventually hurting its performance.

“When work was done primarily in an office setting, a change request on a Friday at 4 p.m. might have meant collective groans but also a plan for a fun night out afterward,” says Hadley, the BU lecturer. “Now, it means suffering in physical isolation, connected only by the thread of a Slack channel or Teams videoconference.”

The solution, Hadley says, is for managers to make checking in on their team members’ emotional well-being part a regular practice. Solving problems caused by people feeling lonely or disconnected can be “a group thing,” she says.

In fact, Agile methods may themselves be part of the solution. As a management philosophy, Agile rewards experimentation. If managers find something not working, they can try something else and then repeat until they reach success.

The goal is “to create and foster closely connected work relationships, whatever the adverse conditions are, whether it’s all-remote or partial, global time zones,” Hadley says. “It just requires an attitude of experimentation.”