Remote work was always on the list. In the IT sphere, it is a more or less conventional style of work. Almost every employee of any IT agency had to work remotely time after time. But it was not until the COVID-19 global pandemic that it got a real impulse.
With the states on lockdown and quarantines all over the world, it became inevitable. Too many businesses faced a vital challenge: either change or die. Fortunately, the IT field could adapt. Our sphere had previous experience, especially in outsourcing. It helped to quickly set working patterns and adjust our work to the usual standards. Many other businesses did not have this advantage.
The future is undefined. Many European countries start to plan the lockdown releases. At the same time, they all mention that quarantines can return any moment if the odds favor the coronavirus side. It means that remote work organization remains in focus. It many cases, it is the only way to save the business and be productive while staying at home.
Distributed teamwork: goals and challenges
It is a standard situation that IT agencies work with remote teams located in different countries. Thus, there are methods of remote management. But to switch 100% was a new test. It is necessary, as we have to protect our specialists. At the same time, we have to keep our business operations running as usual and remain productive. Besides, it is not a question of a couple of days – it is the working style for weeks and months.
The task was to manage several dozens of people working separately from different locations. Two possible approaches are applicable:
- To try to imitate office in all its entirety.
- To develop a decentralized way.
Most likely, you heard resounding names like the “Aikido principle.” It is taking distinction features of one concept and applying them to another idea. It can be useful. For the challenge of setting the distributed team management, we used the principle of Blockchain that is a decentralized system of elements agreed with each other.
The truth is, no one could get prepared for the pandemic consequences on time. Every organization tries different methods and approaches. As for alphaX, the weeks of quarantine provided enough data for some conclusions:
- Yes, it is possible to work efficiently as a remote distributed team.
- A well-formed experienced in-house team can cope with any “remote” challenge.
- Security and organization are key factors.
Having the whole team in one office was always an advantage of alphaX. Still, quarantine regulations were relentless, and we had to move to the remote work.
So we took the Blockchain principles and applied them to organize our home offices and ensure quality communications. Mutual trust and coherence were what we needed for the team management. Define the duties and responsibilities and agree on the decentralized way of work.
From the very beginning, we had to care about the most essential tasks:
- Develop and adapt working procedures to work in a distributed team. The goal is to identify responsibilities for every employee.
- Identify all equipment and devices necessary to work from home. Each employee needs to have granted access to the environment.
- Check the communication means and develop schedules for regular online meetings and conferences.
- Discuss these changes in work with business partners and clients. We informed them about all new conditions related to meetings, reports, product features‘ delivery, and any other vital issues. The primary goal is to keep the ongoing processes as usual and ensure our continuous delivery on schedule.
- Adjust the security and confidentiality policies for the remote work. Make sure that each of the employees is informed about them.
The New Security Challenges in Working From Home
The question of security is crucial for outsourcing teams. To work from home, agencies need their customers’ consent and understanding. Clients, as a rule, are not very happy about switching to remote work. It is valid for both their own offices and agencies they hire. The main concerns are communication, reporting, and security issues.
Under the current circumstances, it is clear why they worry. All agencies sign NDA and obey their rules. But it is much easier to adhere to these provisions in office. Thus, the first and foremost task before turning into the distributed team is to adjust the security policies.
No one would let the information leak deliberately. To make sure that it won’t come out accidentally, the team has to review all standard regulations and re-evaluate risks. The goal is to determine which additional factors might affect security in home offices. Remember, if any provision is ambiguous, you must clarify it. Every member of the team must understand it and accept it.
So, the IT team must take all such things into consideration and try to predict as many potential issues as possible. The human factor is the most important one at this stage. The rest depends on technologies – means of protecting computers and platforms for videoconferencing.
Let’s note the Zoom case, for instance. This tool for video conferencing has received a significant rise recently. It quickly became one of the favorites for distant learning and work. In essence, it is convenient and consumes fewer resources than Skype. But, it turned out it had a security breach, and a lot of data leaked. It’s very unpleasant, with all its mass popularity. The Zoom developers are improving the safety of their products and claim that it is their primary focus now.
Here, new requirements arise:
- The IT-agency should use only enterprise-level solutions for videoconferencing. Needless to say, the safety settings must be at a maximum degree as well. Enterprise editions of such products as Google Hangouts Meet and Microsoft Teams are even free of charge now.
- It is essential to use the latest software versions. The leading providers stress that they are concerned about increasing the safety options in their products. Each new version is always the most protected one.
- Employees should get personal invitations to join videoconferences with direct links by protected channels.
- It is critical to monitor all participants of the videoconference, and block audio for those not participating in the conversation.
Ensuring the required security level does not require much effort. Once configured, it will remain. When your customers know that their sensitive and commercial data are protected, they won’t worry anymore. Confidentiality protection is the responsibility of every respectful IT agency.
Home-Office Organization: Keep Stable and Productive
Working from home regularly for weeks and months is has its peculiarities. Every agency equips employees with working means, but it is more essential to help people to organize home offices.
The product development process requires collaboration. It does not concern regular meetings only. For instance, team members discuss plenty of work issues in informal communication. Often they share experiences and get quick updates during the lunchtime or the “water cooler conversations.” But when the in-house team turns into the distributed team, its members lose this constant information space.
Working-from-home must focus on management and information. Having experienced managers and team leaders is crucial under all circumstances. But for the 100% remote distributed team, it is vital.
- Review the work activities of each team member. Define which tasks require a high degree of collaboration, and which ones are more independent.
- Help the teams to develop working agendas. Each member should get assistance with their own work schedule if needed. General calendars serve excellently for the organization.
- Update the team regularly about all changes. Ensure that access to the necessary information is continuously enabled. Working in isolation increases the risk of misunderstanding some details. So, team managers must track all minor issues and post updates via official channels.
- Another risk is the tendency to misjudge colleagues’ knowledge and visions. Regular conferences can’t substitute for routine office communication completely, but they are essential. Everybody can clarify vague issues. Never ignore the opportunity to talk in real-time.
- Stick to the corporate culture. When the team is not in the office, each member has to develop their own schedule. There is a temptation to postpone minor aspects to “later when everything is back to normal.” It not a winning strategy in the long run. A decentralized team needs the feel of integrity.
- It is needless to say that the effectiveness of work depends on how good the in-office management is. When all your processes are precise, it is much easier to keep the appropriately configured work routine from home.
- Documenting is a must. You need to record all your work activities like the meetings and discussions’ results on all levels. Keep notes of all decisions about the features and functionality, plans, and remarks. Keep these documents shared with the people involved. Don’t forget to update them whenever you change anything! The best way is to set notifications of updates.
- Analyze every success and every failure. Both positive and negative discoveries must work for your effectiveness. Update your policies and schedules with the new information. If any trouble happens more than once – you’ll know what to do.
- Double all essential updates by email. If an important decision emerged during the workshop discussion in Slack – record it separately in the documentation. This way, you won’t need to search for it in the conversation thread and filter tons of messages.
- Respect your teammates – always update them when you are absent. Use the AFK status and react to requests within the appropriate period. If you can’t respond – inform the colleagues when you are available.
The current situation is unique in many ways. For us all, it was not a voluntary decision. Developers and managers suffer from many aggravations. Besides, we all have other duties in our families. But we have to resolve these countless daily issues. They start from the working place organization, and the most demanding challenge is to find the balance in routines.
However, it is an all-embracing experiment that we all participate in. We don’t know when and how we can return to our usual lifestyle. The home offices may remain a constant alternative for long.
We all got priceless experience. We’ll use our new knowledge and skills to become even more proficient specialists. At the end of the day, it is all about professionalism and mutual trust.