How to Improve Remote Work Environment

Bertrand Dubaut

Senior Engineering Manager at Booking.com



As a director, or even as a manager, it is important to periodically review your team’s morale. My team’s morale was exponentially deteriorating, the whole business side of the company was not happy with the deliveries, and the quality was going down. After I arrived on the team, I realized that these people were brilliant and knew what they were doing, and they needed some guidance.

Then I opened the project management system, and 26 items were in progress. Nothing was getting done, and the customer success cycle kept on adding more things. They were overwhelmed by overly lengthy plans, but they had paused the roadmap for twelve weeks. At that point, sales and marketing teams were unhappy about it. Again, the team itself was striking. They had no idea how they got to this point but I knew why that was happening.

Actions taken

The first thing that I did, and I try to do this every time I am faced with a problem, was to make sure I highlighted the actual issue with data. We began gathering data together as a team, limited our work in progress, and started to track our unplanned work more diligently. After a couple of months, we managed to recover a more constant pace of delivery for the team who now understood how unplanned work is a killer for productivity. We went from a 6-month release cycle to a 4-week team much happily, and now stakeholders were much more comfortable.

In order to help a team understand the value of limiting the work in progress and the benefits of a constant delivery pace, there is a small exercise I like to do with my teams (this works better in a non-remote environment). Set the team around a large table, and give 10 coins to the person at one end of the table. The goal is to pass those coins from one end of the table to the other end as quickly as possible by passing the coins to the team member next to them. However, there is a catch: every person that touches the coins needs to count them when they receive them. The team started counting from 1 to 10 and passed all 10 coins at once. WeI intended to teach them the notion of restricting working progress, which implied that doing less simultaneously means that we will be faster in the end, even though it feels slower. To do that, they passed all the 10 items at once. We timed it. Then, I asked them to pass the coins 1 by 1. Surprise! the time it took to have all the coins go across the table was much faster! This showed the team the value of having a WiP limit.

Lessons learned

  • Engineers might not be “pro” when it comes to collaboration or teamwork. Collaboration is something that is never really taught to engineers (after all, I do not know a lot of people who went into software engineering because they liked people). It’s important to spend time understanding the team and how to make this group of individuals work together, so their impact can be greater than the sum of its parts.

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Bertrand Dubaut

Senior Engineering Manager at Booking.com

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyCulture DevelopmentPerformance MetricsTechnical ExpertiseCareer GrowthCareer ProgressionSkill DevelopmentTeam & Project Management

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