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Does Remote Work Really Work?

Remote
Meetings

6 July, 2021

Marco Ziccardi
Marco Ziccardi

Sr Engineering Manager at Doctolib

Marco Ziccardi, Senior Engineering Manager at Doctolib, explains how to successfully work remotely by maintaining the relationship between colleagues.

Problem

About 3 years ago, at the end of 2018, I was the head of engineering in a company. The company was colocated, most of the people were in Berlin, with some exceptions in Toronto and Russia. We decided to go fully remote so that we could have a globally coerced team. On top of that, the CEO was moving to Korea as well, so that motivated us to be more flexible in terms of remote work.

As head of engineering it was my job to ensure a smooth transition to the new company setting. During the previous 10 months the team grew from 7 engineers to 15, and then came the transition.

As much as maintaining the time zones were a problem, having to keep delivering at a predictable pace with changing of the structure of the company added as a plus 1. Moreover, there were some challenges regarding Brexit to allow the company to be able to operate within the European boundaries. How we kept the same level of collaboration and quality was the leading risk because it may break the balance we had in the team. It was a tricky balance as the team was growing.

Actions taken

One of the things we did was to create artificial points of contact between teams. Naturally, in an office, you are more likely to connect with your team members as they are sitting beside you or sharing the same desk as yours. In remote environments, it was impossible. So we established daily checkouts. At the end of every day, we finished our work and had 15 - 20 minutes to check out where people can meet and talk about things that were not necessarily work-related.

Meetings as such helped them build relationships, which was essential for team collaboration. Needless to mention that it helped them create a network. Work relationships are not solely based on tasks. We needed more people to talk about their daily endeavours; talking about the big thing happening in their city, or them going to a restaurant after the meetings. We set some clear motives at the end of the day for the team to eliminate all kinds of risks of remote work, which eventually burns out a person.

We noticed that many people working in the same offices were using the same laptop to join team meetings. For instance, two people working from the Philippines would use only 1 laptop to join the meeting. In that way, we could not see or hear either of them properly. So, we made it mandatory for people to join meetings from their own devices and headsets, which would help in building a 1:1 relationship with everyone. We had to make sure that everyone is on the same level and right on the same surface.

Moving on, we needed to understand and learn from the team. At first, I was a little sceptical about the situation because I worked with colocated teams in the past, and honestly, it was a bit tiresome. I was well aware of the differences between the dynamic people when they are entirely scattered, and how it could bring in more problems if not managed in the right way. How could we either replace those or replicate them? The first feeling that I wanted to replicate is the same dynamic you have with a colleague in the team.

In reality, I understood that you do not need to reproduce the same dynamics. You need to find a replacement for them or achieve the same goals in a different way. Of course, problems with communication and collaboration are on the loose with a dynamic team. People not working in the headquarters felt a little left behind, or not being able to become a part of the curve of decision making.

Lessons learned

  • While remote teams are the future, and have a greater possibility of working in the long-term, people will need to create space to build relationships. Without creating bonds, it is impossible to make teams work collaboratively on projects and deadlines effectively. Therefore, the managers can help in planning them as it cannot happen by itself.
  • Accept delays in responses, especially when working in a global environment. Do not expect a response immediately because people have their own errands. Focus on setting up the calendar and have time for yourself. Time management becomes more critical because it is counterintuitive.
  • People are going through a lot in their lives. Be patient, calm and careful when dealing with them. Handle people sensitively. Document everything and think rightfully before jumping into making decisions.

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