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Getting a Team More Efficient and Excited in a Remote-First Environment

Remote
Productivity
Motivation

23 January, 2021

Velu Alagianambi
Velu Alagianambi

Engineering Manager at Atlassian

Velu Alagianambi, Engineering Manager at Atlassian, outlines some of his actions to ensure that his team remains efficient and excited after his organization decided to become remote-first.

Problem

When the Covid Pandemic hit, we all thought it was temporary, and things would soon become “normal” again. My team’s initial response was very positive – no commute, more family time, flexible hours, etc. But what was perceived as a temporary arrangement soon turned out to be a new reality that is here to stay. Our company went remote first, and it forced us to rethink how we work.

For the first few weeks, people were enthusiastic, but soon we faced the inevitable challenges. Some employees had to work in different time zones, new hires had to be onboarded remotely, high visibility goals had to be picked, and as the team grew, some team members started contributing to other teams. As a result, the engagement score dropped after two months, and we realized that we must tackle the problem more seriously.

Actions taken

I started routinely doing pulse checking, asking people how they feel, and encouraging them to share concerns. In the past, we would have biweekly retros, and I would have my personal catch-up with my reports, but I increased the frequency to make them weekly. I also encouraged team members to support each other, regardless of whether I was present or not, which helped develop a culture of empathy and understanding.

We began to over-communicate with the leadership team and became even more transparent about what was expected of us. More significantly, the leadership team constantly stressed how irrelevant working hours are in the strictest sense. They encouraged the team to focus on high-impact tasks and adjust our schedules accordingly. The fact that the team members had the freedom to decide whether something was a high or low-impact task empowered the team to take the initiative and make the appropriate decisions.

New hires -- who were hired after the lockdown - faced an immense disadvantage since they could not meet people and build rapport in person. We paired them with a buddy and a mentor who would help them ramp-up, do pair programming sessions, validate and spar ideas, and show them how to get things done.

The team engagement was also dropping because there was a feeling that the team bonding that existed in-person was missing. Though we had some virtual events, we had to reboot some of our events online; we introduced remote team lunches, team trivia quizzes, and game sessions, but also included breakouts into smaller chat groups to resemble the natural human interaction.

We also started rotating power so that team members could lead some of these rituals by themselves, that encouraged participation. Typically, an EM or PM would run sprint rituals, and we would rotate Scrum masters that made everyone pay more attention and be more aware of what was happening. Also, we made sure to have an element of fun in every sprint ritual; for example, in sprint planning, we would do photo-sharing about what we did the last weekend, etc.

Finally, to help with mental well-being through a crisis, the company started to provide work-life integration guides and encouraged people to take floating holidays (a monthly day off). We emphasized the importance of participation and ensure that everyone has a voice in the meetings.

All of these efforts helped improve the engagement scores. However, this is one iteration in a journey full of many to come, and we will continue to make a remote work environment inclusive, engaging, and inspiring to our employees.

Lessons learned

  • We are trying this for the first time, so we should approach it with an open mind. We, and the rest of the world, are learning how to work remotely; we may not know how to make it work yet, but we will make it work eventually. #growth-mindset
  • Be resilient, give it time, and allow the team to experiment in the same way you experiment with features. Try changes for a few weeks, get feedback, and pivot from there.
  • Celebrate small wins! As we moved into the implementation phase we would have defined the goals and expectations; but picking high-profile projects added extra pressure. Once the project was broken down into several phases, and each time we reached a milestone we would have a little mini celebration. We also made sure to communicate it broadly and make sure the team felt that their progress was acknowledged.
  • Address challenges individually. Each individual has his or her own challenges and you should provide opportunities for each. For example, new hires may find it hard to talk and open up, and you should explicitly create a space for them to express themselves; on the other hand, veterans may want to work on more exciting projects, so you should also create these opportunities for them.
  • Improving psychological safety is even more essential in a remote setting. Listening to others and building trust are always opportunities to get better, while also giving employees space to take risks and fail.

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