At a time when companies are grappling with the decision to let their teams return to the workplace or work from home, different software companies are opting for different models. Florian Pestoni, co-founder and CEO of InOrbit, says, “Some companies rely on distributed teams. They have written off office space and have definitively switched to ‘working from anywhere’.”
“At the other extreme, some have taken the tone-deaf approach of ‘go back to the office, or you’re gone,'” he says. We see that most companies in technology adopt a hybrid work attitude that is somewhere in the middle. They provide the space and encourage people to go to the office at least a few times a week, while being able to work from home as long as their position allows it.”
Whether software companies let employees choose where they work or adopt a hybrid model, they have to adapt. Software companies need new ways to manage their teams in this new era of work. Pestoni shares his insights on the subject.
What are the most common complaints from development team members when they are out of the office?
pestonia: It is usually a combination of a lack of appropriate space or equipment, a sense of disconnection from the team, and missing office benefits such as meals and snacks. They’re a bit like Maslow’s pyramid of needs: once you’ve tackled the more basic needs, the next level of needs takes precedence.
Especially in Silicon Valley, where lavish offices, mini-kitchens, three meals a day, coffee shops, arcades, football fields, etc., had become the norm for the largest tech companies, being at home all day in a small, rented apartment. However, this evens the playing field and benefits startups that don’t have the scale for some of the benefits of the larger companies.
Decoupling from the team is perhaps the most insidious of these concerns. In software development, we have the tools to keep in touch and get work done, but that’s often not enough to create a shared sense of direction and purpose. It is easier to feel the energy in the room when there is a real room. Sorry, but Slack just isn’t the same.
What management tips can help overcome those challenges?
pestonia: A manager’s priority is to ensure that their team or teams are more than a group of people working in isolation. It is critical to create opportunities for alignment, discussion, conversation, and socialization.
Bruce Tuckman’s model that describes the four stages of group development as “forming-storming-norming-performing” may be over 50 years old, but it still applies. As the manager of a new team that is being formed online, with people from different cultures and in different time zones or countries, it is crucial to create the environment in which the four phases can take place.
At the same time, it is important to adapt to the needs and preferences of different team members. Being scattered is an opportunity to be more inclusive and help people with different characteristics integrate better. For example, this creates opportunities for neurodivergent and introverted team members who may not have done so well in a large, noisy space. However, it requires constant vigilance to keep one person from drowning out the rest.
How can managers maintain visibility into productivity, timelines, and the need to add resources to a project?
pestonia: This can be a hard pill to swallow for the command-and-control style of managers who hovered around people’s desks calling people to their offices at 9:05 am and berating them for being late, but in the new world, none of that matters (probably never). We’ve all read about attempts to recreate those kinds of environments in the WFH era, for example by requiring everyone to have webcams on at all times or, worse, installing keystroke trackers. Just don’t.
That’s not to say people shouldn’t be responsible for their own results and those of the team. This is an opportunity to shift the focus to results. For example, if a developer takes a walk in the middle of the day, they may have an insight that unlocks a problem they were facing; that’s a win. If they can take the time to look after their kids at different times of the day and prefer to finish some work after the kids are asleep, they will be more productive. But if they only use detachment to evade responsibility, they hurt their team and the company.
Ideally, the team corrects itself (after all, the work doesn’t solve itself), but managers should be clear about the expected results, keep things to hand without being creepy, and take action if necessary to correct unproductive behavior.
What are some of the most effective management tips and team building methods for dispersed teams?
pestonia: A wise word: Falling trust doesn’t work via Zoom. Nor have they ever worked personally.
One trick is to parse the term “team building” in the usual sense (you’re trying to build a team from a bunch of individuals), but also to mean “building as a team.” If you can get people to work together to create something, they are more likely to embrace it and feel part of the team.
At InOrbit, we started as a distributed team before the pandemic and now we have spread people from Patagonia to the northern reaches of Canada. With a combination of office, permanent home working and nomads, the team had to develop its own way of connecting.
One of the ways we do that is through something we call Wins & Lessons: we meet every other Friday to share work and personal achievements (it could be a demo of new functionality still in development, sharing from customer feedback or anyone getting a new puppy). ) and also learn from things that didn’t go as planned (a lost deal or an experiment that didn’t work out). It achieves multiple goals at once: it provides an unstructured opportunity for people to connect, it allows us to celebrate our progress together, learn from each other, and it helps us improve communication across functional areas.
In addition, we usually have some fun. We rotate the role of MC so that everyone has a chance to lead the meeting, and they can organize a game that helps us get to know each other better. At a recent event, everyone privately shared their favorite snack with the MC, and then we all had to guess which snack suited each person. It’s fascinating how many people are attached to their favorite snacks.
What advice can you give to software companies that need management tips for teams working from home or in other locations?
pestonia: In one word: trust.
If you can’t trust your team to do the right thing, no amount of oversight or strict adherence to made-up rules will make up for it. Trust is mutually built over time through repeated interactions. Plus, trust is a collective social construct, so the whole team can help promote it and address behaviors that violate that trust.
This is how things should be no matter where people work, whether everyone is working together in the same office or scattered around the world. The past few years have only helped to make this clear to many more people.