The Highly-Performant Remote Software Team

Oksana Cyrwus
Software Solutions Architect
January 02, 2020

The remote or distributed software team format continues to increase in popularity.

But how effective are they? Or can they be?

Throughout my work experiences, I’ve found that most organizational leaders tend to agree that it is more difficult to manage team members remotely than in a traditional office setting.

As a team member, leader, employee, contractor and vendor - all of my prior experiences have me believing otherwise.

I’ve been blessed with opportunities to both join and build several high-performing remote teams and I’ve learned what is often possible and often unlikely. There are certain attributes and behaviors that highly productive remote teams will routinely exhibit, and in order to help keep them performing at their very best, management must be pro-active and highly supportive.

One thing I adamantly believe in, is that remote team members will always need to spend some time together on-site from time to time so as to hug, shake hands and rediscover our human connection.

What is a high performing team? Aren’t we all amazing to begin with?

Sure we are, today. But will we be tomorrow? next year…?

For me the motivation to excel, and encourage to excel, is quite simple.

Teams and organizations that perform at a high level are more likely to undertake exciting projects, more pro-bono work, contribute towards open source and invest more in learning opportunities for their team members.

Sound good to you? Read on.

In this post I’ll share lessons I’ve learned while both managing and working with high-performance remote teams along with some basic attributes that factor into improving overall team performance to a higher level standard.

1. Establish Psychological Safety

Google’s Project Aristotle set out to answer the question “What makes a team effective?”. The secret ingredient they identified was Psychological Safety.

Psychological safety isn’t about being nice. It’s about giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes, and learning from each other.

So say you managed to employ a bunch of A game players and they keep churning out amazing products at neck-breaking speed. Is composing a team merely out of A players sufficient to create an environment of Psychological Safety?

Researchers have done the work long before Google released their study and found that outstanding team performance is largely the result of high levels of Emotional Intelligence or EQ.

EQ is cultivated over the course of your own personal and professional experiences. When a new person joins your team, they bring a certain level of EQ with them.

Can overall team EQ be increased?

Yes, but it requires a conscious commitment and the process begins with developing trust. If you establish trust within your team, then anyone who has feedback or needs support will feel empowered to give and take.

Higher individual EQ fosters higher team EQ and higher psychological safety. And psychological safety leads to higher performance.

Quick Tip: Remote teams that enable video during their calls tend to establish a higher level of psychological safety thus build stronger relationships, which in turn encourages higher productivity.

2. Ensure Transparency & Streamline Communication

In addition to creating trust; transparency and open communication allows teams to better identify and understand the intent of others. Awareness is paramount to ensure that alignment is occurring at every level.

High transparency is one of the most challenging goals to achieve within a remote team. Techniques to achieve the desired level of transparency will differ based upon team composition, operations framework and the domain of the problem-space.

In my view, transparency begins with low effort forms of communication.

One of the most useful habits that continues to help me in my day-to-day efforts is a post-meeting follow-up. Not all team members will always be able to attend all meetings, whether they’d be scheduled or impromptu; but a quick follow up with a concise written summary after every meeting will help keep everyone in the loop on important changes.

Take a moment to follow up with the team, outlining a summary of action items and decisions that have been made. This will not only ensure that everyone understood what was communicated and decided on in the meeting, it will also instill accountability so that action items are actually completed on time.

Teams need to respond quickly to new challenges and be able to embrace constantly shifting expectations. This is the value of high-performing teams. So keep it transparent and don’t be afraid to over-communicate.

3. Cultivate a Culture of Continuous Improvement

Equally important to having a high EQ is the ability to self-reflect. The concept of continuous improvement is at the forefront of a winning team philosophy and the majority of high performance teams will demonstrate this with consistency.

Agile software development also guides teams towards continuous improvement by introducing the routine ritual of Retrospective. After all, how can you improve going forward if you don’t examine your past performance?

Some teams do retrospectives well and grow from it, others simply do them to “check the box” and some are simply terrified of the idea and blatantly disregard them altogether.

If your goal is to build and maintain a high-performing team - Retrospective you must!

Self-reflect you must! (Yoda by Stephane Roux)
Self-reflect you must! (Yoda by Stephane Roux)

Wrapping Up

Highly-performant remote teams share the same traits in every industry: Emotional Intelligence, transparency, streamlined communication and a desire to continuously improve in their trade.

These are mere fundamentals. Creating and sustaining the culture of high-performing teams requires talent, commitment and a bit of luck.

The reward is a team that learns, grows and consistently brings out the best in each other.