A key issue for businesses moving towards more flexible styles of working is ensuring that new recruits have the same level of support coming into a new role when working remotely as they would in a traditional office environment.
This is especially true for highly technical roles like developers, whose roles often require a deep understanding of both the technical and organizational structure of the company they’re working for, as well as the customers they’re trying to target.
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Yet until now the core strategy for big tech companies has been building impressive office environments that not only attract new staff, but make current employees want to spend time there.
Matt Pillar, VP of engineering at OneSignal and a former lead developer at Facebook, says recreating this appeal for a remote-working environment requires a rethinking of everything from high-level hiring and operational strategy, all the way down to the day-to-day execution.
“It goes all the way from, where are we going to be putting people in the world, down to how are we going to have them collaborate day to day?” he tells TechRepublic. “We have to think about that holistically across the spectrum.”
Like many, Pillar sees both pros and cons of the office as the hub for work. On the one hand, a physical workplace fosters professional relationships and collaborative work, both of which are key to moving projects forward and working towards a shared goal.
But offices were already becoming outdated prior to COVID-19, he adds: not least because much of our day-to-day work already incorporated many of the tools that everyone is using while working remotely.
“It was a bit of a broken old-school mentality at the time because everybody had to be [in the office] even though it wasn’t necessarily useful, and you were collaborating with people who probably weren’t even in your building anyway,” he says.
“There were meetings where I had to run between buildings because I had back-to-back meetings, and the buildings were across the street from each other.”
Out with whiteboards
Certainly, some ways of working, as well as the tools that facilitate them, will become more or less relevant depending on how far businesses swing toward remote working in future.
One technology Pillar wants consigned to the proverbial tech scrap head is whiteboards – a contentious topic in the conversation around hiring developers.
“My opinionated stance on the whiteboard is that the whiteboard is dead,” he says.
So: long live collaborative editing tools? Pillar clarifies: “The whiteboard is not a thing that really works in a collaborative environment. It’s impossible to have a productive discussion on a whiteboard because you can’t have multiple people playing around with it.
“Whiteboard coding was another thing that was just totally broken in engineering hiring. Asking people to code on a whiteboard is a different skill set. People don’t do it for their day-to-day. It was silly for us to ask people to put code on a whiteboard, but we did it for years!”
A better strategy for onboarding developers remotely, Pillar says, is a sort of BYOD policy, whereby hiring managers ask candidates to bring their laptops along to the interview with the understanding that they’ll be performing some form of on-the-spot coding while they share their screen with the interviewer.
“That’s a way more productive way to get an excellent signal about the quality of a developer, because it’s actually their environment and you can see them using the tools that they’re familiar with,” he explains.
Make documentation accessible
While not necessarily engineering-specific, it’s also important to ensure remote developers have access to comprehensive documentation – particularly around onboarding. Big companies do a pretty good job of this because they have dedicated teams, says Pillar – though the rapidly-changing nature of startups means many fledgling businesses and SMBs fall short here.
“Startups do a poor job with this because things change. New developers will come in and there will be a document that will have been written, and it will be wrong because it’s three months old and something has changed since then.
Companies need to be more proactive about this, Pillar adds, particularly as finding assistance can be trickier in a remote-working setup. “It’s much harder to tap somebody on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t working, can you help me?’ when you’re remote.”
This brings Pillar to his next point: ongoing collaboration. If the physical whiteboard really is dead, as he argues, businesses need to me more conscious of the tools they’re using to help teams express ideas and contribute to ongoing work in a shared environment. This is where visual collaboration software comes into play, where teams can capture and brainstorm ideas for group work.
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“If you show up to a meeting where you’re trying to discuss something and you don’t have something to start looking at, it’s much harder to build that on the fly,” he explains.
“It takes a little bit longer to draw a detailed architecture diagram of an engineering system with an online tool. What we do now, instead of just having a blank whiteboard, we have a catalogue of engineering systems diagrams, so that if you want to have a discussion with someone you can just pull one of those open and start drawing on top of it.”
Be clever about communication
With meetings and brainstorming sessions now taking place in video conferencing, having discussions in which everybody can be heard becomes even more important.
Pillar sees communication as an emerging trait for the product leader in the remote office. “It’s a new skill set that really management has to have,” he says.
“There is an increasing need to be extremely data-driven here and very rigorous in the organization of your thoughts, because it’s much harder to build consensus in a remote capacity. You can’t just have those hallway chats.”
Video-conferencing software has become a key part of working in the cloud over the past 12 months. While video meetings can be great facilitators of group work – not to mention an important tool for strengthening bonds between co-workers – remote workers increasingly complain of ‘Zoom fatigue’ as a result of excessive use.
Unnecessary meetings are not only mentally draining, but also eat into precious time that employees could be using for productive work – and time is already a precious commodity for developers.
SEE: The tech pro’s guide to video conferencing (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
“[Zoom fatigue] weighs on engineers even more so because of the interruptive nature of their roles,” Pillar says.
“A meeting is an extremely expensive thing for an engineer. It’s way easier, unfortunately, to interrupt an engineer’s flow in a remote world with a meeting because their calendar is open, you can just throw it in there and you don’t even really think about it.
Some software providers now provide analytics tools that will measure how workers’ time is spent, some of which include the ability to measure interrupted time – also known as ‘friction time’. Yet even though this software is available, Pillar says managers need to pay more attention to the problem, and help increase the time during the day during which developers can work without being interrupted.
“A core part of the [manager] role now is calendar defense: just making sure that your team is operating with a lot of maker time,” he adds. “Generally speaking, engineering teams that have a maximum amount of maker time are more productive.”