How to keep engineering teams connected when telecommuting

As developers and engineers adapt to working from home, communication issues inevitably arise. Certain applications and practices can help alleviate those challenges.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused an influx of remote workers, with industries across the enterprise asking employees to work from home. IT workers, in particular, have been the most well-suited for working remotely, since their jobs are primarily done on the web. 

SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

However, developer and engineering teams do face some challenges. While some members of teams may work remotely at times, not all members typically do. Social distancing efforts have separated these teams and made them all telecommuters, a difficult task for teams that work closely together and collaborate often on projects. 

A panel of engineers gathered on Zoom on Thursday to discuss these struggles and provide advice for how to keep teams connected. 

"Remote culture is really important and it's one of the things that has been at the front of my mind this week," said panelist Sarah Zelechoski, vice president of engineering at Fairwinds. "[Many companies] have had some remote teams or they may have had co-located people, and you're now crashing them together in this fully remote workplace."   

Advice for communication 

The panel mainly discussed communication, as it seemed to be one of the most prominent issues for these teams. 

  • Establishing expectations

"One of the things I find is that people who have been doing [remote work] for a long time have built up patterns of communication and patterns of giving information and getting together," Zelechoski said. 

If an organization has people who have been conducting remote work, Zelechoski suggested the company first ask their remote people what their normal practices are, that way the whole workforce will have guidance and be on the same page. 

"If you don't have remote folks and you're all doing this together, sit down and say, 'What patterns can we create so that we can all communicate effectively and know where we are and how we're feeling?" Zelechoski added. 

Transparency is key for telecommuters, especially for teams that are accustomed to it. 

"Communication, openness, and status have to be completely different," Zelechoski said. "You have to be more transparent, you have to be louder. Otherwise, you will be off in your own corner doing things; you will feel isolated and people will not integrate you into the communication path." 

  • Tactics for communication 

Kristina Kemmer, director of engineering at Zapier, said some of her teams participate in "water cooler chats" via Zoom or Slack. Water cooler chats are spaces that bring people together to talk about non-work things and stay connected. 

"That's their space to jam as a team. A lot of the ad hoc conversation happens there," Kemmer said. "'What's the weather like? Or, what are you doing this weekend?' It brings together that culture and brings people together." 

Zelechoski suggested Zoom rooms for both work-related and non-work related topics. The same goes for Slack, she said. 

"We have an #in-n-out channel where folks can let you know if they're online, at lunch, having family time, etc., so you know if people are present or not,"  Zelechoski said. "We have have many many topical channels, like #topic-boardgames, #topic-diy, #don'tskiplegday #topic-aww channels that folks can join and chat about things other than work." 

The same tools are used for teams to discuss projects, ask questions, and promote collaboration.  

  • Project collaboration 

Developers and engineers particularly have a heavy written culture when it comes to collaborating on projects. Rather than laying out ideas on physical whiteboards, panelists recommended various online platforms.  

"In my previous role, we would draw [ideas] out in Google Drive and stick it in a Google Doc," said panelist Kate Taggart, engineering manager at Stripe. "Not ideal. If we needed to explain something live, we would just suffer through using Zoom whiteboard. It's definitely not the best, but that was typically what we would use." 

Other applications she suggested were Retros and Retrium. Panelist Swarna Podila, senior director of community at Cloud Foundry Foundation, agreed with both recommendations.

"Especially with engineers, collaboration on documentation is really important and you'll want to choose a tool," Zelechoski said. "Google Docs is fine, Dropbox Paper is fine, but we've actually had the most success doing our documentation even with architectural diagrams and things through GitHub or GitLab."

"I also use my reMarkable Paper. It's super useful, pretty slick in the sense that I have it right next to me. It's like a notebook. I just draw on that and then it syncs up to my Google Drive," Podila said. "I have also created that folder to sync up to a common shared folder so anytime I need to reference something it's already there in the shared folder."

Regardless of what platform an organization chooses, the important thing is that employees can easily share ideas, Kemmer said. 

For more, check out Working from home during coronavirus outbreak: Not all employers allow it on TechRepublic. 

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