As a developer and small business owner, I’ve had insights from both sides, I’ve worked as a remote developer and managed remote developers for different projects and with different teams.

In this post I’ll share some of my experiences in the hope that it will make life a bit easier for all parties in remote projects. When it comes to do’s and don’ts of remote team management, I tend to focus on “don’ts” – because unlike “do’s” they tend to apply to practically every team.

how to manage remote developers

When entering the remote developers’ world, the biggest obstacle that managers must overcome is to change their mindset by accepting that the developer will not be in plain sight, and where they can manage and follow the work being done. This new paradigm requires businesses to implement a number of mechanisms to track progress and avoid a redundant workload. Such mechanisms will help both manager and developer be more productive, which is in everyone’s best interest.

To make it clear, all these mechanisms should not be used to control or micro-manage the employee.

Don’t Believe In Remote Team Myths And Misconceptions

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of managing remote teams on a single project, by starting with communication.

Business has gone global, and the advent of vast, multinational organisations has created new challenges for millions of professionals around the world. The complex and intertwined nature of global teams demands a more thorough and thoughtful approach to internal communication.

In such organisations and teams, many individuals don’t have the luxury of working in familiar surroundings or speaking their native language. Teams working on the same project might be separated by oceans, rather than offices and cubicles. Team members come from different cultures and work across the globe.

remote team myths and misconceptions

These professionals shouldn’t have to worry about communication, but they must be able to cooperate with multinational team members. All parties need to be proactive. Corporate culture must reflect this paradigm and help foster a productive environment in which remote, multicultural teams can thrive.

Our own Scott Ritter busted the top five myths about remote teams in a recent blog post, which you may find useful if you are interested in the subject. Toptal CEO Taso Du Val also elaborated how our network operates and how we stride to create the ultimate remote team culture.

Don’t let common misconceptions and prejudice cloud your judgement.

Don’t Forget To Embrace And Encourage Diversity

The first step toward a sound remote-team communication strategy begins with the acknowledgment that multicultural teams transcend national and cultural borders, putting them in a unique position to offer insights hard to attain with centralised, monolithic teams.

But don’t worry; diversity is good for business!

According to a survey carried out by The Economist Intelligence Unit, multicultural teams are favoured by big organisations; many executives believe they help foster innovation because of their broader knowledge of global trends. Further, they are less likely to suffer from “group-think” mentality; their diversity helps them tackle problems from different perspectives, thus producing a better range of solutions tailored for specific regions and markets.

remote teams and diversity

It can be argued that managing remote employees may be more productive by virtue of not being at the same place. It may sound counterintuitive, but such remote teams simply spend less time chatting, socialising and discussing trivial matters.

While physical separation can lead to more productivity, it can also create misunderstandings, tension, alienation, and greater stress and anxiety. Consequently, it becomes necessary to mitigate these negative side effects with initiatives that foster positivity and collaboration on a personal level. Improving communication in remote teams can be a daunting task, and building personal bonds among team members tends to be challenging. That’s why a human touch is necessary.

Finding something that can improve engagement, regardless of background, is a relatively simple way of boosting morale and cooperation. This effort can take many forms, depending on the size and composition of your teams. Ideally, it should be centred around a stress-free, leisurely activity that team members will enjoy, ranging from work-related competitions, entertaining projects, or discussions that are not work-related.

Taking part in such activities, at the organisation’s expense, may sound like a less than ideal allocation of financial and human resources, but bear in mind that rallying teams around a common cause usually leads to a better work environment, stronger personal ties and improved productivity.

Don’t overlook or ignore cultural and language differences. They can make or break a team.

Don’t Take Recruitment And Training Lightly

In order to make the most of managing remote teams, you need to be mindful of cultural differences and compensate with adequate training.

Improving language skills is just one piece of the puzzle since communication skills are affected by cultural differences. It starts with good recruitment policies that favor individuals, especially those who will be in managerial positions, prepared to work in multinational environments. Experience in remote projects obviously comes in handy, but should not be a prerequisite. Just because a remote developer won’t be in your office every week doesn’t mean that recruitment should not take personal traits into account. You and your team will still have to communicate with remote developers on a regular basis, so ask them the same questions you would ask any on-site worker – remote or not, they still have to fit in.

remote recruitment and training

While it is possible to address some issues with additional training, it may not always be practical, but in any case, good training is the next logical step. Training should develop existing positive traits, while at the same time mitigating shortcomings and addressing previously identified weak spots.

Managers dealing with remote teams routinely have to assume new roles on short notice, take over projects they are not necessarily familiar with, and spend a lot of time catching up. In such situations, internal communications do not tend to be high on their list of priorities, even though they may now be leading teams that have spent years collaborating on one or more projects. Time is a valuable asset, but so is good teamwork; managers must take time out of their busy schedules and learn more about their teams, individual team members, and problems likely to crop up.

Emotional distance between remote managers and their subordinates can also pose a problem, since team members may be reluctant to confront new team leaders, or even approach them in either formal or informal settings. A good remote employee manager needs to recognise this and insist on more personal engagement – as I said, “Be proactive.” – what’s the point of having a team of talented remote developers if they don’t share their thoughts with you?

Don’t forget that remote developers should be equal team members.

Don’t Use A Complicated Information System

Do not miss a chance to implement an effective information system that includes a Source Code Management (SCM) system, issue tracker (not too complicated, please) and possibly some Wiki pages where all parties can document things, or sketch ideas and proposals. All these collaborative tools will make development-and-release management much easier to achieve.

It is important to keep things as simple as possible here, because this information system will be used on a daily/hourly basis. If it ends up too complicated, it will take time that should be used on implementation and/or design. The process may also need to be simplified for new team members and freelancers who do not have time to learn the ins and outs of an organisation’s policies.

Don’t Use A Complicated Information System

My long-time favourite project management application is Redmine, an open-source, cross-platform and cross-database system. This platform is highly configurable and you can integrate your own SCM, different plugins, and service hooks.

If you don’t want to go through the trouble of maintaining your own server with Ruby and setting everything up yourself (Redmine can be complicated for inexperienced sysadmins), another good choice is GitHub, which features not only the git CMS but also GitHub Issues, which integrates well with your commit messages, pull requests, etc.

Once we have our information system set up and ready, we can start integrating our remote developer into our project.

Don’t use a complicated information system. It can do more harm than good in a remote team.

Don’t Micromanage

Many managers have a hard time letting go of their responsibilities, especially if they themselves come from a developer background. Instead of focusing on communicating the problems and project goals, they find solutions for those problems and provide implementation details, so the only work left for the developer is to code what he has been told to code. This is not a good practice when managing remote employees.

avoid micromanagement

On one side, managers lose too much time on stuff they hired the remote developer to do. The developers may be unsatisfied with this situation, either because they feel undervalued and left without a chance to be creative and innovative, or simply to prove themselves. After all, problem solving is exactly what developers study for years, so taking it out of the equation and turning developers into automatons does not make sense!

Like everything else in life, it is all about finding a good balance.

Don’t micromanage remote teams. You will stifle innovation and initiative.

Don’t Worry About Time Zones, Use Them To Your Advantage

Good remote developers tend to be self-sustaining and independent by nature; they need freedom and responsibility to organize their time. Overlapping working hours are useful, though not mandatory, when you have a good information system and good communication with your developers.

remote teams and time zones

Working in different time zones can be of benefit to the business since you may be able to achieve “round the clock” efficiency when developers in different zones take over various aspects of the project. If your developer is ahead of your time zone, it gives you the opportunity to review his work the same day and you can immediately assess and coordinate the next big thing. On the other hand, if you are ahead of your developer’s zone, this gives you the opportunity to prepare everything the developer needs in order to complete the task.

Remember, a good manager is nothing more than a service to his employees enabling them to get the work done, not the other way around!

Don’t bee too worried about different time zones. Use them to your advantage instead.

Don’t Force Day-To-Day Goals, focus on Mid- Or Long-Term Goals

Day-to-day goals are a form of micromanaging the project. Instead, try to communicate the overall picture to your developer and, together, set clearly-defined priorities. If you get the developer to understand the project as well as you do, the developer is likely to be more useful.

For example, the developer may have insights into the newest technologies, or implementation details that affect the prioritization of different tasks, or the determination of the Minimum Valuable Product (MVP). Both of you need to define clear goals and milestones, and get work done step-by-step. It is your responsibility to make sure that all these milestones fit into the big picture.

day to day goals and remote team

In my opinion, the Agile manifesto (methodologies) is the best thing that has happened in project management over the last few years.

It enables you to do exactly what is needed, to delegate responsibility to those who actually implement things, and to force common sense into every party involved in the process. You define your mid- to long-term goals and tasks with some high-level estimates on difficulty, and in those weekly (or bi-weekly) sprint planning meetings, you let the developer determine the exact workload and difficulty for completing those tasks.

Like every good thing, it takes time to build good Agile teams. Don’t expect to have a working team within three months. Agile is all about learning by doing, and growing together as a team.

Don’t overburden you remote team with superfluous goals and timetables.

Don’t Hide Business Details

Well, this one is tricky. Some projects are sensitive by nature, and leaking information can be harmful. Non Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) may address the problem, but they are not bulletproof.

However, the more the developer knows, the more effective he can be, not only in solving predefined tasks but also in solving, on the fly, all these annoying small issues and hiccups. In the end, this will make the developer more productive and make your life easier.

dont hide business details

The Agile development process comes in handy here, as well. It enables knowledge-sharing between parties (stakeholder, tester, developer, etc.) by removing any hierarchy and by considering those parties as equal team members, with the same responsibilities, and thereby encouraging them to work as transparently as possible. Another benefit of transparency is that problems are “escalated” quickly, and can be picked up by any part of the team.

Don’t keep anything secret unless it absolutely has to be secret.

Don’t Ignore Remote Team Members

Remember, when managing remote workers, you are a service to your team, and if the team needs your input, you should not be too busy to support them. If the developer can’t solve something on his own, he will get stuck and lose valuable time.

As a developer, usually when I ran into a dead end, I turned to my SO for advice, plus, I tried to offer advice, as well. Do not totally ignore the developer’s advice, since it could be insightful, or it could solve a problem you weren’t even aware of.

dont ignore team members

If something is unclear, or if you think it’s not necessary to address the problem, argue your position while being open-minded and allow the developer a chance to convince you that he is right after all.

Again, this will build communication skills and improve trust.

Don’t ignore remote team members simply because you don’t see them every day.

Quick Remote Team Management Tips

Since I’ve already summarized the main points in tweets and illustrations, here are a few more quick tips and thoughts.

  • These general rules can be applied to remote and on-site developers.
  • If you micromanage, you will miss the opportunity to learn and let learn.
  • Be open-minded and trustworthy, as this is the only way to build a good remote team.
  • Keep in mind that an estimate is just an estimate; you will encounter under- and over estimates.
  • All who work make mistakes, and if you don’t forgive other’s mistakes then yours won’t be forgiven, either.
  • Most importantly, the greatest motivation for any developer (besides the satisfaction of accomplishing a difficult task) is money. So, do not delay payments and consider instituting bonus policies, as well.

About the author

Senad Biser, Bosnia and Herzegovina
member since September 20, 2013
Senad is a highly experienced software engineer and project manager, skilled in a variety of technologies and always working to prove and improve his knowledge. He works well with clients and colleagues alike and takes a results-focused, head-on approach to meet any challenge. [click to continue...]
Hiring? Meet the Top 10 Remote Developers for Hire in December 2016

Comments

Paul Henn
Great post Senad!
Marcelo Boeira
Awesome post!
ir_fuel
The stuff quite a few managers don't want to hear :"Remember, a good manager is nothing more than a service to his employees enabling them to get the work done, not the other way around!". The good managers are the ones that still want to be in that role when their title of manager would be replaced by "development facilitator".
FudzAdmin
I agree - and sadly that's what's missing in a lot of startups (if not most). Companies can grow quickly and they are usually headed by people who created them, who made the first steps. The problem is they can often have trouble communicating their vision to newcomers. If you turned your pet project into a startup, and you've got 10, 20 or more people working for you - you have to become a leader overnight, a manager, rather than a gifted developer. Sometimes it works great, but sometimes otherwise very competent and talented people mess up this crucial next step
Rahul Guha
I agree on the fact that u get what you pay for. The payment part actually includes your time also. If you want to get result, you need to work with the remote team closely and ready to make it work. All successful projects have one common factor - customer involvement (not micro management) and absolute transparency. As a customer if you don't want to invest that much time - u get what u paid for.
Gastón Emilio Severina
I think a better title for this post would be just "How Not To Manage Your Developers"... if the spirit of this post is to highlight the differences between “remote” and “not remote”. I think the do's and don'ts apply also for co-located developers so the word "remote" in the title it is a little bit confusing for me.
Tomas Fecko
hmm, for toptal this is a nice ad as remote freelancer teams are what they are paid for, but seriously? I fly-read through the article after "remote teams may be more productive by virtue of not being at the same place"... It's a nice sum up of donts though... if you go down that rabbit hole. But I don't think it's worth the trouble, if you have other options than remote team...
Oleg
Very well written, good job Senad.
FudzAdmin
I think the research report making that claim is linked in the article (The Economist).
Tomas Fecko
well, that's another thing, I didn't get into. Article is about crossing borders, or diversity (multicultural teams, ...). What it has to do with a distributed remote team? Problem is the distance and not able to closely cooperate on solving problems. Human being is social, if you take that interactions away nothing good will come out of it. But of course there are exceptions...
FudzAdmin
Well yeah, but most remote teams are multicultural, diverse and located across the world. Over the past decade I've worked in and managed teams spread across the globe, from Taiwan through Europe to California. I also worked in a few similar outfits with similar teams (Asia-Europe-Americas)... In those years I've learned a few things about the Chinese lunar new year, Japanese cuisine, English drinking habits and US politics - on top of doing my job. I know a lot of people overlook this sort of stuff since they focus solely on the project, rather than the people behind it, and I think that's a very bad way of doing things. Solving problems with remote coworkers is not hard in this day and age - we've all got video conferencing, collaboration software and whatnot, plus now it's on mobiles as well (which wasn't the case just a few years ago), so it's faster, cheaper and more efficient than ever. Solving problems is a lot easier if you are used to chatting to your coworkers and already know a thing or two about them, their schedule, interests etc.
Tomas Fecko
I'm just pointing simple fact, there is absolutely no way, remote teams could be more efficient, or productive as colocated teams (if managed right). No matter what tools you use... Of course in the age of startups you take whatever you can get, as money is often short. But if there is an option to have an office and colocated team, I would go for it. Even if it costs a bit more than having people working from home. And I'm not speaking about diversity, as that's a different topic - where I completele agree with the article...
Carlo Borja
Fantastic post, Senad! As a remote worker who is managing remote employees, I would say this article is spot on. It's a bit tougher to manage employees this way since you need to make necessary adjustments for the virtual workers to feel like they are part of one 'team.' But, it can be done. Here's a related post more directed to employees in general: <a href="http://biz30.timedoctor.com/hire-manage-remote-employees/?utm_medium=blog&utm_source=toptal.com&utm_campaign=biz3.0-blog&utm_content=disqus">How to Hire and Manage Remote Employees</a> Remote work is awesome. :)
FudzAdmin
Of course - nobody is disputing that - if you have a problem, an on-site team, sitting around a table as the problem develops in real-time, will resolve it faster. It's not just about money and startups. It's simply impractical to have too many people in the same office, even in the same country. A lot of big firms rely on remote work, just not on freelancers. The line has become blurred though. Ten years ago I wouldn't share a screen or send files to a coworker in the office, since it made no sense at all. Now though, a lot of the same tools and techniques are used by remote and office teams...
PetraMorkva
Wow, that's one excellent post. Good tools make difference too. There are a number of free/near free solutions (Bitrix24, Redmine, Mango) that make a HUGE difference when it comes to remote collaboration
Reorx
MVP should be "Minimum Viable Product"
amportfolio
Great points. From my experience now, I tend to notice the big resistance managers and employers have towards remote working comes from outdated thinking in terms of the office combined with the new buzz words of office structure. They believe an big cramped loud open plan office where workers are pushed to stay long hours somehow is the ideal. That myth of collaborative serendipity that really doesn't happen. I've seen management who value face time so much they'll believe the employee who is in 12 hours a day is seemingly a "good worker"...despite if this worker is actually doing any work-related tasks (or just goofing off). I also think many managers want unreasonable levels of agility, where at the drop of a dime they can pull everyone into a conference room and request/demand some task or project with a fast turnaround. Some can defend the need to be nimble and agile, but I call it bad management. I still think the office of the future is one without walls, but it's the one where we're not physically there. That or the workplace are long tables and everyone on laptops (lockers for personal items) and a few conference rooms. We work remotely and come in 1-2 days a week for in-person meetings and what not.
Shintu Manuel
Great read Senad! As a marketing person working closely with developers for offshore projects, I would say, meeting your requirements with remote co-workers is not that hard. Maybe this series of eBook will be interesting to read: http://bridge-global.com/ebooks
Marcell Gogan
One of the PROS: Lower cost: Lower costs don’t have to mean lower quality of work or worse qualifications. Post-Soviet area offers a vast talent pool of developers, who have a strong academic background and are ready to invest time in improving their skills. Countries like Ukraine are rapidly growing as IT locations, and each year even more young people pick programming as a career. More in the article http://unicsoft.net/business/pros-cons-hiring-remote-development-team/
Kyle Barton
If you are looking for an amazing team of developers for your next project, I totally recommend Bixlabs, amazing work at a great price. Visit their site to find out more: www.bixlabs.com
Ania
I think in the near future remote teams will be inevitable. More and more people decide to quit their everyday jobs and become freelancers. I believe that good team management is crucial no matter where the team is placed. I found an interesting article on <a href=" http://excellent-management.com/why-remote-team-work/ ">Why remote team work</a>
Just Dont Mind 8
Nice!
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About the author
Senad Biser
Java Developer
Senad is a highly experienced software engineer and project manager, skilled in a variety of technologies and always working to prove and improve his knowledge. He works well with clients and colleagues alike and takes a results-focused, head-on approach to meet any challenge.