Building Productive and Innovative Remote Teams

How being remote-first/friendly can lead to success

Shweta Saraf

As an engineering leader, I care deeply about people. Investing in creating cohesive, happy and productive teams not only makes going to work more enjoyable, but helps us achieve business outcomes and fuel innovation. It’s why I am on a mission to create an environment here at Equinix where people can do the greatest work of their lives.

Over the course of my career I’ve had the privilege of building a number of teams from scratch, including a recent adventure scaling from three engineers to over 70! Each team I’ve led has been remote-first or remote-friendly and regarded as high performing, happy groups that built innovative products and increased customer value.

My latest challenge is also the most exciting I could imagine: leading the Central Engineering team for Equinix Metal. As a team, we build scalable, reliable software that not only runs our global platform but also provides delightful experiences across our APIs, user interfaces (UX), and billing systems.

Global, interconnected bare metal

Equinix is the world’s digital infrastructure company—helping to power, protect and connect the world since 1998. With Equinix Metal™, it’s now easier than ever to take advantage of the unmatched global reach and connectivity ecosystem made possible by Equinix.

Read More
2
98%

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 98% of the people surveyed said, “they would like the option to work remotely for the rest of their careers.”

Remote-first vs. remote-friendly

The current global COVID-19 pandemic has meant adopting a remote-first culture for everything we do, from working to e-learning for kids. Remote is the new normal.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly one-third of the U.S. workforce, and half of all “information workers,” are able to work from home. And 98% of the people surveyed said, “they would like the option to work remotely for the rest of their careers.”

The Top Benefits of Working From Home

Image: Visual Capitalist

The key difference between remote-first and remote-friendly teams is simple but important: in a remote-first environment, doing everything remotely is the default way of working and interacting. Processes, tools and culture are designed to provide a remote experience that is on par with any office experience. For example, if you stock snacks in the office kitchen, you send remote employees a monthly snack box. Similarly, experiences like IT access and social events are considered from a distributed viewpoint.

While companies like Automatic[ii] (the creators of WordPress) and Helpscout[iii] have helped to blaze the remote-first trail over the years, before the pandemic, it was common to see teams and companies that were remote-friendly. In a remote-friendly setup, individuals are free to choose to work remotely, but the culture and processes are often centered around a physical office.

Achieving time zone autonomy

My current team is spread across 7 countries and 10 time zones. When possible I strive to achieve time zone autonomy. This means that on any given team/project, we have more than one engineer in a time zone(s), so they don’t have to wait an entire day to get their pull request approved.

As part of a growing team, it can take some time until this is achieved and in that case, we ensure that there is enough overlap of working hours between people on the team for collaboration, even if the primary mode of communication is asynchronous. Planning and achieving time zone autonomy can unlock productivity on the team and avoid morale issues due to working in silos.

Scaling modalities of communication

In remote-first teams, well-established asynchronous communication patterns are key for success, as well as cross-team collaboration. While asynchronous communication is an efficient way to scale across time zones and large teams, it requires conscious efforts to build a connection and quality relationship.

In fact, in a recent survey published by Sike Insights, the main factors that challenged remote teams and leaders were building meaningful relationships (46.7%) and communicating effectively (30.2%).[iv]

What is the hardest part about remote work?

Source: Sike Insights , EQ in Remote work report , 2020

Based on the outcomes you are trying to achieve, you can leverage different communication methods, or modalities (check out this talk and blog post by my colleague Dizzy Smith for an in-depth look at the various modalities of communication). Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each mode of communication can help you be more intentional and effective in all kinds of distributed situations.

High bandwidth, low latency – Zoom meetings

When you want to communicate to multiple people and exchange a lot of information in real time, Zoom video meetings are the way to go. However, you need to watch the number of hours spent in meetings; too many could quickly lead to fatigue or burnout.

Low bandwidth, low latency – Slack, Microsoft Teams

When you want to convey bursts of information quickly and get a response in real time, tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams help a lot. However, during design and architecture phases, make sure you are able to coordinate incident responses, communicating with customers and integration with JIRA/Slackbots.

High bandwidth, high latency – Email, JIRA, GSuite, Office 365 and other tools, GitHub

When a lot of technical details, product requirements and project status need to be communicated, JIRA, GSuite and Office 365 tools come to rescue. All our teams use GitHub to organize their code, documentation, collaboration and peer reviews.

The goal here is progress, not absolute perfection, so it is a journey toward constantly refining the tools and ways we work.

Creating an open and empowered culture

At Equinix, we believe in fostering an environment where everyone can confidently say, “I am Safe, I Belong and I Matter.” This is the foundation for a team culture that is built on trust, psychological safety and empowerment.

Investing in empowering and developing our leaders, who in turn coach and develop individuals on their team, is a key priority for me. I am really proud of the engineering leadership team we have built in a short amount of time. A key part of this is also hiring and fostering diverse teams who come from different backgrounds and experiences. Together, they help us build a better product for our customers.

In remote-first teams, well-established asynchronous communication patterns are key for success, as well as cross-team collaboration.

One thing I do before kicking off a team meeting is a two word check-in about how everyone is feeling. We go around the room one by one and everyone shares a range of emotions they are feeling in exactly two words, with no explanation or judgement. This allows us to truly express and acknowledge how the team is doing versus the default, ‘‘I’m OK” response when they are not really okay. And post meetings, team members connect 1:1 and offer support or help if their colleagues are feeling overwhelmed or low.

Having a safe space to be vulnerable does wonders to everyone’s mental well-being.

Don’t forget to have fun!

Sometimes we all get so heads down and focused on delivering goals, we don’t remember to  have fun while doing it all! Leading a remote team means finding creative ways of connecting the team at a personal level, letting loose, and building camaraderie and care for the people you work with. We have regular happy hours and use apps like SocialHour, Offsyte to bring in some fun events that can be enjoyed virtually anywhere. We also have monthly cross team self-organized Demo Days to celebrate wins and showcase anything from the UX wireframe, coding, architecture diagrams to shipping features.

Learnings along the way

My journey leading remote teams has been full of challenges, learnings, and moments of pride and gratitude. as we build something magical together. One important thing that I have learned is that leading with empathy is a key skill for any leader — this is true for remote as well as centralized teams, but is especially important in distributed situations.

As a leader, when you cannot easily “stop by and say hello”, step out for a walk together, or read body language during a meeting, you need to turn up the dial on empathy. Take a moment before the day starts or before important meetings to think about your team: who they are at work and beyond, what they are excited about, the challenges they are facing, the relationships you can help them build or maintain.

Have a special tip or technique that has helped you lead remote teams? I’d love to hear about it.  In the meantime, I encourage you to learn more about what our remote teams have built, and how our customers are using it, at Equinix Metal.

 

[i] World Economic Forum, “6 charts that show what employers and employees really think about remote working,” June 03, 2020.

[ii] Automatic

[iii] Helpscout

[iv] Sike Insights, “EQ & Remote Managers 2020 Report,” September 2020.

At Equinix, we strongly believe in fostering an environment where everyone can confidently say, “I am Safe, I Belong and I Matter.” This is the foundation for a team culture that is built on trust, psychological safety and empowerment.
Shweta Saraf
Shweta Saraf Director, Central Engineering, Packet Engineering