IBM, Fix Your Remote Work Program in 3 Easy Steps
Managing Remote Developers

IBM, Fix Your Remote Work Program in 3 Easy Steps

Luis Magalhaes
VP of Marketing at DistantJob - - - 3 min. to read

If you are a remote work fan, you probably remember 2017 IBM’s idiotic decision to get rid of remote workers. At the time, we’ve made fair fun of it but we also thought about the people having to leave their job — which is never a laughing matter. So what we did was to get in touch offering a remote work program to make it work. We weren’t charging, either!

Back then, IBM wasn’t doing this because remote work doesn’t work. It was more of a stealthy, sneaky way to get shed some employees to reach a better financial position. So, of course, they weren’t interested in our help. It’s not that they thought that remote work can’t work. It’s that they didn’t want to make it work because they could. 

But then, the 2020 global pandemic changed the rules of the game. And the vice president and chief medical officer for IBM Corporate Health & Safety, Dr. Lydia Campbell, confirmed in a recent interview how IBM is planning a slow return to the office implementing hybrid solutions. 

The benefits of remote work aren’t a secret anymore, and we are still here to help. In 2017 we wrote a sort of an open letter to IBM, detailing how to make remote work… work. We’ll go through three key points that any company looking to excel at remote work should focus on. And we’ll provide concrete examples of how to go about doing so. We’ll even recommend some apps that we use at DistantJob.

There should be no excuse for bad remote performance after reading this mini-guide. Unless you’re a corporate dinosaur that’s been flipped off by Steve Jobs. In that case, yeah, you might need to work at it a bit more.

Step 1: Improve Communication With Your Remote Developers

And between them, too. Communication is one of the three basic pillars of successful remote work. The others are coordination and culture. They are intertwined, of course.

Sharing information that is complex or personal requires much more than words. You need to observe body language, hear tone and inflection, and be able to see what you’re talking about. For those purposes, a video call is the next best thing to talking face-to-face.

Then there are the small, non-urgent requests. These are best made via email, instant messaging, or chat platforms like Slack.

This is not as common sense as you might believe. Many people instinctively default to their preferred method of communication. This leads to misunderstandings, conflict, and lost productivity.

So don’t leave this to personal preference. An Extreme Ownership Author Jocko Willink is fond of saying: “Discipline equals freedom.” Give your employees structure so they can work freely within that structure.  

Meetings need to be on video chat. No exceptions. At Distant Job, we’ve all used Skype for a long time. It works OK. But Zoom is the winner. 

Do anything that’s descriptive over video chat. Anything that requires discussing, too. Save Slack and email for reports, touchdowns, check-ins, and close-ended questions.

“Do you want the homepage header to be Blue 1 or Blue 2?” is fine in Slack. “How should we organize the homepage call-to-action blocks?” requires a video conference. And screen sharing!

The frequency of communication also matters. Developers need to provide regular updates. They need to be fast in responding to messages. And they must be available at important times. This is especially true when colleagues are located in different time zones. Doing this reduces the likelihood of roadblocks and builds trust. This is why we recommend that everyone work the same hours, in your company’s timezone. If you want to give your remote developers more leeway, that’s fine. That makes you a pretty cool boss. You have the DistantJob Seal of Coolness (TM). But make sure there’s a significant time zone overlap.

Step 2: Managers Must OWN Coordination Between Remote Developers

For projects to be successful, everyone should be working in harmony. But people often don’t know what others are doing and how everything fits together into a larger routine. Actually, this happens in many co-located teams. But the danger is bigger when the entire team is virtual.

This is where managers must completely embrace the concepts of extreme ownership — and should articulate the mission in a clear manner, of course. Next, assign roles and responsibilities, create detailed project plans, and establish performance metrics. Now document it all in a repository that’s off-site and easy to access.

Refer to our post about tacit knowledge within distributed development teams. The team must write everything down. Systems must be set in stone and adhered to. Same concept as we outlined for communication above.

Having processes isn’t enough. Managers must model and enforce them until they are completely assimilated. They also need to check how well team members adhere to protocol. Otherwise, they’ll revert to old habits.

If you’re a manager and you’re assigned a team with one or more remote workers, assume that the whole team is remote. Don’t slack like the dinosaurs at IBM. Own your management. Document everything, keep track of people and what they’re doing, connect all the dots. The performance will skyrocket.

We use Basecamp for daily tasks and to make sure everyone is on the same page. We also keep the core, always-updated, documentation on Google Docs.

Step 3: Use Culture As The Glue That Holds Distributed Teams Together

Remote developers rarely meet with their teammates face-to-face. So they tend to focus on tasks and ignore the team. This works for a while. But it doesn’t sustain performance over the long term. For this, you must develop a culture to foster engagement.

People need to trust each other. Addressing communication and coordination problems will promote trust based on competence and reliability. But effective trust is trickier to build. You know you can trust a team member to write awesome code; but would you trust him to go pick up your kid at school?

If you have the budget, one way to do this is to bring team members together for short periods of time. Automattic and Buffer do this on a regular basis, to great effect.

But we know that only the minority can afford this. Part of what makes remote teams appealing to businesses is that they can gather top talent at affordable prices. So instead, try scheduling regular informal calls — either one-on-one or as a group. Automattic’s Matt Mullenweg is a staunch believer in one-one-ones.

They aren’t as effective as spending time together in person. But they have the same objectives. They let remote team members recognize each other as human beings. They let them understand how everyone is feeling, and learn about their lives.

It will feel awkward at first! But in the long term, building personal connections will lead to greater engagement. With this, comes better performance.

At DistantJob, we try to get into the interests of everyone on the team. We all have different tastes. Some are wannabe guitarists, others are video game freaks, and some enjoy reading a lot. We don’t get a lot of overlap, but we are all aware of what each other enjoys, and often banter about it. Our #general in Slack has more of the above than work stuff – that we keep in the specialty channels.

P.s. Meantime, our Chief President Sharon Koifman, also wrote a book during the pandemic — Surviving Remote Work. There is everything you should have learned in the last three years! 

Remote Work Program And  Distributed Development Is The Future: Adapt Or Lose Talent

Remote work is here to stay. It gives businesses access to top talent while saving massive amounts of money. And it gives top developers the freedom and quality of life they crave.

Fully remote companies like Buffer, Zapier, and GitHub are leading the way followed by many others. According to a survey of almost 2,500 remote workers, 40% of respondents are satisfied with the work flexibility and virtual employees tend to never abuse their freedom. 

Companies like IBM are trying to reverse the trend. They would be better off reevaluating and addressing the issues that led them to ban remote work. Otherwise, they’ll go the way of the dodo. As they won’t be able to keep the talent they need to stay on top of business.

Don’t let your company become an irrelevant dinosaur. Get in touch with our remote work experts at Distant Job to learn how to hire and manage top remote developers today – at a fraction of the cost.  

Luis Magalhaes

Luis Magalhães is Director of Marketing and podcast host DistantJob. He writes about how to build and manage remote teams, to ensure companies are attracting and retaining the right talent. He‘s been managing editorial teams remotely for the past 15 years, and training teammates to do so for nearly as long.

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