Notes on Managing Remote Teams

The node.js services team we built at Walmart received a lot of attention for our open source contributions and for pushing node forward in the enterprise. What gets little attention is the success we had in building and managing a distributed team.

The following notes are based on over six years of firsthand experience with remote teams during which I’ve spent 3 years as a remote employee and over 3 years building and managing a remote team. Since these notes are based on my personal experience alone, they do not assert any industry-wide conclusions on the effectiveness of remote work and remote teams. However, I think that these notes will help guide you in deciding whether remote work is suitable for your needs and culture, and how to be successful at it.

The Walmart Mobile Services team included between 2 to 20 people over three and a half years, both remote and office-based. This is what I learned.

Misguided perceptions

Many people, regardless of their actual experience with remote teams, have pretty strong opinions about their suitability and success. Many companies I talked raised largely unfounded concerns about remote workers that are based on anecdotal negative experiences. For example, I was told of a bad experience with one designer who failed to produce results when working from home and of an engineering manager who tried to manage a local team remotely.

The first thing to remember is that in any engineering team, about 10% will be underperformers regardless of their work location. Unless your experience is based on sufficient number of people and over a few years, it would be a mistake to reach any kind of conclusions. The second thing to remember is that hybrid teams – teams with both remote and local employees – rarely work out and require constant care. If your negative perception of remote teams falls into one of these two cases, you should reconsider.

Hybrid teams

Most remote employees are part of a hybrid team where some members work remotely and some are part of an office. This doesn’t work. In most cases, the ratio is heavily skewed towards the office group. The problem with managing hybrid teams is the inherit difficulty in enforcing remote culture within a common physical space. It is challenging to forcing people to use online tools to communicate with peers, even if they are sitting right next to them.

What usually happens is that when something goes wrong, the manager will walk over to someone in the office and discuss the problem. That discussion will grow to include more local people but will completely exclude the remote folks. Not only will this alienate the remote members, it will eliminate their ability to contribute to the solving the problem, add value, and participate until eventually they will be considered poorly performing employees.

The same problem applies to remote managers. Senior managers will often bypass the team remote manager and walk directly over to a local team member. When I first joined Walmart and managed a team where I was the only remote team member, I always found out about outages and problems a day or two later. I wasn’t given a chance to deal with issues because when something broke, everyone huddled locally and my lack of presence created the impression of being absent instead of simply working remotely.

Over time, I have found hybrid teams to be too difficult to manage. No matter how much we pushed to get everyone communicating online, regardless of their location, the office people always defaulted to getting up and walking over to their local peers instead of using the online communication tools. Upper management was never able to control their habit of walking over to the first available developer to look into issues for them. The only solution was to force everyone to be remote at least part of the time so they will change their habits and develop some empathy for their remote peers.

Productivity and cost

Our experience hiring about 20 node developers over the last 2 years showed that by building a remote team, we were able to hire better talent at lower cost compared to hiring the same team locally in the Bay Area:

  • Constant access to talent – we receive about 5 unsolicited employment requests from qualified developers a month (that’s a lot for a team of 20, and at Walmart). The candidates we interviewed already wanted to join the team, and with the exception of two people, we didn’t need to revisit an offer or lose someone to a competing offer. Our candidates mostly arrived from areas with either weak technology presence or limited options (jobs, industries, or technologies). Everyone was really eager to join the team.
  • Lower hiring costs – combining strong community outreach with remote positions produced a constant stream of candidates and removed the need to pay recruiters to source resumes. The quality of the people we were able to hire has been above industry average at annual cost of about 20% less on payroll costs compared with local wages. I don’t have office space cost figures but that adds to significant savings during growth periods.
  • 100% retention – over three years, not a single team member left. While this is certainly largely due to a great work environment and competitive pay, it is also due to a certain lock-in for remote employees, coming from markets with low availability of jobs or getting spoiled by the many benefits of working remotely and the limited availability of remote positions.
  • Extended coverage – our team is spread out over 4 time zones which means a normal 8 hours day is stretched to 12 hours. Add to that the flexible schedule options and the different work habits of people (morning people vs night people) and we have about 18 hours a day of team availability without asking people to work late or take night shifts.

Maintaining team cohesion

Remote teams lack the social glue that an office provides. This can make work very difficult during stressful times and especially for new hires. For a long time we had very little team cohesion. Most of the interactions were between individuals and me (as manager). This became a concern when we started growing the team. Here is what worked well for us:

  • Encourage everyone on the team to join a team nonsense channel. You can call it “random” or “general” or “nonsense” but the goal is to have a place where people can post jokes, silly pictures, abuse a bunch of chatroom bots, etc. It is critical that people interact with each other in casual, non-work related manner as much as they have serious conversations about work. An office provides that via water cooler chats and lunch breaks so for remote teams, we need to find other venues.
  • Organize a few face-to-face meetings for small groups. This should happen naturally based on business needs where it is helpful to fly in a few members of the team for a couple of days. By having a subset of the team meet, people can form strong one-on-one connections that are harder in a larger group. It also removed the need to organize a large offsite with a lot of preparations and content.
  • Setup an annual team offsite. And by offsite I don’t mean renting a hotel conference room and having everyone give a talk. I mean NodeConf. Find a community event that is not the office, that takes a few days, and that provides plenty of off time for people to hang out and chat. For the last 2 years, we flew the entire team out to CA for NodeConf. Having a non-work context with other people makes everyone more relaxed and against that backdrop, the team constantly found their way to hang out together. The presence of others made it easier not to always obsess about work.
  • We spend about $5000/year/person on travel costs which isn’t significantly higher than travel cost at top companies for Bay Area employees attending conferences and other work travel.

The personal impact

It’s hard to overstate the quality of life remote work provides. For most commuters, it eliminates anywhere between one and three hours of being in the car or train. Those extra hours means you can spend time with your family (having dinner with your kids every day is amazing) or develop a crazy hobby (like running a zoo, which was probably going too far). The flexibility also makes travel easier and allows you to take “days off” without actually missing work because the tools and expectations remove the need to be in one place all the time.

There is some downside. If you look for remote work because your area lacks opportunities, moving away from that job will be more difficult. The need to relocate in order to leave a remote position isn’t ideal (and many employers won’t pay for it). While this is true regardless at some point, it might be easier to move to a rich job market first, and then find a job. The longer you stay at a good remote position, the harder it is to pack up and move.

I heard a lot about the work discipline and strong ethics required to do remote work because of the temptation to sit home and play video games all day instead. I have not found this to be an issue for me or anyone on the team. I also don’t think being remote makes a difference. If you are lazy, you are going to find ways to surf the web all day even if you are in an office.

And last, I hear leaving the house and seeing others is something people like to do. It could be challenging for people to be physically disconnected from others. I find meetups, lunch with friends, and conferences as a good way to balance out the more insulated work environment at home. If you need the social energy of being with other people, and working out of a local co-working space isn’t available or for you, remote work might be a challenge.

A checklist

  • A team can be all remote or all local:
    • Hybrid doesn’t work.
    • Remote doesn’t mean no office – you can still have a place for people to come in when they want to but they must use remote tools all the time.
    • You don’t need to convert your entire organization to remote, but you have to do it in entire teams.
  • Don’t do remote to save money, do it to get better, happier talent:
    • Use payroll cost savings to cover team travel and events.
  • Leverage geographic diversity:
    • Spread over time zones for extended support.
    • Reach out to small tech communities for the best talent.
    • Diversify your team with access to people who don’t want to be another screw in the Bay Area tech machine.
  • Use the right tools:
    • Pick communication tools that work for your team and empower remote culture.
    • GitHub and Slack work really well.
  • Give it time:
    • Building remote culture that works well can take a few months (to a year), make sure to allow it to mature organically.

Got questions? I’m @eranhammer.