Why Software Engineers are Engineered for Remote Work
Development team at digital freight and shipping solutions provider finds success in remote work
November 03, 2020

Mike Brittain
Transfix

We're months into the pandemic. Whether you like it or not, remote work is our new norm, and some industries are actually thriving.

Remote work has been a part of the developer community for years, but when COVID struck, the world went home for the long haul. Six months later? We're doing better than expected. A lot better. In fact, my team is well-positioned to continue remote work for as long as this pandemic demands. And for me? I've become a stronger leader because of it.


Engineers Were Engineered for Remote Work

Coding takes an immense amount of focused time. It's less about in-person collaboration and more about the quick and easy transfer of ideas and data. The developers who have the most deep-focus time are the ones who end up being the most successful, and most I've worked with find open office concepts disruptive to their work rather than an "oasis" for collaboration.

With a craving for uninterrupted focus, software engineers from the beginning were quick to adopt cutting edge communication and productivity tools. To paint a picture of how software engineers really thrive in the workplace, I have a distinct memory of bringing my father to the Etsy office (when I was previously their VP of Engineering). In an open office setting of about 60 software engineers on a Friday afternoon, it was completely silent (beyond a few whispers). My Dad asked, "How is it so quiet, don't these people need to speak to each other?" I replied, "They do, and it's all happening in online chat."

For developers, online chat has always been conducive to sharing snippets of code, terminal commands, compile errors, you name it. And of course, it has the added benefit of limiting the number of conversations happening out loud in a setting where people are highly focused.

So many of developers' productivity tools (such project tracking, documentation and wikis) and software infrastructure had also already moved to the cloud before the pandemic. As a result, we don't need to be in any one physical location to get the work done.

Why Developers Are Thriving Right Now

Engineers have been set up to be successful from anywhere. And since shifting to a fully remote setting, I've seen my team flourish at Transfix.

Our online project tracking and collaboration tools transferred seamlessly, and because my team was able to control their work environment, they were much more productive.

In a recent company-wide study, 48% of our engineers rated their WFH productivity, on a scale of 1-5 (1 - very poor and 5 - excellent) a 4, while 26% rated their WFH productivity a whopping 5.

Meetings haven't been an issue to scale either. Managers on my team have noted that their remote meetings have an increased focus on clarifying tasks and project requirements, preventing follow up "shoulder taps" and interruptions that typically happened in the office.

I've had a manager on my team say: "My developers are more deliberate about hammering out details and requirements during our current team meetings than in the past because it's harder to 'lean over' to the person next to you to ask for clarification later. Getting these right when we are together means better focus time when we're not."

Typical Roadblocks with Remote Engineering Teams

Before the pandemic, I found managing remote teams to have more challenges than many let on. For a large chunk of my career, I've worked with "hybrid" remote teams, where the majority of team members are based in headquarters while a fraction are distributed and working from a variety of locations.

Hybrid teams are an alluring concept — as a company, they allow you to look beyond your own backyard and hire talent from just about anywhere. But without boundaries, you quickly find yourself with a team spanning so many time zones that it's difficult to schedule collaboration time. Navigating everyone's calendars eventually creates winners and losers.

Prior to COVID, my preference was for a limited number of distributed offices, in order to minimize the time zone problem, and maximize collaboration time during "natural" workdays across office sites.

It's immensely difficult to create equal, first-class work experiences for hybrid teams. This spans from the benefits you can offer, to the emotional impact of team celebrations, to setting up times to simply all get together. Ultimately, the folks in your hybrid team know who is part of headquarters and who is not.

For all of these reasons, gradually evolving into a hybrid or remote team has significant challenges. But COVID created an opportunity for our entire company to embrace and adjust to working remotely at the same time; nobody gets left out. We're now able to curate benefits, meetings, and timelines that align with long-term, all-remote lifestyles.

All-Remote Teams Changed My Leadership Style for the Better

Even though software developers are thriving remotely, managing all-remote teams has been a uniquely new learning experience from a management perspective.

I've had to prioritize my visibility across teams to spark meaningful conversations and promote collaboration. With an all-remote team, you lose the visual clues as to when someone is available and ready to chat, like catching someone between meetings, passing them in the halls, or switching between tasks. Now, every interaction has to be intentional, and I have to put in the time to proactively check-in with mentees.

I've always led with empathy, but with an all-remote team, I'm taking this to the next level. Now more than ever, work has to coincide with real life, especially for parents. Aside from the pandemic, there are a lot of unexpected things that can happen when an entire team is working from home. Think: a tropical storm that wipes out the residential internet (which happened in New York this summer). There's a lot that can go wrong when you don't have a fortress of an office and redundant network connections to rely on.

The past few months have taught me that the way you lead defines what employees get out of their company — especially in times of uncertainty. Prioritizing proactive connection with intent and practicing next level empathy has helped me foster even closer connections with my team (even remotely) and enabled them to remain agile through it all.

Software engineers are more productive than ever, and it'll be hard to go back to the office (if we ever do). However, with great flexibility comes great responsibility. It's been an evolution, but all-remote developer teams can function almost automatically if you're able to lead with intention, empathy, and an "all in this together" mindset.

Mike Brittain is VP of Engineering at Transfix
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