August 29, 2018

What are the unsolved issues of Remote Working and Distributed Teams?

Remote work is on the rise, with more and more companies adopting it at the point of becoming the new normal.

It seems a great market to target, but at the same time the main issues seems to have been already solved by Slack/Twist, Hangouts/Zoom, Basecamp, GitHub, Asana, Jira, Trello, Todoist, Harvest, etc (and other thousands of alternatives).

My question is: What is still unsolved? What are the annoyances/difficulties you've had as a remote worker? What did you notice that could be improved in your remote team?

Please share your thoughts and ideas about this. 🙌


  1. 10

    There are tons! That being said, as a new remote worker, I'd really love to collaborate on any of these:

    On the company side:

    • Building a company culture

    • Documenting decisions and know how

    • Keeping track of progresses

    • Meetings and Face-to-Face time / Scheduling

    • Hiring (Remote companies get 1000s of mostly unqualified applications)

    As an employee or remote worker:

    • Loneliness

    • Relaxing / Overworking

    • Avoiding distractions

    • Law/Taxes

    There are more.

    1. 1

      I agree with you. Do you have any thought on how a distributed team could help with loneliness of their team members?

      1. 4

        This is one of the core pieces we’re focusing on with our app Swivel ( https://Swivel.is )

        It’s a pretty radical take on video and screensharing for remote teams. Our goal is to recreate the natural acoustic interactions of an open office, but without the downsides of an open office. All other video/screensharing tools essentially only allow for single conversations. Attempting to have just two simultaneous conversations with just 2 people in each conversation in Google Hangouts or Zoom or any other tool just doesn’t work. Which is why they’re only really used for meetings. With Swivel, remote teams are able to have multiple conversations simultaneously where they’re able to hear what other conversations happening and have it all work perfectly—very much like teams in a shared office do all the time. One user who had been the job for about two months when they first tried our app said that he felt like he got to know his team better in two hours being on Swivel than he had in his first two months working there. It’s pretty fun. We’re getting ready to start granting early access to the app to more beta users soon if interested.

        Oof...just re-read this and realized how “markety/salesy” it sounded. Not my intention. Just seemed relevant to this topic and thought you may find it interesting how others are thinking about this particular challenge.

        1. 1

          That is awesome. Following to know how it evolves

          1. 1

            Thanks Rodrigo! I got to use the all-new refactored version of the app just last week and it's definitely feeling close to ready. I'll do my best to keep updates going here on Indiehackers for you but if you're really interested, the safest way to make sure you get in line for early access is by signing up at swivel.is.

      2. 2

        On the team side, regular check-ins, face-to-face time and possibly more creative solutions - maybe introducing virtual breaks where everyone joins Google Hangouts? I dunno.

        Personally, just making sure you have a stable social environment. Going to dinner with friend 1-2x per week. Having a girlfriend. Talking to the parents more often.

        1. 2

          Completely agree with face-to-face time. This is remarkably important and almost always overlooked in favor of Slack / text-updates. I recently worked with a team that had weekly video group chat and the project managers all did 1-on-1 video chats on a regular schedule ... Not only that, but they encouraged team members to video chat rather than make a phone call even if it was just for a short chat. It has a profoundly positive effect on culture, identity, cohesion, etc.

          It was the first time I actually 'knew' my team on a distributed project. I can't believe this is not standard practice.

  2. 4

    Just shared your question on Remotive Slack Community to get more answers :)

    To me, the core issue is trust.

    If remote workers / distributed team trust each other, the rest flows. Then, all software and tools become enablers.

    As you wrote, thousands of alternatives exist. Slack is sexier than HipChat, both address the same need. Of course, UI/UX is sexier and integrations are smarter - yet it's the same spirit.

    Two examples on how trust makes or breaks remote teams:

    (1) If trust levels are low, no software will make up for the anxiety of someone wondering if their boss is about to fire them or if "folks back at HQ are gossiping about me".

    (2) Also, in low trust environments, folks tend to over-work (risk of burn out) and use software as crutches and testimonial of their work ("My Slack dot is green, of course I'm still on at 10pm!")

    Why do several remote workers / distributed team find themselves in low trust environments, you may ask ?

    Few possible reasons (non exhaustive):

    (1) Value misalignment. A company may wish well and have friendly values, yet what matters is actions, not words. For example, several remote startups value "work life balance" and are fine with having employees hustle on Slack and join meetings at odd hours. This feels like a value misalignment, what was advertised by the company is not what employees lives - causing stress and low trust.

    (2) First timers. Companies, managers or remote workers may mean well yet it takes time to "get it right" so that all 3 are aligned and happy with their set-up. Teams that are still finding their feet are tricky to work with because remote workers may not know "what they will change next!", affecting trust

    (3) Mixed teams. It's a biggie. Partially remote team (with an HQ) often try to solve their challenges with software whereas culture may work best. For instance, Trello once had a "one person, one screen" policy for each meeting. That meant that there wouldn't be 10 people sitting in a conference room on one screen facing a bunch of lonely remote workers. Expectations were set by culture, helping to build trust.

    --

    In my opinion, trust isn't built by being right all the time but by how leaders act when things go wrong.

    So, remote teams core issue is trust, all issues @dqmonn listed are valid and painful.

    Tools helping to set expectations and shorten feedback loop tend to be sticky(knowyourcompany.com / officevibe.com). Also, Buffer pays for anonymous, chat-based mental health support for all team members.

    Helping to build trusted environments feels key, whether it's through software or community. Teams will low trust may gravitate to "tracking tools" where teams with high trust will think about "enabling/support tools"

    Hope it helps, keen to hear more thoughts on the topic!

    1. 2

      Thanks for sharing in your slack and for your input here 🙌

      Remote teams core issue is trust
      Teams with low trust may gravitate to "tracking tools" where teams with high trust will think about "enabling/support tools"

      This is a great insight and got me thinking, thanks.

  3. 4

    Fix the timezone issue. That I have to wait on my coworkers (who are great BTW) and they have to wait on me too because we live on opposite ends of the globe.

    There's a challenge....

    1. 2

      Thanks for the answer! So do you think asynchronous work does not work very well? Or are you talking mainly about meetings?

      1. 3

        On the asynchronous note, I'm rooting that our (remote) team switch to Twist. Their approach to asynchronous work just makes sense.

        It's kind of like GitHub issues, but for the whole team.

        1. 2

          Twist seems great!

      2. 1

        The asynchronous work, mostly. example: if I need something done "before the end of the day" but one of my employees will just be waking up at that time. In that case the work falls to me. Doesn't happen often, but sometimes there are fires to put out.

  4. 3

    I've worked remotely for almost a decade and recently I was wondering what has changed, so I joined a few Facebook groups for remote workers.

    One post that someone shared was this one:

    https://open.buffer.com/state-remote-work-2018/#benefits

    It highlights several struggles around working remotely, and I started digging some more and saw this report (https://www.tsheets.com/resources/remote-work-survey) and others.

    Here are some common challenges for remote workers:

    • Loneliness

    • Staying motivated

    • Setting boundaries

    • Collaboration (different timezones)

    • Distractions

    Once I was aware of those, then I started noticing them in different social media channels. I asked about loneliness in one of the Facebook groups, and it was interesting to see the discussion unfold as there were remote professionals that could relate and there were others that said they enjoyed working remotely so they could avoid people.

    At some point in my career, I experienced the struggles above and others, and I handled them by creating habits and systems.

    Here is what I shared in one conversation about loneliness as a remote worker:

    I don't think this is about "us vs. them" where one is right, and the other is wrong. Instead, I think it depends on how you gain your energy.

    For me, I tend to gravitate more towards being social, but I need time alone to recharge. So my schedule during the week is between a home office, a co-working center, and then one or two others spots to change up the routine like a friend's office or a coffee shop.

    And while there are others that can relate, I bet there are other remote professionals that can say that they need the opposite or even something in between the spectrum. So again, an important part is knowing the type of environment that you work well in and from time to time, stepping away from work so you can recharge and relax and that could mean time alone or maybe time with family and friends.

    This year I've prioritized my wellness as a remote professional and its one of the best decisions that I've ever made. Before health was on the sidelines and now it is top of mind, so things, like getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, making healthier food choices, and taking time to relax and recharge are essential.

    I'm researching sleep and remote workers. Would anyone that works remotely be up for a quick chat?

    1. 1

      Thanks 🙌 Could you share some of these groups for remote workers that you mentioned?

  5. 3

    I've worked remotely in my last two jobs so am really interested in the topic.

    Two resources I'd refer to are:

    1. Remote Only (https://www.remoteonly.org) - they detail a manifesto for remote work and explain some practical tips, benefits, disadvantages, and affects on the organization.

    2. *Remote: Office not required *(https://basecamp.com/books/remote) - a book by DHH (founder of Ruby on Rails & Basecamp). It has lots of practical tips.

    1. 1

      Remote only is a great resource.

    2. 1

      Could you share some issue you noticed based on your personal experience?

      1. 2

        The two hardest problems for me have been:

        1. Company culture - building company culture and being a part of it is much easier in an office

        2. Timezones - I'm based in Australia which is GMT+10. The two companies where I've worked remotely from were based in Texas (GMT-5) and London (GMT+0) meaning I've had a 15hr or 10hr difference with head quarters. That makes for a lot of video calls where someone has either just woken up, or is finishing their day, which are both pretty non-optimal times to be talking to someone about work.

        1. 1

          Thanks 👍

  6. 2
    • isolation

    • loneliness

    • sense collaborating with documents and chatrooms, not people

    1. 1

      sense collaborating with documents and chatrooms, not people

      Yep it's true, probably because we kinda need to see people faces, emotions and reactions; an avatar is far from enough.

  7. 2

    The loneliness issue was one pain point I was interested in solving.

    I had thought of a pretty cool product - an 'always on' feed of your team mates - everyone available turns on the software, and it would take periodic photos so you physically see your team + are motivated by the fact that they're working too. You would also be able to video chat with them.

    Then I came across https://sneek.io/ which does a fabulous job, so I didn't bother creating it :)

    1. 1

      Sneek is pretty cool! I’d be curious what your thoughts were about a tool we’re building to address this issue as well. But we’re focusing more on bringing the natural acoustic interactions of an open office (well...the good/productive ones at least) to remote teams. We’re getting close to being able to start granting early access to beta users, but still finishing up development. https://swivel.is

    2. 1

      Yeah I thought about the same idea and also came across this and a couple other existing apps. But I still think the way they implemented is not good for privacy so there's still room for improvement. Have you used it? Does it really helps with loneliness?

  8. 1

    Hey Guys! Sorry for jumping in late.

    I think one problem that's yet to be fixed (and fixed right) is, getting the team to keep learning / upgrade their skillsets / stay updated on what's happening in the industry, etc.

    Existing solutions, Feedly (essentially, your subscribed feeds), Video Courses, etc. have bad noise to signal ratio, ask for an immersive-long-tenure commitment, too much time is spent on picking the right thing to learn, etc.

    I look at the ol' days LMS (Learning Management Systems) approach. It's looked down upon now but it did serve the purpose. I also liked that approach of mapping learning to KPIs.

    I think what needs to change is the method of delivery of this "learning modules" from LMS days. I like Google Primer's approach a lot (Tinder-style cards + MCQs). A Google Primer-style app that's designed for your company's training/learning needs - 5-minute lessons, 5-10 MCQs and a score.

    If I had to use this app at Springzo, I would love to have the following modules:

    • Training for new recruits - what to find where and how; how we communicate (our voice and tonality); our culture; style guide, etc.

    • For Content Writers - questions from https://english.stackexchange.com and see test how they answer them, revisit our style guide (email ID vs. email address, recognise or recognize, etc.)

    The possibilities can be endless. Over a period of time, the app also acts as a repository or internet knowledge portal for the company.

    What do you guys think?

  9. 1

    Remote work is a massive challenge (and opportunity). I've spent the last couple of years building software to help distributed teams feel more connected (www.fridayfeedback.com).

    Specifically, here are a few ideas:

    • loneliness is a major problem with remote work. I've wanted to build something around helping remote people who live in the same city connect.

    • Understanding what's going on (this is where I've focused). There's all kinds of task-management tools, but a little bit of abstraction away from the work itself can be helpful.

    • Agile/scrum processes oftentimes break down with people in different timezones.

    This is totally worth pursuing. I've been having a blast helping team leads/companies with this. It's a very real pain.

    1. 1

      This is great! Thanks for sharing. We’re working in this space as well and are building an app to help address loneliness and isolation by bringing the positive interactions of an open office to remote teams. Kind of a radical take on video and screensharing that is the first tool we know of that finally allows remote workers the ability to have multiple simultaneous conversations the same way teams in shared offices do all the time. Where you can hear what’s happening in other conversations without having it disrupt your own. Kind of a trip to experience online even though it’s so normal and natural to experience in person. If you’re curious at all, our site is https://swivel.is

    2. 1

      I've worked with a distributed team the past 18 months and these are the theee points that I'm interested in solving as well.

  10. 1

    I manage a team spread between a few time zones. We're great with the tools that help with remote work, and have years of experience, but it is still astounding how much more we can accomplish when we get together in person.

    1. it's a challenge to plan our in person gatherings. everyone wants to accomplish everything, talk high level strategy and get our hands dirty in the weeds.

    2. while we are remote, it's hard for the team to know which conversations are best for async on github vs realtime on slack vs face-to-face over video. it's so important to get this right – for efficiency, morale, and effectiveness.

    1. 2

      Totally get this challenge! Although the app isn’t quite ready for beta users to start using yet, I’d be really curious to hear what your thoughts are about this tool we’re building. Instead of just deciding whether to communicate asynchronously ir synchronously, by simply being able to hear a lot of the conversations happening on your team (simultaneously even), you can decide which ones to tune into or even join—almost exactly the same way it works in an open office. But this is better because you can just turn it down and focus when needed whereas in an office, you’re just forced to deal with it. :-) If you’re curious at all, our site is https://swivel.is

      1. 1

        Looks very interesting @keithnerdin!

        1. 1

          Thanks! I was just able to do a live demo on Friday at a tech conference I was speaking at with our app after being completely rebuilt over the last several months. It's definitely feeling solid enough to do a beta launch here soon and was really fun to see people react to how it worked and what it let people do. :-)

          Best of luck to you in your remote team efforts!

    2. 1

      Thanks for your input! What tools do you use besides Slack and GitHub?

      1. 1

        Nothing too surprising: Google docs, Vidyo (crappy video tool). We've played with others (Zenhub, Airtable, Roadmunk). The main thing is communication: finding the balance to keep it natural and regularly, while maintaining independence and avoiding disruption.

        I've recently been playing with Coda.io and started to get very excited looking at some of their templates. It's a breeze to use. Very flexible. I'm unsure if other members of my team will buy into it.

        1. 2

          Just took a look at Coda. Try https://www.notion.so/, I think you are gonna love it.

  11. 1

    This is of interest to me. Just thoughts below

    Peter Thiel in an interview by Maria Bartiromo said, telecommuting and remote working is underrated and something he would love to invest in. I can find the video if interested. Upon some research it seemed he was referring to investing in VR/AR tech for remote employees.

    Slack, basecamp, GitHub, asana, internal wiki, jira, Trello, etc. or similar cloud-based productivity tools are useful regardless whether users are remote or not. (Although looking at the signal to meme ratio on private slack channels, it is hard to argue if they are still productivity tools).

    Zoom video sharing, Skype, group FaceTime, file sharing, folder sharing, collaborative document editing, screen sharing, and screen-control sharing tools solve a general problem, and can be used for code review, pair programming, root cause analysis, discussions, sales, presentations, telemedicine, training, education, culture-building presentations, support etc.

    A team I managed between Seattle, Bay Area, and Amsterdam played online games together and worked well together as a result. We tried to watch God father series together, but I wouldn't call that a huge success.

    Managing remote teams is a huge challenge. By this I mean beyond time, task, project, & product management which are handed well by cloud-based productivity tools. Something to delve into further.

    1. 1

      I dig it! Love the idea of games together. Great way to create those important human, non-work connections amongst team members. :-)

    2. 1

      I agree that doing non-work things together makes the teammates feel more closer to each other and work better together.

  12. 1

    I definitely struggle with the overwhelming number of information feeds and the feeling that you need to stay on top of everything. I'm sitting in a dozen or more different Slack channels, but really only ever able to pay attention to a few, probably missing out on a lot of great stuff. There also seems to be this desire to segment everything so no single channel becomes too overwhelming, e.g. public channel, team channel, operations channel, stand up channel, lounge channel. Email is no better.

    So I guess i'm saying a lot of remote people could probably use some help staying organized and identifying the really valuable content.

    1. 1

      I believe this is one of the things Twist is trying to solve with their slack alternative.

      1. 1

        Right, it certainly looks interesting. From what I saw on their site it doesn't really seem all that different though. Direct messaging and threads already exist in Slack. The layout is certainly different and reminiscent of your inbox.

  13. 1

    Figuring out a remote company culture is complicated. The lack of face-to-face interaction can be challenging when people never met in person. That's usually solved with company-wide trips where everyone meets for a few days a couple of times per year, but that can be complicated/expensive to coordinate, the bigger the company becomes.

    Again, communication is challenging when people are in different timezones. It's easy to get blocked waiting for someone to get back to you but they will only be online again on the next day.

    Even when you're in the same timezone, some things are really hard over video chat like whiteboarding for example. You have to keep everything on paper, need discipline and organization to make it work well.

    It's also challenging for junior developers when they need a lot of guidance, working remotely if you're new and learning is hard.

    Long story short, it's all about communication. You can definitely make it work, but there are real challenges. With that said, wanted to say I'm a big fan of remote work and I'd love to see more companies adopting it.

    1. 1

      Couldn’t agree more regarding the challenges of creating a string remote team culture. In our research and experimentation, while we often talk about the lack of face-to-face interactions, what ends up being providing a far greater degree of connection, team-building, and culture development, isn’t necessarily seeing people’s faces, but hearing people’s voices. We’ve found that with our app we’re building to hopefully help solve a lot of these issues for remote teams, that users (especially on our own team!) will very regularly just keep their cameras off, but their audio on. So being able to hear multiple different conversations simultaneously (in a natural way that feels very much like a shared office and nothing like the chaos of what it sounds like when multiple people try talking at once on a Skype/Zoom/Google Hangouts call) and be able to join in and participate as appropriate, ends up really bringing people together. You can see how it works at https://swivel.is if you’re curious.

    2. 1

      I wonder if anyone has taken a data-driven approach to figuring out how cultures develop and then productizing that. For example, track the correlation between face-to-face, video-conferencing, slack comments, etc. against attrition, promotion rate, discipline issues.

      1. 1

        Hmmm. Really interesting idea.

  14. -6

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