Remote teamwork: how we approach it at Alty

Alty is an IT service company that develops high-load mobile and web applications. We create efficient solutions that can handle any traffic volumes. Our core projects are banking and fintech applications. The most popular and awarded apps, which were developed and/or designed by Alty, are Monobank mobile app, Privat24 app for business, and Zakaz.ua.

These days we were forced to rebuild our processes, so we’re starting to share some insights we obtained since going fully remote.

This article is a summary of what the Alty team has tried and learned during the first full month of working 100% remotely. I’ll walk you through the tools and practices that our team uses to boost productivity and keep morale level high.

Though there has been definitely written a ton of articles like this, I still think this one can provide value for readers. Most of the described instruments and tricks are known for long already, and they weren’t invented by me or some other people from Alty. It’s the other way around, but we still like the artists and try different variations of old recipes. So let’s dig in and break down our approach to see how we made the remote setup work for us.

Give yourself a Slack (pun intended)

Some companies have gone to great lengths trying to solve their team communication issues. And all this was just to find out that Slack — the instrument they trusted and put their hopes on— just doesn’t work for them. These struggles are colorfully depicted in a great article by Dave Teare from AgileBeats company (now known as 1Password).

At Alty, we still believe that Slack can serve us well. Of course, we needed to fine-tune the way we use it to fit the remote reality. This article in PSPDFKit blog provides a great piece of advice on how to establish and maintain proper Slack hygiene.

What we recommend to try:

  • declutter your Slack sidebar. Tweak your settings and make the sidebar to show only starred channels and chats. And if you’ll ever need to drop a message to some un-starred chat, then…
  • …hit Cmd+K and jump right to where you want to lend right now
  • organize topics using threads. This way you’ll be able to maintain a context within one thread, and won’t make your teammates suffer when trying to read your thoughts spread over the whole channel
  • convert messages to reminders and mark messages as unread. Even professor Dumbledore afforded himself the luxury of not remembering everything but instead used a special tool to free up some mental RAM. Go easy on yourself, use built-in Slack features like “remind me” and “mark unread” to come back to the messages when you feel you’ll be ready to react to them

All these points are pretty basic, and still, they get neglected way too often. Using all of them combined helps to get the most out of Slack and pays off with an increased level of personal productivity.

Find time for uninterrupted work

When you work from the office, your teammates can deduce and understand if you’re available for a chat, or if you’re in a meeting, or maybe you’ve already left for home. All these things are not that obvious in the remote setup, though. Your colleagues can’t see you and they don’t always know what you’re up to. As a result, they may sometimes distract you when you’d rather stay focused on your current task. The following tips come in handy to facilitate this:

  • use the “Do Not Disturb” mode. Allow yourself enough time for the deep-focus work, when you can concentrate for a long time and expect not to be interrupted by some random message or call
  • the latest goes well with another tip that is generally useful in the remote setup: communicate your working hours and availability time to your team. This way you’ll ensure that your focus time is respected, and your colleagues won’t get frustrated if you don’t get back to them on short notice

Out for today

It’s another cool technique that we borrowed from PSPDFKit, and it nicely complements the previous section. Write these 3 words — “out for today” — to your project channel right before you wrap up your business day and head to rest. Add a few sentences describing what you have completed during the day.

Example of my “out for today” message

Here are a few reasons that made us stick to this outro messages:

  • teams benefit from it as reading through all “out for today” messages allows staying on top of the things
  • write about the stuff you’ve done and get a nice feeling of accomplishment
  • let your teammates know that you’re off, and be sure to rest with a peace of mind (and stop checking messengers every now and then during your rest hours)
  • after your “out for today” message, you most probably won’t get bothered by colleagues. Or at least you’ll be able to ignore them with confidence :)
  • you prepare the ground for the next standup. It’s especially relevant for standups on Monday — no one is struggling to remember what they completed on Friday!

Asynchronous standups

A large part of the Alty team is engaged in the daily standups and connects at least once a day to discuss plans for the next 24 hours. The discussions are run per project, thus everyone involved in the daily meeting has something to say and something to learn for himself.

The situation is a bit different for designers. A lot of them often migrate from project to project, and it makes no sense to gather all designers on the general meeting and make people listen for updates when they don't really understand the context. At the same time, there is a group of lead designers that actually cares about other designers’ engagement and wants to know when they can count for some people to be reallocated to their projects. So how to solve this? The answer is pretty straightforward — asynchronous standups.

For that, we use a simple tool called Geekbot. It allows teammates to provide their updates on a daily basis and saves a lot of time as we don’t gather 15 people on the common standup (Scrum creators wouldn’t approve if we did so). And lead designers can simply go through all the answers and read all the info they were looking for.

Simply reply to the bot’s questions (image from https://geekbot.com)

Mind your meetings

Going completely remote made us reevaluate the importance of online meetings and the way we set them up. Previously, we used about 7 different tools to connect, and the choice of which one to use would be often made randomly. Recently we have switched to Zoom completely (no kidding, right?). But the tool itself is not that important, the way it’s used is more relevant. Here are some basic yet useful tips that we adopted at Alty:

  • every meeting (even the smallest one) should be scheduled beforehand
  • we use Google Calendar to schedule all our meetings
  • we use Google Calendar — Zoom integration to create conferencing links for each event right when we create it
  • we connected Google Calendar app to Slack. It allows everyone to see their daily schedule each morning, and it notifies about upcoming events (and even provides a conferencing link for it)

After we adopted all this, we magically got rid of the mess with meeting links, no one is wandering around numerous chats to understand either the meeting is happening in Skype, Hangouts, or Zoom. So now we connect a lot more smoothly and without any hassle.

With this said, we still believe that the number of meetings shouldn’t be overwhelming. We just try to make sure the ones that are really necessary are scheduled and held properly.

Team collaboration: staying in a loop

“I love M&Ms!” said no one, ever. And the sad part for me as a manager is that people don’t dislike little funny yellow and red candies. They actually dislike meetings and managers. But in the remote setup, more and more team members note the fact that they actually lack real-time communication with each other. They basically lack… meetings.

At Alty, this issue was tackled in two ways:

  • for some teams, we added a daily sync calls that are held closer to the end of the working day. It helps us ensure that team members find connection points at least twice a day (in mornings and evenings), and any issues or blockers don’t get postponed for too long
  • additionally, we introduced a digital analog of the developer’s office room. Basically, it’s a Zoom room that is designated for the developers to storm in for the impromptu discussions of any work-related questions. Just as they would do it while sitting next to each other in our office.

Staying connected during the times of social distancing

Team-building options are pretty limited these days, and we have to somehow allow the Alty team members to stay connected and feel that they’re not alone in their struggles with self-isolation issues. So we came up with a couple of ideas that so far proved helpful:

  • virtual water cooler (a.k.a. “virtual kitchen”). Most of the informal communication in the office usually happens in the office kitchen, where a lot of discussions are started and a lot of jokes are fired (those jokes can even be funny sometimes). So we went ahead and created a virtual kitchen (another Zoom room, of course). It can be joined at any time during the day, but we also have a designated time for the virtual tea, when the chances to meet someone on the “kitchen” are pretty high. It’s always nice to have a little banter with the colleagues, and so far team members are loving the idea. More about this and similar communication tricks can be found in this article posted on the Crossover blog
  • personality testing for the team members and sharing results to the whole team —this idea is as underestimated as it is innovative and cool. Recommended by numerous monsters of the industry (like Jurgen Apello in his “Management 3.0” book), it is still quite difficult to sell to the team and even more difficult to take advantage of the outcome. Currently, Alty is on the stage when about 60% of the team members have passed the personality testing and shared their results with the whole team. I myself find this fact aspiring by itself. Even more, I enjoy reading through the team member’s results and finding out some answers to the questions I had about their reasonings, goals, and challenges. We’ll continue to explore the ways of using the test results to our benefit. But we can already recommend personality testing to any teams that are willing to go from forming, storming, and norming to — well — performing.

All the little things listed in this article may seem too small to have any impact, but observations confirm that our approach actually works. It helps the Alty team to be efficient, eliminate unnecessary waste, and keep our team spirit high.

In the next article, I’ll cover some of the tools, techniques, and tips that I have tried personally for myself to keep my productivity high in the remote setup. It’s a number of things, from simple MacOS apps that help save some time on routine tasks, to a more complex set of tools and approaches that allow me to ensure I actually bring value to the team and the projects we work on. So stay tuned for more :)

Artem Loktionov, COO — Alty.

We create custom functional applications for big companies. https://alty.co

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