What’s the Key to Innovation on a Remote-First Engineering Team?

Can you innovate as a team without coming into the office? Yes, but you’ll need to rethink your communication practices.

Written by Heidi Williams
Published on Aug. 25, 2021
What’s the Key to Innovation on a Remote-First Engineering Team?
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If your engineering team is trying to decide whether a remote-first model is right for you, you might be wondering: Is it possible to keep your innovative edge without coming into the office every day? At Grammarly, we believe the answer is a wholehearted “yes” — as long as you invest in thoughtful communication practices.

We built Grammarly Business from the ground up, with the past year and a half showing especially exciting progress: We grew a team from zero to twenty engineers and launched an entirely new product offering to help organizations write effectively and consistently. Meanwhile, we were adapting to remote work, first by necessity and then by choice as Grammarly is adopting a remote-first model. We found ourselves in a unique position: building a product offering that helps teams communicate in new ways—while being a team that needed to figure out new ways to communicate! 

Must-Haves for any Remote-First Engineering Team

  • Excellent written, asynchronous communication
  • Open communication channels to encourage innovation
  • Documentation that scales productivity

Remote work can promote diversity, flexibility and openness, all of which leads to innovation. However, to unlock these opportunities, it’s essential to adapt your communication practices to fit your new work environment. Here are some of the things I’ve learned firsthand as director of engineering for Grammarly Business.

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Remote Teams Need to Excel at Written, Asynchronous Communication

Going remote-first is a great way to bring new strengths and perspectives to your team while ensuring the product you’re building reflects the global backgrounds and diverse needs of your users. That said, one of the challenges of working with a team spread across time zones and locations is that you’ll be doing more written, asynchronous communication. 

Whether it’s via email, Slack or Google Docs, asynchronous written communication is hard because we lose nonverbal cues such as body language, facial expressions or tone of voice. Being empathetic to your reader is especially critical on a diverse team. It’s also important to be careful about your tone, which in written communication means paying close attention to details like punctuation. Also consider using inclusive language and how teammates may speak different regional forms of English or speak English as a secondary language.

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Open Communication Channels to Encourage Innovation

In an office, you might learn something just by walking past a whiteboard or bumping into a colleague—but when you work remotely, you need new methods of discovering and sharing information. Fortunately, remote-first teams can implement knowledge-sharing in a way that’s more transparent and equitable than the traditional closed-door meetings in an office. By improving access to information digitally, you can spur innovation.

For example: Record and share virtual meetings. Every week, the whole Grammarly Engineering team holds a meeting for demos of their recent work, and we post the recordings back into open Slack channels for anyone who couldn’t attend. This practice inspires further questions, conversations and ideas. Some of these new ideas will find their way into short, lightweight product proposals, which we share openly to align on what we’ll ship during our six-week development cycles.

We also recommend using open channels on Slack (instead of defaulting to direct messages) so teams can learn from each other. For example, a few teams at Grammarly experimented with creating Slackbots to automate how they handle questions and customer issues. Because they posted their work in a public Slack channel, engineers outside of those teams ended up discovering and adapting the Slackbots to boost their own on-call productivity. The less time we spend handling on-call issues, the more time we spend building customer features!

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Documentation Helps Teams Scale Their Productivity

Documentation is essential, especially when you can’t turn to the person next to you for help debugging. When information is shared digitally, remote-first teams have the advantage of creating an automatic archive of information for teams and new employees. And while written technical documentation is a must, there are other ways to bootstrap your documentation and support a diverse range of learning styles on your team.

For example, when I joined the Grammarly Business team, I scheduled Zoom calls with every Grammarly engineering team and asked them to walk through the architecture of their systems. Because these calls were recorded, new engineers now have a video explainer of how the pieces of our codebase fit together—which is great if they absorb information better verbally than by reading.

Reflecting on the past year, I’m grateful that our team was able to be both developers and users of Grammarly Business at a time when the nature of work was—and still is—drastically changing. We’ve been rewarded with lessons in empathetic, transparent communication. In turn, this leads us to develop exciting innovations for customers. 

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