How Startup Engineering Teams Are Adapting to Remote Work and Building Collaborative Cultures

Planned casual time, new tools, and amped up onboarding. Here’s what Pillar VC learned when we asked 25 engineering leaders how they work now.
russ
Russ Wilcox
Expert Columnist
November 10, 2020
Updated: November 11, 2020
russ
Russ Wilcox
Expert Columnist
November 10, 2020
Updated: November 11, 2020

Whether your start-up thrives or fades at seed stage comes down to one challenge in particular: how can you build a killer product?

To do that, your organization needs to collaborate. The pieces they are building need to fit together!

But how can a remote team, and particularly your engineering department, collaborate during these COVID times?

Pillar VC met with 25 engineering leaders at start-ups to ask this question, and we were inspired by the many clever ways they are adapting and the advice they shared.

Read More from Our ExpertsMaking the Business Case for Software Engineers

 

Accept the New Reality

Creative collaboration begins with a feeling of psychological safety. That is hard to achieve these days because pandemics are scary. Everyone is stressed!

That is why, ironically, the most effective way to work these days is to invite people to share more about their lives outside of work.

So relax that agenda. Reserve the first minutes of each conference call to go around and catch up. Set a tone where it is OK for a child to ask a question or for a pet to join during a Zoom call. And tell your team that if anyone needs to reduce hours to handle a health or family issue, the organization will be supportive.

Although you may feel awkward, encourage people to express their feelings during work calls. No one should suffer alone if they are anxious or stretched during the pandemic, and many people are. Make the company a source of support, not stress.

Culture is harder to pick up by osmosis from outside the office. If you don’t have a written culture or values deck, this is a good time to write one, so that everyone hears the news.

If you miss getting a sense of the morale by listening to the office buzz, try a survey tool like OfficeVibe, 15Five, or Pigeonhole to take the pulse of your team remotely.

 

Planned Casual Time

It is vital to replace the loss of accidental office encounters with other chances to communicate. You do need to schedule these fun events because they are no longer occurring spontaneously. We heard an amazing range of ideas:

  • Weekly 1:1 chats between random people, building cross-team cohesion; try Donut.
     
  • Game nights (Among Us is hot right now).
     
  • A Jalapeno grow-off; prizes for biggest and funniest shape.
     
  • Taco Tuesday night with musical jam, raising donations for causes people adop.
     
  • Full-day unconference on topics people care about.
     
  • Asking people to spend an hour per week learning something new and unrelated to job and sharing what they learned.

Some engineering leaders are also increasing work meeting frequency to add more team weekly or daily check-ins, so they have room to add breakouts for small group discussions.

We also heard several suggest increased use of pair programming.

Whatever you choose to do at first, change it up regularly. That helps people stay fresh while the pandemic drags on.

 

Adopt New Tools

Everyone is using video tools like Zoom, Teams, or Google Meet heavily; along with group calendars like Outlook and Google Calendar. These replace formal office meetings.

But in the office people also overhear each other, hang signs, chat over lunch, and stop in the hallways. Teams are using other tools to replace these informal channels.

The most common suggestion is increased use of Slack. Engineering VPs are pressing their teams and their CEOs to shift more messaging onto Slack because then the information sharing is semi-public, compared to emails and texts that require the same effort to write but only have narrow audiences.

Some leaders recommended switching from heavy tools like Asana and Jira to lighter tools like Airtable and Notion, so that more people from across the organization can get involved. One company tracked feature requests in Airtable, then built an integration so that every time a feature was completed, an announcement and a new discussion thread gets posted to Slack. This recognizes the engineer and often starts a group discussion about the feature.

We heard recommendations for Parabol for code retrospectives and Tuple for pair programming.

 

Stay Visible

One of the key concerns of a VP of engineering is to make sure that the rest of the company understands the department’s contributions and to make sure that out-of-sight does not become out-of-budget. Exposure for the engineering team is also a great morale builder.

Jellyfish (a Pillar portfolio company) helps track and communicate the engineering department’s status to the CEO, and ensure that the engineering work is aligned with the rest of the company.

VPs noted that, in COVID times, it is important to actively market the department’s impact to the rest of the organization.

Suggestions here include:

  • Creating prototypes, then inviting a small group of people across the company for a demonstration. Not only does this provide useful feedback, it also creates buzz.
     
  • Regularly communicating on Slack, but keeping the news short to avoid fatigue.
     
  • Asking if you can insert engineering updates into other team meetings (especially sales) and into company all-hands meetings.

The engineering team relies on the VP of engineering to ensure that their work is aligned with the rest of the company and is appreciated.

 

Interview With Tools and Amp Up the Onboarding

What if you are trying to expand the team? VPs of engineering are using special tools to interview coders remotely. These include CodeInterview and CodeSandBox to watch candidates code, and sketchboard to talk about architecture and algorithms. These can be “even better” than standing together at a whiteboard.

Bear in mind that, when a new technical lead starts, he or she may feel embarrassed to ask simple questions and cannot simply turn to an office neighbor. Create a buddy for each new hire, who can help onboard them by scheduling regular extra meetings the first few days and weeks.

If you can, hire people in small cohorts. That allows them to learn together and create bonds.

Because onboarding remotely requires so much deliberate effort, most managers are trying to start their teams smaller and grow at a thoughtful pace, making sure to allow time for the culture to set in before adding the next round of new people.

 

Overall

The main job of seed stage is product-building, and that is a team sport. You might think that the engineering department would welcome work-from-home because it is easier for individuals to concentrate in isolation, especially compared to working in an open floor-plan office. Most of our engineering leaders missed the office though. As managers, they could easily catch up with people in the hallway, and they appreciated the chance to pull together small groups to quickly resolve ad hoc issues.

The rich list of ideas and tools above show how they are working hard to collaborate remotely.

It seems likely that, even after COVID is under control, the future of work will be more of a hybrid between home and office, and that these tools and practices will be part of life for many of us. So don’t wait; you will want to try this out now so you can keep up with the curve later.

Before You LeaveHow to Hire Remote Engineers

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