In 2007, something happened. A man in a black turtleneck and blue jeans presented a mobile phone without a keyboard. Could we imagine one thing will define the culture of a whole generation?
But we got spoiled. Now we’re waiting for the next big thing to come and change our lives beyond recognition. Flying cars, Mars colonies, self-parented kids… We forget that those small things that follow big breakthroughs are truly what defines our everyday lives.
Remote work was a big breakthrough. Fast, ubiquitous internet and portable gadgets allowed us to work from anywhere with anyone, but it’s ordinary at first sight services and tools we use in our daily job that define how we work.
This article is about these tools and how they can affect a whole company’s culture without you even noticing.
Time-tracking software (Hubstaff, TimeDoctor, Harvest) all works in the same way. Employees start their day by launching the program. As soon as they press “start” the software begins to track the seconds, minutes and hours workers spend on their tasks. When they don’t work, they press the “pause” button, and when they want to continue they press “resume”.
Simple? Yes. Easy? No way. No one really talks about it much, but time-tracking software really shapes remote culture. It can make a big difference whether you’re using it or not.
First of all, it facilitates a culture of supervision. By default, every such program takes a screenshot of the employee’s desktop and anyone with proper rights can see what’s going on at any given moment.
Now, let me ask you this honest question. Have you ever been supervised at your office job 100% of the time? Was someone watching you when you had a little chat with a colleague or switched from your main task to assist someone? That can really be stressful, especially if management prefers a controlling managerial approach.
Secondly, it facilitates the culture of time-grinding. This is especially true in remote startups where people don’t have clear goals defined. Eventually, they start to fill time, stretching their tasks and filling it with meaningless routine.
E.g. the employee has a monthly recurring 10-hour task. He or she can automate it to have an extra 10 hours every month that can be spent on something useful to the startup. However, if they have nothing more purposeful and have no clear goals, why should they? This task gives them 10 hours every month to do something and meet their time quote.
Management starts to think these workers are slacking and begin to track their time even more rigorously. Workers, in turn, feel even more stressed and create more time-fillers, at the same time being disappointed that their time is being wasted.
I’m not saying time-tracking software is inherently bad. It’s all about how you use it. If you start to cover productivity holes with it instead of solving bigger problems (stressed employees, undefined goals), it becomes a tool of oppression, not transparency.
These problems can be addressed via flexible settings of the mentioned tools: you can disable automatic screenshot-taking or reduce its frequency to reduce the stress of your employees under supervision.
To help with clear goals and reduce the feeling of wasted time, you can create several projects and let people time-track them independently. You can even create buffer-projects to track time spent on assisting colleagues and optimizing workflow.
Messengers are not just tools to aid teams in remote work. They are where this work happens. According to Time, users spend around 10 hours a workday plugged into Slack, one of the most popular corporate messengers. That’s even longer than the average workday in the office.
Although all messengers serve the same purpose – communicating within a team – their interfaces are so different that they can even affect how team members are interacting with each other and how often. If working with Slack wasn’t any different from Skype experience, it wouldn’t have its unprecedented growth.
Some messengers, like Sococo, are a virtual representation of a real-world office with a heavy focus on verbal communication. It reproduces the office environment and with, its cultural aspects like random chats between colleagues and visual transparency – you will often know where your co-workers are.
Slack, on the other hand, is a text-heavy application that shines when it comes to extensions. This is especially true for Agile practitioners, e.g. to organize Daily-standups and Retrospectives with extensions like Geekbot.
No matter what messenger you choose in the end, bear in mind that the choice will work both ways – your team culture will define how workers use the messenger, but its interface and workflow can also influence your team culture.
No other aspect defines a remote company’s culture as much as the methodology companies utilize to guide their work. Kanban, Scrum, DevOps, etc. all affect how team goals are set, how they are tracked and how they are being executed.
Tools, in this case, are of consequence. In the case of Kanban methodology, we use tracking desks like Trello that allow us to see all the tasks we’re working on currently in a simplified manner. They are ideal for small teams that like to keep things easy. They also help a lot in the work of independent departments. For example, at one point the marketing department I was working in used Trello for its task-management while all the developers were using Jira.
Tools like Jira are much more complicated and include Scrum-boards, Kanban-boards, issues trackers and can be utilized for a plethora of agile processes. For example, advanced analytics in agile reporting brings your retrospectives to the next level of detailization. It’s extremely helpful to the teams that employ agile practices like point-task assessment and continuous delivery.
In the case of tools, it’s not about how simple or complicated the tool is, it’s about how deeply your team processes are connected to them. And the deeper the connection, the more the tool affects how things work out in your team. Eventually, you may decide that complicated analysis is good for one of your departments and absolutely detrimental to another one. Even different departments within a single organization can have a different culture of work, e.g. don’t expect marketers and designers to work in the same manner as developers, even if sometimes you wish they did.
Remote culture is still in its infancy, and we don’t have a complete idea of how the tools that we choose to work with affect us. Yet, undoubtedly, they do. But don’t blame tools if something is not working out with your team. Sometimes, unfit tools are the aftermath of ill remote culture, not its source.