Control is part of the human condition. Feeling like you're in control is an essential part of leading a healthy, happy, and fulfilling life. As a business leader, it's tempting to exercise control over your organization by micromanaging, but a true leader understands that happiness is the key to a successful and productive employee.
In a software engineering environment, it's especially difficult to provide individual employees with a sense of control over their work. There's always a list of rollouts, reporting, fixes, and more--with each line item being prioritized and reprioritized over months of exhaustive internal and external meetings.
Engagement runs low in such a fast-paced production culture, which is the biggest workplace problem the majority of companies face, according to the Global Human Capital Trends 2015 report.
At first glance, giving developers complete freedom could seemingly destroy your company from the inside, but focusing on a few key pain points creates a feeling of autonomy among developers without forcing you to sacrifice your own.
The Many Benefits of Letting Your Developers Roam Free
A recent study found that remote employees are more engaged than employees who work at the office--mainly due to the fact that "proximity breeds complacency." This is especially true for software developers, who have a strong propensity for novelty. In 2015, the concept of working remotely is still novel and attractive to your workers.
People want to travel the world, see new things, and experience all the same luxuries of life that an executive may have. In an office environment, there's nothing to look at except that picture of the Eiffel Tower on your desktop.
My company utilizes teams of remote developers from across the globe, and employees love comparing workplaces and weather. Every morning, our internal communications feed is full of everything from rainy days in Portugal to sunny dog walks in Peru. It's a constant stream of mobile uploads--inspiring people from completely different backgrounds, cultures, and locations to connect on a personal level at work.
The Delicate Art of Managing a Remote Workforce
Your developers are fish out of water, meaning they're susceptible to becoming overwhelmed quickly if they're unhappy. Giving your developers autonomy over their work location instills a sense of freedom to live and go wherever they want while staying productive and engaged. However, remote working can become unproductive if you don't keep a few things in mind. Here are three best practices that I picked up from implementing a remote workforce of developers:
1. Shake off the chains of a set schedule. Freedom of location is nothing without freedom of time. What good is working remotely if your employees are still stuck at their desks all day, unable to drop the kids off at school, go to the grocery store, do laundry, or do whatever they want with their time?
Remember: Developers are also content creators and makers who use code as their medium. Makers are particularly susceptible to disengaging in a restricted time environment. They don't view the world in 9-to-5 cycles; rather, they view it from project to project. Let your makers break free from a strict schedule, and their work will benefit from it.
2. Don't become an island. It's easy for things to get lost in translation with a remote workforce, especially if your lines of communication are closed tight. The good news is that remote workers tend to connect better with co-workers and management simply because they have to try harder to be noticed.
Taking advantage of this natural byproduct of autonomy is as simple as hosting a group chat session or a social media group. Keep an email distribution list of all team members to ensure everyone is on the same page for email blasts. Beyond that, you should make yourself available via phone, email etc. for any emergency situations. When contacted, always speak in declarative sentences, and speak openly about what you want. Open communication lines are only as good as the people using them.
3. Put a face to a name. People appreciate a human connection. This is especially important when your employees are working alone most of the time.
At my company, we use personal quizzes to stay connected. Everyone answers five questions, and the answers are posted to our general Slack channel. Then, everyone gets to learn a little bit about everyone else. We also just implemented a "buddy system" in which new employees are paired up with seasoned veterans so they can adjust to our culture. We ask that they meet once a day--even if it's just for five minutes. This way, employees don't feel isolated from the rest of the company; rather, there's a real sense of connection.
No matter the industry or position, workers all over the world are--for the time being--human. As humans, we all experience the same basic conditions, wants, and needs. Studies show that feeling a sense of autonomy feeds our happiness, and you can achieve this for your developers by allowing them to set their own schedules and worksites, opening up the lines of communication, holding them accountable for results, and maintaining the human connection.