In theory, app development is something that was always possible to do remotely: developers have always tended to be comfortable working independently, while the work has always demanded a high level of autonomy.
As and when required, collaboration could be facilitated by video conferencing technology or occasional visits to a physical meeting or coworking space.
But of course, it wasn't until the spring of 2020 that the world shifted - initially because it was forced to, and later because it couldn't ignore the obvious benefits - towards a remote working culture.
Nowadays around 1 in 6 businesses globally are operating fully remotely, with the IT, digital and creative sectors offering the highest number of remote working opportunities.
It's an inevitability, therefore, that many app development teams are now operating with at least some of their developers working remotely.
Whether they're fully remote or they've adopted a hybrid working approach, this can introduce a number of benefits - greater flexibility, a healthier work-life balance, and often increased productivity - but also a number of challenges, such as increased isolation, technical snags, and strained communication.
Considering this, managing a remote app development team won't be a breeze, by any means - but here, we've outlined some of the steps you can take to ensure your remote team remains productive, engaged, and collaboration and communication don't suffer as a result of a dispersed workforce.
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Boundaries are essential in a remote work environment because flexibility can mean different things to different individuals.
For instance, some employers might consider that by simply allowing remote work at least some of the time they're offering a high level of flexibility, while others might go to greater lengths.
Nowadays, for example, there's theoretically nothing to stop an employer from using remote onboarding tools to hire a developer from anywhere else in the world.
That might be from another city, country, or continent altogether, with an employer of record services enabling businesses to hire easily (and legally) in countries like Canada.
Ottawa reportedly has a higher share of tech employees than Silicon Valley, and EOR providers such as remote.com can make hiring there a possibility.
Whichever approach you take, it's important to set clear expectations from the outset - how many days your team is permitted to work remotely, what core hours they're expected to work, how to log their time, etc.
otherwise you risk tension arising among your developers and disillusionment and disengagement creeping in.
Naturally, creating an optimal remote work environment is heavily reliant on tech: not only is a reliable internet connection a prerequisite, but there are multiple other software tools that must become a part of any successful remote working strategy - one which maximizes productivity and removes any obstacles to effective communication.
The areas your app development team will need to consider are:
Collaboration: Remote work can be seen as a barrier to collaboration, but that need not be the case if you have reliable and high-performing video conferencing software.
A platform called Webex (which is free) is essential for an app development team, as it enables them to schedule virtual meetings, connect with colleagues in an instant, and discuss projects face-to-face when required.
Project management: Managing projects in a remote work environment can be tricky, particularly where there are multiple stakeholders all working remotely.
A project management tool such as Jira is a necessity for app developers, as it'll allow them to track progress, assign key tasks, and create project milestones.
File sharing: In a remote environment, it's essential that all your developers have access to important files and documents - process manuals, policy handbooks, etc. - and that these are easily shareable with colleagues.
Google Drive is widely used for this purpose, ensuring ease of access as well as secure file storage.
Instant communication: When your developers can't simply pop over to a colleague's desk to ask a question (or even just to have a general natter), you can facilitate this through an instant messaging tool such as Slack.
It's a great way to sidestep unnecessary meetings or back-and-forth email threads.
Productivity paranoia (a lack of confidence among leaders that their teams are working productively) can be hard to shake in a remote environment.
In fact, a 2022 study by Microsoft revealed that only 12% of employers have full confidence their remote employees are as productive as they'd be in a physical environment.
This is where micromanagement becomes a potential issue, as employers seek to ensure their employees are operating at their most productive while working remotely.
Micromanagement is almost never conducive to a healthy or productive work environment, and it's only likely to lead to resentment and disengagement among development teams.
It can take many forms, but micromanagement often manifests itself in one or more of the following ways:
Instead of micromanaging a development team in pursuit of maximum productivity, it's important to assume a high level of trust.
Offer support and impart knowledge when needed, but step back and have faith that your team is able to deliver without persistent supervision - unless they give you a reason not to. That's likely why you hired them, after all.
Communication is the bedrock of any successful remote team, and it's impossible to be fully productive or collaborate well without doing so effectively.
But that's not all it's important for: in an office environment, you can often pick up on signs that one of your developers may be struggling or in need of extra support, but this is more difficult when working remotely since everyone's a little less visible.
That's why it's essential to encourage regular feedback from your team, which can be done in some of the following ways:
Employee surveys: Not every team member will be comfortable providing feedback in person, so it's a good idea to periodically run anonymous surveys.
Such as OfficeVibe's automated pulse surveys - so you can gauge how your employees are feeling without putting anyone on the spot.
Team discussions: If you prefer things more out in the open, getting the whole team together for a weekly catch-up is a great way to gauge the overall feeling among your developers.
Make it an open discussion, and allow everyone ample time to share their views, challenge existing practices, or make suggestions.
Simply enabling your development team to work remotely is not the same as empowering them to do so. To achieve optimal results while working in a remote-only environment, your team needs proper operational support.
When businesses had to hastily shift to home-based working in light of nationwide lockdowns, they had to make it work as best they could. But now working remotely has become an established norm, the needs of each employee warrant careful consideration.
Your developers should be able to seek support discreetly and feel confident that any concerns escalated will be taken seriously.
When working from their home office, your development team members need to have an ergonomically-adequate physical workspace.
You should carry out an assessment to ensure they can work not just productively, but safely too.
Remote workers will often need to accommodate additional lifestyle needs outside of work, such as ensuring their children are looked after.
You may need to offer the flexibility to allow them to manage life admin alongside their job roles.
Too often, remote teams forget how important the social aspect of a job is.
Of course, not everyone wishes to mix their work and social lives, but most of us value a little non-work-related interaction at least every now and again.
For an app developer that likely spends hours (or days) working through bugs or tweaking user interfaces, or bounces from one important meeting to another with little time to breathe, its easy to overlook the importance of connecting with colleagues on a more personal level.
This can be challenging in a remote environment, of course, since it's typically less conducive than an office environment to a spontaneous conversation or water-cooler chat.
But that shouldn't stop you encouraging it: something as simple as organizing an occasional virtual 'coffee morning' — where work-specific chat is outlawed, is great for relationship-building and can provide a much-needed morale boost, particularly when the workload is high among your developers.
There are ample benefits for app development teams that are prepared to fully embrace remote work, but that doesn't mean it won't also come with a number of challenges.
However, by setting clear expectations and boundaries, leveraging the right tools, communicating effectively, and offering proper operational support, development team leaders can ensure their teams remain happy, engaged, and ultimately productive while working remotely.