How Can Companies Adapt to Remote-Only Work?
In light of the challenges companies are facing, what are some concrete tactics leaders can use to tackle them?
Increasing Productivity and Staying Agile
At Vizio, Baxter shared the steps they’ve taken so far to keep productivity levels high, including:
- Making sure each employee has adequate space and equipment to successfully work from home
- Distributing guidelines for managers and individual contributors on working remotely, like:
- Answer questions in community forums like Slack instead of through one-on-one interactions so that information is shared with everyone more quickly
- Conduct multiple stand-ups each day to get a solid idea of where people are at and how projects are progressing
Bill Brock, Very’s VP of Engineering, reiterated the importance of making information readily accessible based on his years of experience as a remote manager.
“Any salesperson, any account manager, any project manager should be able to dive into our resources and see where a current project is at — the status of the customer relationship, issues and blockers on a feature level, or even budget and runway,” Brock said. “Transparency is one of our huge company values, and it makes operating efficiently as a remote organization much easier because you're not having to have a lot of one-off conversations.”
Managing Hardware Engineering Remotely
While companies across industries are encountering the “typical” challenges of working remotely, like lack of face-to-face interaction with colleagues or distractions at home, companies in the hardware engineering business like Vizio and Very additionally face some unique problems.
At Vizio, Baxter noted that some of the smart TVs that the company produces can measure up to 85 inches, and many employees don’t have enough space at home to perform necessary testing on a product that large.
“The logistics of distributing those can be a nightmare, so we've been working to ensure that we have the available resources for people to test,” Baxter said. “It revealed areas for improvement in our testing protocols that we were then able to shore up.”
Jeff McGehee, Very’s Director of Engineering, acknowledged similar challenges with performing hardware engineering remotely and shared how the Very team has adapted.
One important tactic McGehee said the Very team uses is to duplicate ownership of a lot of hardware, so every developer has the hardware that they need.
“We always try to err on the side of over-equipping a team member instead of under-equipping one, because when you're developing in this way on these complex systems, time is the most critical asset that you have,” McGehee said. “If you end up waiting a day or so for something to get shipped to you, that can be hugely detrimental to the project, so we generally follow a pattern of ‘if one developer needs it, probably everyone on the team will need it.’”
McGehee also shared the role that IoT hardware virtualization and emulation plays in Very’s development process.
“We're always looking for tools that allow us to work faster in a distributed setting, and any time you can simulate hardware it gives you faster feedback loops,” McGehee said.
McGehee noted that Very has leveraged Jumper for the STM family of chips, and firmware frameworks like Nerves that have good hardware abstraction built in, so engineers can do a lot of the development without the hardware.
Our moderator Mark Thirman from MIT Enterprise Forum raised another great question for our panelists: if innovation usually happens when people are clustered together in a lab or large open environment, how do you get great ideas to gestate and turn into a product when people are dispersed?
McGehee responded by talking about how the team at Very frequently pairs programmers across disciplines to come up with creative new solutions.
“We try to really design things so that our team members can work in a collaborative way and sort of mimic the office,” McGehee said. “A lot of interesting things come out of the hardware engineers and the software engineers trying to work together.”
Is This the Future of Work?
Finally, moderator Thirman asked our panelists: will the COVID-19 pandemic change the future of work?
Baxter replied that pre-COVID at Vizio, there was hesitation to allow for distance working, and they didn’t have the tools in place to measure whether it would be successful or not. Today, however, they do have those tools. They’re measuring their productivity, and they’re finding that productivity isn't dropping in the way they’d expected.
While there are definitely areas for improvement, Baxter noted that Vizio, like many other companies, was using multiple expensive facilities all around the United States prior to the novel coronavirus epidemic. Now, they have the opportunity to ask: is that really what we or our employees want and need?
“We have people that live in LA and drive two hours one way to go to work,” Baxter said. “Now we have the chance to give them back those four hours each day and see what it does to their morale and their productivity and their commitment.
“I do think it's going to become a new norm. If not because this may be a prolonged situation, then just because it's very practical.”
Looking for More Advice on Managing a Distributed Team?
We at Very have been working remotely for years, and along the way we’ve discovered specific, proven techniques that engineering leaders can use to improve productivity and engagement for remote employees. Check out The CTO’s Guide to Leading a Distributed Team here to learn more.