Editor's note: The following is a guest article from John Thimsen, chief technology officer of Qualtrics
I've always believed in building a great product and a great engineering organization — in person. Collaboration and innovation are clear benefits of side-by-side work.
That whole ethos was blown up in March. In response to the pandemic, Qualtrics closed our four global engineering offices and sent IT and engineering teams to work from home, where most of them are still working.
Overnight, our technical teams had to learn how to work together, maintain systems and ship new features – but now as a fully remote team.
Here are the five things we've done to help the distributed teams stay successful.
It's hard enough for technical teams to find everything they need in the best of times. But with in-person teams dispersed, we sped up a much-needed project to improve internal documentation.
We launched a catalog for API documentation and standardized internal team pages to enable technical teams to easily discover the information they needed to be effective.
With four teams in four time zones, we were already used to staying connected with Zoom, Slack channels and Jira tools. They went from being helpful tools supporting person-to-person collaboration to serving as the primary operational tools. That has required a mindshift change accomplished with dedicated training.
Objectives and key results
When the COVID-19 crisis hit and managers could only interact with teams digitally, our management system of objectives and key results (OKRs) became essential.
To define an OKR, you set a measurable objective for the quarter and then list three or more things that you are going to do to meet that objective. Working toward quarterly goals, everyone on the team publishes weekly activities with their manager and the rest of the team.
OKRs are not unique to our teams, but for us they serve as a way to stay focused and accountable in the absence of traditional team meetings and daily interactions.
In the first quarter as a fully remote team, the product engineering team took on 25% more features than the quarter before and maintained on-time feature delivery at the same rate as the previous quarter.
Listening and taking action
Remote work has made it easier to solicit employee feedback and act on their priorities. Without in-person team interactions, we increased our cadence of employee engagement pulses and manager effectiveness reviews.
It became clear in the spring that we would be working from home for more than a few weeks. The company discovered one of the key drivers of stress for our team was that most didn't have the equipment or home setup to work remotely for a long time.
In response, we encouraged employees to go to their offices and collect whatever hardware and furniture would help. The company also redirected a travel benefit to let employees use that cash for their home office. Within two weeks we saw work-from-home worries plummet along with stress.
COVID-19 landed right in the middle of intern season. Rather than cancel because our offices were physically closed, we had to run a program 100% remotely.
The company set up new processes to get equipment and access to interns scattered around the world. We worked with our training teams to adapt onboarding experiences to online delivery, and now run weekly intern check-ins to quickly identify and address unanticipated issues.
In addition we held a series of prep sessions to support the intern managers and mentors that continued after the interns arrived. The company hosted 35 engineering interns during the fully remote internship cycle.
Fewer than half of our employees had ever worked remotely before March, and working from home can be immensely stressful. Some employees were suddenly alone for 24 hours per day, others were quarantined with families trying to homeschool while keeping their careers going, and some were caring for relatives who had COVID-19.
As we sent employees home we encouraged all of them to be understanding with each other, to communicate clearly with their managers but also to take care of themselves and their families first.
In practice that meant flexing to let employees work alternative hours if needed and for managers to have specific conversations with employees about what they needed. We've encouraged them to use their vacation time to recharge even if they couldn't travel. And we've told managers to set challenging OKRs with their teams but to let their employees flex their work habits to deliver them.
It has paid off: In the first fully remote quarter, the engineering team cut resolution time in half while maintaining our already high service levels for root-cause-analysis and pulse tickets.