Managing Virtual Teams: Episode 2 – Managing Remote Teams for a Federal Agency

It was early March, the team had been talking about it for a few weeks now “what was going to happen if COVID-19 made it to Washington DC?”  The beginnings of social distancing were starting to take hold; no one was shaking hands, you could see the hesitation when someone kindly offered a serving of something they had brought from home, hand sanitizer was everywhere.  We KNEW that things were getting bad, but we didn’t know if we were going to be shut down, asked to remain working in person, or be allowed to start remote work.

Our contract for performing Independent Verification and Validation (IV&V) isn’t hosted in a government-owned building.  We’re independent on purpose, to insulate us from potential pressure to pass something that isn’t ready.  The contract is responsible for nearly all of the software and much of the hardware that is deployed by our client worldwide.  These systems are vital to many Americans and they can’t be simply stopped.

We knew that the mission needed to continue, but how would that happen, and what would that look like?

Up until this point, there had been limited remote work allowed on the contract.  There were some limited options in place to handle off-hour emergencies, but that was it.  Nearly all work was required to be done on-site to access the secure network.  That was quickly becoming a problem as people began to worry about being exposed to a virus we knew little about and what that might do to their health and the health of their families.

After some high-level planning, the word came down; “tell your teams to prepare to leave the office and work from home, we’re working on a solution”.  Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, but that only created another question: how would we manage nearly 100 people, working on over 100 applications, and manage terabytes of databases and clusters of servers, from home?

I’m the lead for the AEGIS Test Automation team on one of our federal contracts.  We’re just one of the sub-contractors who all support the IV&V effort.  Our team of 14 handles a number of tasks, including monthly patch testing, baseline testing new workstation images, software and hardware, network support, security testing, and our newly acquired task of penetration testing.  We do a lot of that using automation software, hence “the Automation Team”.  That’s a lot of work to keep track of in person.  How were we going to handle it remotely?

And I do mean “we”.  From the start, I knew that success involved input from everyone on the team.  My efforts have mostly involved providing clear priorities and goals for the team. Each team member knows their jobs, but we need coordination and reporting.  Those are two things that you can’t get without solid communication.

Our team has always been tight-knit; many of the people have been on the contract for years.  Our offices take up a section of the hallway in a large office building.  We often yell between offices to get each other’s attention and walk in with quick questions for each other.  We know who the experts are for a given topic, either on our team, or another team within the contract.  THAT would be what was the most difficult to recreate with remote work — the quick, ad-hoc meetings and rapid-fire answers that can only be captured in person (or so I thought).  Time to complete a task was going to stretch out. The time to find a solution was going to increase, which influences all of the work we do.

Luckily for us, our client was able to roll out the technology to allow for remote access work.  Like many other companies, Citrix and Microsoft Teams were brought online to support access to the environments we needed and a platform to communicate with each other.  Now, how to keep the team together?

Communication:  The best way to communicate is active, face to face access; the one thing that we would be denied.  So what was second best?  Our team settled on a daily video “stand up” call using AEGIS’s video/conference call service.  We were already in the habit of meeting daily, so it was simply a matter of updating the calendar event with virtual meeting information, but the content of this meeting needed to be worked out.  I had no idea what the team would want or need; we were going to find out together.

The virtual meeting evolved from a 15-minute stand-up meeting to a 30-60 minute rundown of current events, administrative information, task planning, and status reporting.  The meetings often include discussions about weekend plans, family news, as well as jokes and music – simply to encourage team building and lift everyone’s spirits during an isolating and difficult time.   The team call has become one of my favorite meetings.  At the end of the call, I stay on for a few additional minutes if our schedule allows in order to discuss urgent items with specific team members if needed.  Additionally, I’ll hand over the ownership of the call to another team member if they want to use the session to meet with others that they are collaborating with.

Fast forward ahead six months.  How have we done?  What have we learned?  What can we improve?  And most importantly, what should we have done differently?

Some of what have we have learned:

  1. We can accomplish the mission. We’ve been able to continue our work and remain effective in our mission, which wasn’t a certainty back in March when things began to unfold.
  2. Plan for expanding timelines. When you work through email, the amount of time needed to complete a task can expand, multiplied by the number of people that are involved. Tasks that could be solved by a quick in-person meeting tend to stretch out as you wait for an email response.  It’s key to be aware of this lag, and keep multiple tasks moving forward while you wait for others to respond to your requests.  When possible, reach out directly using Teams to get complete more urgent items.
  3. Written communication on collaborative platforms. The team relies on a running Teams chat to “broadcast” information to the group. This provides a persistent thread of information, which can be searched.  I’m sure we’ll continue to use this even after we’ve returned to the office.
  4. Not only do tasks stretch out, but the workday can stretch out. Living in your home office, responding to emails, and working at all times of the day can lead to burnout due to the desire to show that you’re working.  Encourage team members to take time off, to get out of the “office” and set boundaries.  The days tend to run together.
  5. Being accessible, but not crowding or micro-managing. Everyone has different needs, don’t impose on their space, make it clear that you are available and they’ll come to you when they need something.
  6. Managing expectations. No one wants to feel like they are being watched or checked. Trust your team to do their job, provide goals, and the tools they need to complete them.  Everyone will have dips in their productivity; figure out ways to balance the work.
  7. Managing morale. The only thing I’ve thought of is to be as honest and open with the team as possible.  On days where I’m feeling a bit down, I’ve expressed that during our morning meetings.  Likewise, I try to keep a positive attitude and invite others to participate and tell everyone else what’s going on outside of work for them.  Everyone’s social life has been impacted, our “work family” dynamic changed but that doesn’t mean we can’t attempt to recreate it.  I hope this has had a positive impact on everyone’s morale.
  8. Keep the Customer Up To Date. We’re very lucky that our customer has also embraced the ideas of remote work discussed above.  If it wasn’t for their ability to work with remote teams, set goals, and establish clear expectations, it wouldn’t matter what our team did.  We’ve helped by making sure that we’re able to communicate up the chain and with other parallel teams so that everyone keeps the information flowing to those who need it.

Our approach to remote work hasn’t remained static.  As we’ve learned more, and as the needs of the team have changed, we’ve modified what we do:

  1. The team is currently in the process of changing how we do our morning meeting. We’ve decided that meeting every day is too much and we’ve gotten meeting fatigue.  Since we already spend hours a day on conference calls, another daily call was just more than we needed.
  2. We plan to include more brown-bags and presentations in our weekly schedule to showcase the work that is being done and keep people learning.
  3. Clarifying tasks and responsibilities. Carving out “domain leads” that are responsible for specific areas and can handle the day to day tasking.  This leaves us responsible for building a better backlog and setting clear priorities for those leads.
  4. Switching tasks. Cross-training is always important.  In our environment, where resources are sometimes stretched thin, we’re often one-deep in a particular area.  We’re using some of this time to cross-train the team, as well as give people something new to focus on for a while.
  5. Accountability. With fewer meetings, we’re going to be putting the responsibility for progress in the hands of the team. To do this, we’re defining better goals and milestones than we have had in the past.

Overall I feel that we’re setting a good road map for what the future of remote could be on government contracts.  We still don’t know when we’ll be able to return to the office full time, but we do know that many companies are re-evaluating how they work, and what the “office” will look like in the future.  I don’t see a time in the near term where everyone will want to be 100% in the office and expect that the future holds more of a hybrid model for the traditional office worker.

For now, we’re still improving, still learning, and still showing that we’re able to deliver what our customer needs, even when working from home.

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