Technology executives are finding ways for their teams to collaborate and be productive as fully remote work persists during the coronavirus pandemic.
“You don’t feed ideas off of each other like you would in person,” said Ravs Kaur, chief technology officer of Uplevel Inc., a Seattle-based startup that created a platform to help software engineering teams increase productivity. “We’re trying to make the most of the situation,” Ms. Kaur said.
Software development and other forms of information technology work certainly can be performed remotely, and there are some tech companies that have been entirely remote for years. Nonetheless, the culture of the software business often has valued physical workplaces, known for stand-up meetings, pairs of people working side-by-side, and walls covered with sticky notes to keep small teams on track. Break rooms with recreational equipment and well-stocked pantries often are part of this “agile” culture, too.
The challenge for many tech executives is to adapt this culture to a remote environment. The need is more urgent, as companies push back office reopening dates to prevent spreading of the coronavirus among employees.
Uplevel, founded in 2018, had always valued in-person collaboration. It mostly hired locally and last fall moved from a shared co-working space into its own office, Ms. Kaur said.
When the startup’s 16 employees went home in March, they sought ways to continue adding to the product, which collects and analyzes data from calendars, Slack, GitHub and other sources.
Uplevel held two virtual hackathons in the past five months, Ms. Kaur said. They each lasted two weeks—one week longer than the first in-person hackathon the company held last fall. The hope was that the longer session would help employees develop their projects to the point where they could be tested with customers, Ms. Kaur said.
The remote hackathons were facilitated by the use of Miro, a virtual whiteboard platform, and by designated Slack channels. “We’re trying to emulate some of the creativity that you’d get in person,” Ms. Kaur said.
Aible Inc., a Foster City, Calif.-based startup, set up more frequent check-ins with developers.
The company, which develops artificial intelligence for business operations, typically would have a developer work on a solution for up to a week and review the progress. If the developer was stuck, the company would reassign the work, said Rod Butters, Aible’s chief technology officer.
Since the company went fully remote, it has reviewed progress with developers more frequently to keep them on task, Mr. Butters said.
Stripe Inc., a San Francisco-based company that builds software for processing online payments, already was developing practices for remote employees. It launched a remote engineering hub last year, said Chief Technology Officer David Singleton.
When the company went fully remote, it reinforced those practices, immediately sending meeting notes to email lists so employees in different locations could continually follow along and add running commentary to shared documents, Mr. Singleton said.
Some tech executives still say they think innovation is easier to achieve when employees can meet face-to-face.
Bank of America Corp.’s Chief Operations and Technology Officer Cathy Bessant said that over the long term, developers do a better job of brainstorming and are more productive when they work in person.
“Our employees feel like they’re more of a team with a purpose” when they are face-to-face, Ms. Bessant said.
In recent months, her department used frequent video calls to maintain communication. It carried out new projects, releasing features for the bank’s virtual assistant, Erica, she said.
In the first half of 2020, the bank set a company record for patents filed and granted during the first six months of a given year, Ms. Bessant said.
Still, some tech executives say remote work can have its advantages.
When Stripe launched its remote engineering hub last year, it was able to recruit from a wider range of applicants. “Folks are joining Stripe who have experience in different sectors and segments,” Mr. Singleton said.
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