The Joel Test for Remote Teams

Have you ever heard of the Joel Test? It’s a remarkably helpful series of questions to help software teams measure their quality.

Joel Spolsky shared it with the world in the year 2000 and since then, it has helped countless software teams improve their build processes and ship better software.

Joel himself originally described the test as “highly irresponsible and sloppy” but time and the Internet disagreed and to this day teams are improving their quality by following those suggestions.

The great thing about the Joel Test is that all it takes is answering 12 “Yes” or “No” questions and in less than 3 minutes you’re on your way to improving your team.

In that spirit, I’d like to offer a “highly irresponsible and sloppy” Joel Test for Remote Teams.

The Joel Test for Remote Teams

  1. Do you have a company handbook?
  2. Do you have a communications guide?
  3. Do you always turn video on for calls?
  4. Do you record and share all-hands meetings?
  5. Does everyone dial into video calls on a separate screen?
  6. Do you enable work visibility and sharing as a default process?
  7. Do you share working hours and normalize ignoring notifications outside of working hours?
  8. Do you screen for self-motivation and communication during hiring?
  9. Do you provide a co-working / home office stipend?
  10. Do you schedule time for team socialization?
  11. Do you have at least one onsite per year?

Give your team 1 point for each “yes” answer.

Similar to the Joel Test, a score of 11 is perfect, 10 is tolerable, but 9 or lower and you’ve got problems.

To State the Obvious

I’m just going to quote Joel with a few modifications:

These are not the only factors that determine success or failure: in particular, if you have a great software remote team working on a product that nobody wants toward a vision nobody cares about, well, people aren’t going to want it stick around. But, all else being equal, if you get these things right, you’ll have a disciplined team that can consistently deliver.

1. Do you have a company handbook?

Handbook, Wiki, Notion Workspace. Whatever it is technically, just make sure it’s easily accessible and stays up-to-date. Nothing kills legitimacy faster than a document that gathers dust and gets ignored.

Your handbook should cover the basics to give a new hire a lay of the land (Values, How We Work, Company Culture, Getting Started, etc.) and provide a source of truth for how your team will collaborate and create a healthy work environment for everyone.

It should also include a Company Directory to enable team members to contact one another directly for the rare (but inevitable) cases when waiting for a response on Slack could harm someone or the company.

Get to Yes

Don’t try to be as comprehensive as Gitlab out of the gate. They’ve been working on that puppy since 2014.

MeetEdgar and Basecamp offer fleshed out examples you can use for inspiration without feeling overwhelmed.

2. Do you have a communications guide?

This should be included in the company handbook but it’s important enough to get its own question.

Communication is hard enough when you’ve got five people in the same room. Spread those same five people across five timezones in different work environments and the possibilities for misunderstanding can be amplified. One person might be expecting a response to their email within a few hours while their coworker makes it a point to check their email once in the morning and once at the end of the day.

Your communications guide should make it explicit which tools should be used for certain types of requests and what the expected response times are within each of those tools.

Notice that I’m not prescribing what your guide should say. I have opinions on that, but ultimately it’s whatever your team leadership decides will be the culture at your company. What is most important is that the expectations are clear and not left to chance or emergence.

Get to Yes

Start simple with this outline.

3. Do you always turn video on for calls?

Video on should be the default because it provides important visual cues for the speaker, it helps the participants avoid distractions and the temptation to multi-task, and it gives everyone a brief glimpse into the worlds of their remote team members.

In the same way that it was fun to decorate your desk at the office with knick knacks and symbols of your personality, dress up the wall where you typically take your calls and make it a frequent conversation starter!

4. Do you record and share all-hands meetings?

It can be difficult to accommodate worldwide timezones and nomadic team members, and just as difficult to ask someone on the other side of the globe to dial into an 11pm call.

But, if you’re recording your meetings and making them available in a company directory by default, team members who aren’t able to join live can watch on demand.

Additionally, folks at Gitlab have shared with me that on their synchronous calls (not just all-hands meetings), the attendees collaborate to capture meeting notes in a Google Doc, documenting the proceedings so that people who aren’t there can follow along without having a recording.

5. Does everyone dial into video calls on a separate screen?

As a rule, if one person is dialing in, everyone dials in. This puts all participants of the call on equal footing.

A common complaint of remote members on hybrid teams is that they’re often treated like second-class citizens.

“Donut party in the kitchen!”

“Happy Hour at the taco bar after work!”

Another way remote members feel isolated and separate from the rest of their team is when they’re the only face on a video call while everyone else is huddled up in the conference room. Make sure everyone is in the same boat with a one screen per participant rule.

6. Do you enable work visibility and sharing as a default process?

Work visibility and celebrating contributions are important for morale and for encouraging upward mobility within the company. Much of this responsibility lies with the employee and managers should be coached on encouraging this during their 1:1s.

But, the fact is, some people are more comfortable and better at promoting their own work than others.

To ensure that talented but naturally quiet members of your team aren’t overlooked, make sharing and celebrating contributions a part of your process. If you use Slack, integrate a bot that asks your team to share their work every Friday morning. Or, incorporate a show and tell into your standups. Whatever makes the most sense for your organization, as long as you are proactive about ensuring that everyone’s contributions are recognized.

This isn’t about making people feel good for the sake of it. It’s about ensuring that you don’t lose talented contributors who feel isolated and shut out because they aren’t as boisterous as those who are used to taking up space.

7. Do you share working hours and normalize ignoring notifications outside of working hours?

The facts are that remote workers don’t work less than their colocated counterparts. They work more. Some of the cheerleading around remote workers being more productive is tied to the fact that we’re probably putting in more hours.

All that output might feel good in the short-term, but it will lead to burnout.

The great thing about remote work is that we create the conditions that allow us to work anytime from anywhere.

The unhealthy thing about remote work is that we have created the conditions that allow us to work anytime from anywhere.

Creating boundaries, maintaining them, and enforcing them for each other is vital to protecting our mental health and stamina for the long haul.

Model communicating a time block of working hours to your team and then don’t send emails or respond to Slack outside of those hours.

8. Do you screen for self-motivation and communication during hiring?

Remote work is easier than going to the office everyday in a lot of ways. But, it’s also a little more difficult in others. Or at least, it requires more discipline and better communication skills than the same role in an office.

Getting into a comfortable rhythm and finding the right conditions to do your best work is not as easy as it might sound. Are you looking for candidates who have worked remotely before or demonstrate signs of being an independent self-starter?

As for communication, Jason Fried summed this up quite well in a New York Times piece:

Our top hiring criteria — in addition to having the skills to do the job — is, are you a great writer? You have to be a great writer to work here, in every single position, because the majority of our communication is written, primarily because a lot of us work remotely but also because writing is quieter.

9. Do you provide a co-working / home office stipend?

The space you work in matters and you should make sure the members of your team have a dedicated, comfortable space to do their best work. You don’t want your employees working from the kitchen table or their bed everyday. In fact, this is something you should be screening for during the hiring process as well.

Be sure your employees have a dedicated home office or help them find a co-working or shared office nearby

Convert offers their members a $150/mo+ productivity budget to start to put towards whatever will help them create a more focused work environment.

10. Do you schedule time for team socialization?

Isolation and loneliness are always in the top tier of challenges for remote workers. It doesn’t affect everyone, in fact, for many, the alone time and solitude of the home office is a great comfort.

You don’t want to take that away from anybody or be overly forceful, but it is important to find ways for your team members to connect and share a little bit more about their personal life. The sorts of conversations that would typically come up around the coffee pot in the morning or over an impromptu team lunch.

It can be as simple as an automated message on Monday morning to ask everyone what they did over the weekend or by integrating a tool like Donut into your Slack workspace.

And if you don’t have an HQ but happen to have a number of members in the same locality, create a bi-weekly co-working day to build deeper relationships. Zapier is a fully remote team but there is a cluster of employees in Portland, so they get together every so often to get to know one another even better.

11. Do you have at least one onsite per year?

The great thing about being a remote team is that you’re saving a lot of money on real estate. You can put those savings towards a four-star company retreat and still come out ahead.

The team at 1 Second Everyday shuts down customer support during their week-long company retreats so that everyone can unplug from work and be present. On Friday, the whole company dives in on support to get all of the tickets closed before the week is up.

High-performing remote teams have structured their retreats in a number of different ways, so like the handbook and communications guide, it is difficult to prescribe a recommendation here. Some teams set the entire week aside for excursions and social time. Others dedicate the first few days to all-hands workshops on a topic of interest.

The important thing is that at least once per year, your people get to meet their co-workers face-to-face. We are, after all, social animals.

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