The Joel Test for Remote Teams 🏆
Written by: Hrishikesh Pardeshi, Founder at Flexiple, buildd & Remote Tools.
Last updated: Jan 19, 2023
One of our readers, Brian Rhea, wrote to me earlier this month sharing one of his articles about having a Joel test for remote teams. Brian's approach seemed quite interesting and helpful to me, particularly since I know how popular and useful the original test is for software teams.
So I thought of taking a deep dive into it, building upon Brian's article. I have also shared a simple calculator/ template here so that you can take the Joel test for your team. I plan to share such templates or practical takeaways regularly from here on. The idea is to ensure it is not all theoretical but pragmatic additions to your remote working setup.
As always, would love to hear what you have to say about the content and the new section :)
The Joel Test for Software Teams
Joel Spolsky, CEO of Stack Overflow and Co-founder of Trello, came up with a super simple 12-step checklist 20 years ago to assess how your software team is doing. He himself calls it a highly irresponsible and sloppy test. However, what's great about the checklist is that it's a fairly simple heuristic to assess the effectiveness of your software team and takes you just 2-3 minutes to complete.
The important point to note, though, is that a score of perfect 12 (answers to all 12 questions is 'yes') doesn't guarantee that your team is doing amazing. However, a score of 10 or less is surely a matter of concern.
Applying the Test To Remote Working Teams
So extending the same Joel test for remote teams, here's a set of 12 questions to help you assess how your distributed team is doing.
As with the original Joel test, a score of 12 is perfect, 11 is tolerable but a score of 10 or less is concerning.
1. Do you have a company handbook?
This can be a simple wiki on Notion or Slite and should cover all the basics about how you started, how you work, what each team does etc. Typically, you should be able to direct any new hire to a section in the handbook for reference.
2. Do you have an internal communications guide?
You should remove the guesswork out of communication by documenting and making explicit the tools to be used, processes, response times etc. While we prescribe having a good mix of sync and async, it's entirely up to you on how communication should happen in your company. However, you should surely have a document in place explaining what the guidelines are.
3. Do you default to video for calls?
Visual cues are extremely helpful for the speaker as well as the participants. It also adds that extra element of team bonding and getting to know your teammates better.
4. Do you record and share important meetings?
People may miss meetings due to timezone differences, travel plans or a number of other reasons. Important meetings like your all-hands or town hall should be recorded and shared with everyone at a place that is easily accessible so that any one can view/ refer it later.
5. Does everyone dial into video on separate screens?
In a hybrid setting, people usually complain about getting left out in meetings where some participants are in a single room while others are dialling in from multiple locations. As a rule of thumb, you should either have everyone in the same room for a meeting or each person dialled in separately on video.
6. Do you share and celebrate work contributions as a process?
Work visibility can often be tough to achieve when your team is geographically distributed. To ensure your team members are appreciated for their contributions, it's important you set simple processes to promote their work.
For example, InVision uses a tool called Bonusly where team members can publicly award each other a nominal sum of money to express appreciation of their work. Basecamp has a process to share your daily work achievements team-wide where others can publicly comment and appreciate your work.
7. Do you share working hours and individual work timing preferences?
We learnt from our very recent survey of 331 remote workers that remote employees are probably working too much - 41% said they work more than 40 hours in a week!
You should actively discourage your employees from working long hours by creating boundaries and maintaining them. Additionally, each individual should share his/ her work timing preferences and communicate any changes publicly.
8. Do you screen for self-motivation during hiring?
Remote work is challenging and may not be suitable for everyone. It's important that you evaluate a candidate's motivation when hiring for a remote position. When I was chatting with Brenna Loury from Doist, she mentioned that individuals who are independent self-starters inevitably do well in remote positions. They look for cues during the hiring process to see if the candidate can work independently and perform well. Additionally, they also check if the candidate has a passion or hobby outside work.
9. Do you screen for communication during hiring?
Just last week, I wrote about how Basecamp checks whether a person can 'write' during the hiring process. They lay supreme important on writing as a skill since they understand that documentation is the ultimate source of truth in remote. It's critical that you have some component testing a candidate's communication skills during your hiring process.
10. Do you provide co-working/ conference perks?
Loneliness is arguably one of the biggest challenges remote workers face today. In this context, working out of co-working space once in a while or attending a conference brings in that much needed element of human interaction. As a company, you should not only encourage such socialization but also have incentives attached to promote it.
11. Do you schedule time for team socialization?
This can be as simple as having slack channels that cater to specific interests (InVision does this) or scheduling video calls where everyone talks about their interests or something interesting that's happened lately (Doist did this early on). This helps in team bonding and getting to know your teammates better.
12. Do you have at least one all-team in-person meet up every year?
You can do as much as you want to promote team bonding through the digital world, but nothing compares to an in-person meet. One onsite every six months or a year is ideal.
Finally, here's the simple calculator we put together again. I would love to hear from you on the score your team has :)
Remote Working Chronicles - Remote work helped me follow my passion and focus on personal life
Rhys is married to a research scientist and hence, there's a fair bit of travel involved. He's lived in Australia, Norway, Sweden and numerous other places with his wife and two kids. Rhys has been able to follow along and lead a great personal life primarily because his work isn't location constrained. However, it wasn't so easy for him at the start. He felt isolated due to lack of human interaction. But he tackled this well through simple measures like walks during lunch or coffee at his wife's workplace. There's a lot more colour to Rhys's story and I would highly recommend you to give it a read :)
As always, here are our top-picks of remote-first products:
✔️ Eureka helps streamline and automate employee onboarding
✔️ Naprok is an AI-powered marketplace to hire remote dev teams
✔️ Yourganize is a personal organizer to improve productivity
✔️ Subtask is a task/ project management tool
✔️ Tribepulse is an internal discussion platform for teams