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April 26, 2022

What Does an Organization Need in Order to Thrive in a Remote-First World?

By Matthew Skelton ,Manuel Pais

A remote-first way of working requires a new mindset from organizations. This excerpt from the Remote Team Interactions Workbook by Team Topologies coauthors Matthew Skelton and Manuel Pais explores some of the techniques that can help organizations adopt an effective remote-first approach.


Many organizations have found, to their dismay, that rolling out a new chat tool for staff working remotely does not magically make the organization remote-first. A viable remote-first approach needs more than just chat and video tools. Certainly, tools are needed and useful, but for a successful digital transformation—whether colocated or remote-first—the organization also needs good psychological safety and an effective set of “ground rules” and practices for teams to use for working together.

An example of this is Google’s five keys to successful teams. As they lay out, “Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.” They describe these five key dynamics as:

  1. Psychological safety: Can teams take risks without feeling insecure?
  2. Dependability: Can teams count on one another?
  3. Structure and clarity: Are there clear goals, roles, and execution plans?
  4. Meaning of work: Is the work personally important to the team?
  5. Impact of work: Does the team believe the work matters? 

Clear ground rules and practices define ways of working, set expectations, and provide easy-to-recognize patterns and modes of behavior that make it easy for people to work in well-defined ways. In particular, well-defined team interactions clarify the relationships between different groups in the organization and the purpose of different activities. This in turn helps to minimize the cognitive load on teams and provides more “head space” for focusing on the most important aspects of work within the organization.

Broadly speaking, cognitive load is the amount of mental effort being used on a task or set of tasks. For teams, you can think of cognitive load as the collective amount of mental effort being used by the team.

Cognitive Load Assessment

You can use this survey template as a starting point to assess the overall cognitive load of your team. Answer each question on a scale of 1 (very poor) to 5 (very good).

  1. How is the experience of building your services? Things to consider: Is building a clear and repeatable task? Is it fast “enough”? What happens when builds fail? Are failures easy to diagnose?
  2. How is the experience of testing your services? Things to consider: Is testing a clear and repeatable task? Is it fast “enough”? What happens when tests fail? Are failures easy to diagnose? Are test environments adequate? Are test environments easy to access/ spin up/clean up/inject test data into?
  3. How is the experience of deploying your services? Things to consider: Are deployments a clear and repeatable task? Do you know what the deployment strategy is? What happens when deployments fail? Is it possible and straightforward to roll back a failed deployment? Do you have access to the necessary logs to understand why a deployment failed and/or its current status?   
  4. How is the experience of operating your services? Things to consider: Do you know how each service is being monitored? Do you have access to the data? Are adequate alerts (few false positives) being sent? Are logs and information accessible and easy to find? Are data flows across services relatively easy to follow?
  5. How is the experience of being on call for your services? Things to consider: Do you know what the incident response procedure is? Do you feel you have enough experience (either real or simulated) to deal with incidents without high levels of stress? Do you know who to reach out to for help during an incident when you’re on call? Would you be anxious about a 3 a.m. outage? What about an incident in a service that hasn’t been modified for months or years?
  6. How is the experience of dealing with health industry regulations and compliance? Things to consider: Do you feel you have sufficient awareness to raise questions on changes that might require compliance oversight or at least a quick debrief? Are you confident that you know which industry regulations are of concern for your services? If yes, do you feel that this knowledge is being refreshed often enough?
  7. Would you like to comment on your overall engineering experience?

Notice that questions #1 through #5 focus on the experience of building, testing, deploying, and supporting software services, so they are broadly applicable. However, question #6 is specific to an organization working in the healthcare industry. It is included as an example of the kind of context-specific questions you will need to use in order to assess other aspects that might be causing high cognitive load for your teams. The point is that this form is just a starting point. You will need to adapt and expand it to your organization’s specific needs.

You can access an online form of this assessment here: GitHub.com/TeamTopologies/Team-Cognitive-Load-Assessment.


Read more in the Remote Team Interactions Workbook by Matthew Skelton and Manuel Pais.

- About The Authors
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Matthew Skelton

Matthew Skelton has been building, deploying, and operating commercial software systems since 1998. Head of Consulting at Conflux (confluxdigital.net), he specialises in Continuous Delivery, operability and organisation design for software in manufacturing, ecommerce, and online services, including cloud, IoT, and embedded software.

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Manuel Pais

Manuel Pais is a DevOps and Delivery Coach and Consultant, focused on teams and flow first. He helps organizations adopt test automation and continuous delivery, as well as understand DevOps from both technical and human perspectives. Manuel has been in the industry since 2000, having worked in Belgium, Portugal, Spain, and the UK.

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