This article focuses on the change in collaboration practices within engineering and design teams caused by COVID-19. A specific focus is put on (1) the leader's perspective and (2) on hardware engineering and design teams. A mixed-methods research approach is conducted by quantitatively investigating 503 responses to a survey distributed in August 2021 and qualitatively looking at nine semi-structured interviews of engineering and design team leaders. The study population is formed by alumni of an in-depth mechatronics graduate-level course sequence at Stanford University called ME218. The semi-structured interview protocol was developed based on the CoSpaces Collaborative Working Model of Patel et al., 2012, out of which eight factors were identified to be crucial for remote engineering and design team collaboration. Qualitative content analysis confirms the factors technology tools, communication, informal networks, common ground, team relationship, and management and leadership and uncovers 34 entailing sub-factors. The interviews did not confirm the factors of trust and decision making. Moreover, two new themes were identified, namely meeting structures and work frameworks as well as remote hardware work. In further exploring the research questions of this thesis, 18 practical implications for current and future E&D team leaders on how to better manage remote collaboration are derived.
Keywords— remote teams; mixed methods research; remote leadership; remote hardware collaboration; remote hardware work; remote engineering work; COVID-19; hardware teams; mechatronics; alumni
On April 7th, 2020, 95 percent of Americans were required to shelter in place within their homes. As a result, organizations responded by changing their work arrangements and enabling a rapid shift to work from home for large segments of knowledge workers. Employees quickly adapted to digital technologies for performing their job regardless of how suited their home environment was to such settings. (DeFilippis et al., 2020) Research suggests that work from home will stick, and employees will enjoy considerable benefits from greater remote work. (Barrero et al., 2021)
Especially for hardware Engineering and Design (E&D) teams, this has caused significant disruption in collaboration. While software E&D teams were already equipped with frameworks (e.g., SCRUM) and tools (e.g., GitHub) for remote collaboration prior to COVID-19 (Marek et al., 2021), those dealing with hardware components faced completely new challenges.
The study behind this article seeks to answer the following research question: How can hardware E&D team leaders better manage remote collaboration? To answer this question, three research sub-questions are considered:
- What factors play the most important role in remote collaboration within hardware E&D teams?
- What challenges and changes occurred to these factors when comparing the pre-COVID-19 situation with the COVID-19 situation?
- What measures and practices are current leaders taking to manage these challenges and changes?
A mixed methods research approach is employed to answer these questions.
The quantitative part of the thesis is based on 503 survey responses. The analysis of this data is used to characterize the study population and filter for individuals suitable to interview for this study's research scope. Once having defined the interview sample, the methodology is shifted toward a qualitative approach.
First, theoretical sampling (Glaser & Strauss, 2017) is employed to identify the most suitable interviewees. Second, semi-structured interviews are conducted, whereby the interview protocol is based on a review of team and VT collaboration literature and structured to answer the three research sub-questions. The qualitative data are then analyzed using qualitative content analysis according to Gioia et al., 2013 to identify common patterns in interviewees' statements and derive propositions for current and future E&D team leaders on how to better manage remote collaboration.
Results & Implications
The qualitative data show that six of Patel et al., 2012's factors were verified by the interviewees as important for managing remote hardware E&D team collaboration, i.e. technology tools, communication, informal networks, common ground, team relationship, and management and leadership. In addition to that, two new factors emerged from the interview data. Firstly, the factor meeting structures and work frameworks describes how leaders adapted their meeting structures and collaboration frameworks over the pandemic. Secondly, due to the focus of this thesis, the topic of remote hardware work was very present throughout the interviews. Informants here describe how they worked on hardware in the remote setting, the logistical burden caused by it, and the best practices in translating this process into the digital world. Both new themes state addition to Patel et al., 2012's framework.
In aggregate, 34 sub-themes emerged in the interviews based on which the author could formulate the following propositions for hardware E&D team leaders on how to better manage their team's remote collaboration.
🛠️ Technology tools
The communication platform Slack was mentioned a lot during the interviews. It can help to maintain a positive team culture and enable informal communication. It is important to quickly decide on one communication tool and not allow various tools as this causes confusion within the team, and knowledge exchange becomes even more difficult. Once decided, a guide on how to use the tool properly must be established to maintain a shared understanding and psychological safety within the team.
🌐Communication, informal networks, and common ground
Dedicating time for socializing at the beginning and or the end of every online meeting (e.g., check-in and check-out) and offering dedicated virtual spaces for informal interactions allows team members to synch and bond regularly. To further reduce ambiguity for team members and ensure a common ground, repeated and immediate communication about the decisions and the current status quo from the leaders and the C-level is crucial. Regular leadership level meetings can enable this. Clear written documentation and communication can help distribute knowledge and stay on the same page. Communication needs to become more intentional and thought through, especially when presenting project work. A culture of information sharing is key in the online setting as background information is lost due to the lack of knowledge transfer in informal exchanges. As a leader, information sharing is best established by repeatedly giving examples of communication patterns that should be discussed publicly, e.g., in a public Slack channel, and by encouraging employees to have 1on1s with each other.
👨👩👧Team relationships, management and leadership
Especially senior engineers need to be encouraged to engage in mentoring activities as new hires struggle to integrate and build a shared understanding. Providing an avenue of constant and repetitive feedback to team members gives the feeling that the leader is reachable and present. The remote setting requires a more personalized leadership style but can also enable leaders to better spot the specific needs of individual team members. Regular 1-on-1 meetings with the team members help leaders identify those needs. Autonomy combined with official making decisions power can lead to more ownership and shared leadership. Who has the power to make decisions must be communicated throughout the organization to avoid frustrations. This can be achieved by, for example, introducing the role of 'direct responsible individuals' for certain projects or tasks.
🗓️Meeting structures and work frameworks
A high frequency of short reoccurring team meetings (e.g., stand-ups or dailys) enables employees to check in regularly and keeps the team aligned. Furthermore, 1-on-1 meetings are a good way for team leaders and members to synch on a deeper, individual level. Not only leader-member but also member-member and leader-leader 1-on-1 meetings should be held on a regular basis. Interviewees most often stated weekly leader-member 1-on-1 meetings, bi-weekly leader-leader 1-on-1 meetings, and tried to encourage member-member 1-on-1 meetings. Adopting the Scrum framework's sprint structure ensures the regular cadence of team meetings and, combined with frequently scheduled 1-on-1 meetings, helps maintain common ground.
👩🏾💻Remote hardware work
Helpful remote hardware tools include a cloud CAD system (e.g., Onshape), the annotation option of GoToMeeting, which can help create a collaborative remote work environment in the design and drawing phase, and interviewees stated their company provided 3D printers for the home office. When prototyping, progress can be shared via short videos, video conferencing, pictures, or CAD files. Replicating prototypes and shipping them around can make remote hardware work possible. Most interviewees stated that if there is the option to enable engineers to come on-site again and the logistical burden is limited, it is most beneficial to bring them on-site.
The infographic linked HERE summarizes the mentioned propositions.
This study contributes to the existing literature on E&D team collaboration with a specific focus on (1) the leader's perspective, and (2) hardware E&D teams. Furthermore, the findings of this piece are of use to practicing engineering teams and team leaders whose work involves collaboration and hardware, increasingly in remote settings.
When discussing the findings and suggested propositions in light of Patel et al., 2012's CCWM and the latest literature on VT collaboration every of the mentioned propositions could be supported. Due to the nature of semi structured interviews these findings might not be strictly objective. There might also be a limited generalizability as only nine interviews were conducted and the focus of this study is on a very specific interview group namely, ME218 alumni who are currently leading E&D teams.
The thesis behind this article sheds light on how E&D team leaders can better manage the remote collaboration of their teams. A specific focus is put on (1) the leader's perspective, and (2) on hardware E&D teams. A mixed-methods research approach was conducted by investigating quantitative survey data and qualitative semi-structured interview data of Stanford ME218 Alumni amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. In the quantitative part of this study, 503 responses to a survey distributed in August 2021 were analyzed to determine a select group of E&D team leaders to be interviewed. The qualitative analysis is based on nine interviews. A semi-structured interview protocol was developed based on the CCWM of Patel et al., 2012, out of which eight factors were identified to be particularly important for remote E&D team collaboration. Qualitative content analysis confirms six of these eight factors and uncovers two newly emerged themes, namely meeting structures and work frameworks as well as remote hardware work. In further exploring the research questions, practical implications for current and future E&D team leaders on how to better manage remote collaboration are derived.
This executive summary is based on Lamprecht (2022) Key components of effective remote engineering work, [Master's thesis], Stanford University & Technical University of Munich
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Johannes Josef Lorenz Lamprecht
To access the full manuscript please contact Johannes.email@example.com