How to Run a Successful Remote SaaS Operations Team

This article was originally published in New Stack.

More and more companies have gone remote with surprising benefits — a trend that has been building for years. A survey by Global Workplace Analytics and FlexJobs indicates that remote work has grown 91% over the last 10 years, and 159% over the last 15 years. The COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the relevance of remote work (including remote IT operations) to a new level. New operating models for business and technology organizations are being developed and implemented right now, which may have enduring effects on the nature of the workplace. One of these models concerns how tech organizations support SaaS applications.

SaaSOps is a relatively new practice referring to how SaaS applications are managed and secured through centralized and automated operations, resulting in reduced friction, improved collaboration, and better user experience. The core challenges of running a remote SaaSOps team are universally known: how to collaborate effectively with distributed teams and build an effective team culture.

Other challenges of remote SaaS Ops include:

  • Availability of the right infrastructure/tools. Running a global SaaS Ops team remotely depends upon the availability of reliable infrastructure to support a 24 x 7 operation. The absence of proper infrastructure can be exacerbated if you have remote teams working in rural areas, where organizations will have to invest in uninterrupted power supply and solid internet bandwidth. This is particularly the case in developing countries such as India, where many U.S. companies have remote IT staff.
  • The culture and knowledge gap. The cultural and knowledge gap can be vast across different locations. For example, in India, SaaSOps is misunderstood as an extension of the traditional network operations center (NOC). Standard NOC teams lack end-to-end ownership and depend primarily on ticket escalations to solve an issue. Yet successful SaaSOps teams in the U.S. require empowered individuals to take complete ownership and make decisions independently. But this is not just an issue with an offshore team: remote teams even in the same country can struggle with collaboration and may have varying degrees of skills in modern Agile and DevOps practices needed to be effective.
  • The talent gap. Building a remote team across different geographies depends upon finding the right talent. In certain geographies, there’s just not as many candidates possessing the required skills. For example, people who are adept at Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) skills are common in Silicon Valley and other major tech centers but might be lacking in other countries or even in certain regions of the Midwest or South.
  • Sustaining motivation. In some cases, attrition might be high across remote SaaSOps teams if they feel disconnected from the home office. While COVID-19 has made this challenge more universal and video collaboration tools are helping bridge the divide, engaging and motivating distributed teams can be a difficult task. The global pandemic has also created new sources of stress for employees — from financial ones to social and emotional ones.

Sensible Solutions to Common Challenges

Running a remote SaaSOps team can be a massive challenge with distributed staff, communication challenges and infrastructure gaps. Yet by following a few innovative methods, it’s possible to keep the team together and productive.

  1. Engage in Creative Infrastructure Planning
    It’s possible to run a world-class SaaS product from anywhere in the world, even in underdeveloped rural areas. As an example, our company built a state-of-the-art campus in Bhimavaram, India, one that wouldn’t be out of place in Cupertino or Singapore. The campus has plenty of young talented engineers who are able to get the job done with stable internet connectivity and modern IT infrastructure. We ensure uninterrupted power supply, fast internet speeds and an excellent work-life balance. This helps remote and distributed teams feel connected to our central offices.
  2. Empower Teams with Ownership
    While some organizations do not advocate for independent leadership and ownership, many employees relish the chance to have responsibility and make decisions — even if they’ve never had the opportunity to do so before. In SaaS Ops, this could entail assigning team members responsibility for a specific geography so that they can take ownership for the health of the entire point of delivery (PoD). The PoD owner is encouraged to learn the entire PoD architecture and schema so that the teams gain an end-to-end perspective. Remote teams are more productive and deliver higher quality in the long run when leaders encourage and facilitate independence, self-learning, accountability and ownership.
  3. Bridge the Talent Gap with On-the-Job Learning
    When experts are not readily available, you need to create your own. Develop a bias for hackers who can quickly learn new technologies and frameworks. This can be more effective and cheaper than traditional, formalized training methods. Assign mentors who guide new staff on the job and develop a process for training individuals on a specific set of job roles. You may find that left to their own devices, employees will gladly create their own path to learning through self-help and teaming up with colleagues they like and respect.
  4. Address Motivation through Automation and Goal-Tracking
    Too many redundant tasks and a lack of clarity on career paths are motivational killers. This is especially true for remote teams. Take advantage of the many advanced tools for IT automation to handle rudimentary tasks like incident routing or backups. Then, you can work on helping individuals expand their skill sets and not get stuck in a particular technology area. For example, people who do IT infrastructure management often wish to learn different disciplines within it, such as application maintenance, cloud monitoring, or automated deployments. Generally speaking, employees need exciting milestones to work toward and this may be even more important for WFH people. This Harvard Business Review article discusses various ways to motivate employees by developing a sense of purpose and passion in their daily workflows. Perks are still important. For a remote (and especially offshore) team, the opportunity to work in a Silicon Valley startup from a rural region has many advantages including visits to the home office for learning, team building and cultural assimilation along with standard employee benefits.

A Mindset Change

There has never been a time in history that has seen such a massive boom of remote employees distributed across the world. If managed and organized well, there is no better model to run teams. Remote teams bring access to a global talent pool, around-the-clock support and productivity, and the ability to let people live in rural areas rather than move to overcrowded cities. With the right tools, technologies and systems in place, this is the way of the future.

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