Discover more from The Hybrid Hacker
How to Manage Remote Teams - Part 1
A comprehensive guide on effectively managing remote teams.
In the past couple of years, due to the pandemic, we've heard a lot of talk about remote working, especially in the tech field.
When people think about remote working, they often believe it looks like you wearing your pyjamas in front of your laptop, or maybe even lounging on the couch with a cup of coffee in hand, or why not... lying on a beach with your laptop and drinking your favorite cocktail!🍹
I'm sorry to inform you that this is not quite what it looks like.
While remote working undoubtedly offers many interesting benefits, it also represents a different approach to work that requires building a particular skill set and establishing dedicated processes. This is especially true for Remote Engineering Managers and Leaders.
For this reason, I've decided to write this guide, which will cover all the most important aspects of managing a remote team. When discussing remote working, there's a lot of philosophy and ethics involved, but for the scope of this guide, I've done my best to keep it practical and actionable. Also, due to the multitude of topics we will need to cover, this guide will be split into multiple parts.
Last but not least, even though I have over 15 years of experience in managing remote teams, since the topic is vast and complex, I wanted to invite someone who also has extensive experience, having worked for one of the most famous fully remote companies, to provide a different point of view: Luca Sartoni.
Me: Hi Luca! Could you briefly introduce yourself and share more about your experience with remote working?
Luca: I've spent over twenty years in the digital field, holding various roles. My experience stretches from being a software engineer and system integrator to a marketing executive in several startups. For the past ten years, I've led development teams at Automattic. This company is responsible for WordPress.com, Jetpack, Tumblr, and other products.
My career has always involved some degree of remote work. At Automattic, I fully adopted a distributed model; there was no central headquarters, no physical offices, and no requirement to be in a specific location.
I now run Remote Leadership Works, facilitating ambitious leaders to realize their potential, enabling them to explore and transform their vision.
Typo is a Software delivery intelligence platform that enables modern software teams with visibility, insights & tools to code better, deploy faster & stay aligned with business goals.
Typo is sponsoring this newsletter issue and is offering The Hybrid Hacker readers a 20% discount on their paid plan (just contact them and say you are coming from The Hybrid Hacker newsletter). I tried Typo first-hand and was impressed by the amount of data they gather and how they aggregate it.
🔄 Transitioning to Remote Management
Before diving into the practices of Remote Team Management, it's crucial to understand that transitioning from a traditional office setting to managing a team remotely involves more than just overcoming logistical challenges. It fundamentally requires adapting to a new form of interaction that heavily relies on trust, communication, and the effective use of technology.
Preparing Your Mindset
The initial shift should begin with your mindset as a Manager or Leader. The primary recommendation, based on my direct experience, is to embrace patience and flexibility.
Managing a remote team can sometimes feel slower compared to in-person management due to the delayed feedback you receive. In a physical office environment, feedback naturally flows more quickly. You can easily:
Engage in conversations
Observe body language
Understand interactions among your team members
While achieving these aspects is possible in a remote setting, it is undeniably more challenging and less immediate. Being prepared for this, especially when transitioning from in-person to remote management, is crucial and can help you avoid a lot of frustration.
Adapting Traditional Management to Remote Environments
In terms of theory, remote team management doesn't differ significantly from traditional in-person management. The underlying principles remain the same, but certain aspects need adaptation and particular attention to fit the remote context.
The key elements to consider include:
Trust and Autonomy
As I mentioned earlier, while remote work and management offer numerous benefits, they also present various challenges. Some of these challenges may include:
Communication Gaps: without in-person meetings, misunderstandings may occur due to limited communication cues.
Isolation: remote work can lead to feelings of isolation among team members. It's essential to create opportunities for virtual social interaction and collaboration to avoid this.
Lack of a Physical Workspace: not everyone has an ideal home environment for work, which can range from insufficient space to other challenges. Acknowledging and addressing these issues is important.
Cultural Barriers: remote teams often consist of individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds. Without face-to-face interactions, cultural misunderstandings become more likely and can be challenging to resolve.
Nicola: Can you share a particular challenge you faced while managing remotely and how you addressed it?
Luca: Trust is the bedrock of an effective team. Success flourishes when people have faith in each other and their organization. It's simpler to foster this trust in a workplace where people work closely together. In essence, when they work side by side.
Building trust becomes a more challenging task when people work remotely. We can't depend on the basic survival instinct that naturally creates trust among mammals sharing the same space.
We must purposefully build, nurture, and boost trust with our remote teams.
I have found that three intentional practices build trust with my remote teams:
justice in the performance evaluation
📜 Establishing Remote Work Guidelines
In any work environment, having common guidelines to ensure alignment and promote effective collaboration among team members is standard. In remote work, this is even more crucial.
This doesn't require imposing more rules but focusing on specific areas to ensure seamless collaboration and communication. These guidelines provide clarity for both team members and management.
Documenting these guidelines, even if they seem obvious, is essential. Explicitly articulating them, which might not be necessary in person, facilitates alignment and prevents misunderstandings.
Defining Work Hours and Availability
Remote work isn't always entirely asynchronous, and it's not accurate to assume that everyone can work whenever they choose. While some companies embrace flexible and fully asynchronous work, most remote scenarios require a balanced approach.
If replicating the exact 9-5 in-person job experience, where you are always available since you are sitting at your desk, would remove any benefits of working remotely, I believe it's important for people to feel the presence of you as the manager, as well as of their teammates.
This doesn't necessarily mean being at your home desk for 8 hours a day, ready to respond to every message instantly. Instead, it means conveying your presence in a meaningful way. Simple actions such as:
👋 Greeting colleagues when you start your workday and saying goodbye when you finish
🚦 Using status indicators in chat tools when you are away, sick, running errands, or on vacation
☕ Engaging in coffee breaks with your teammates
🎉 Establishing shared rituals (as also suggested by Luca)
📅 Scheduling recurring meetings involving the entire team
These small habits can significantly bridge the gap created by physical distance while preserving the advantages of remote work.
While feeling the presence is important, it is equally crucial to ensure that your team members do not overwork or feel the pressure to stay at their desks excessively.
Once again, straightforward measures like:
📴 Ensuring that your team takes fully disconnected time
🌙 Discouraging work during nights and weekends (unless mutually agreed upon and compensated with time off)
☕ Encouraging regular breaks during the day
🤹 Allowing flexibility for team members to balance other activities with their work during the day
A few months ago, I also wrote an article on balancing availability and accountability, which may offer valuable insights into addressing this topic.
As we will explore in later sections of this guide, communication is probably the most important aspect of remote work. Therefore, it is fundamental to provide your teams with guidelines regarding the protocols they should follow and in which situations.
These guidelines should include:
The appropriate use of synchronous methods (e.g., video calls) versus asynchronous methods (e.g., emails, task management tools) for communication.
Basic rules of engagement, such being on time in meetings and enabling your camera whenever possible.
Tools for specific types of communication and their intended purposes.
Nicola: What communication protocols have you found to be most effective for remote teams?
Luca: In my career, I had the privilege of working with Erin Casali, who published “The Three Speeds of Collaboration: Tool Selection and Culture Fit". I would not do it justice, so I won't try to explain it. It's a masterpiece about remote communication.
Data security and privacy
In a company with a strong remote work culture, you probably have security rules. As a remote team manager, your role is ensuring your team follows these rules, understands risks, and pays attention to detail to prevent security issues affecting the entire company.
🗣️ Communication in a Remote Setting
Communication is vital in remote management. One key lesson from my years of remote team management is the value of over-communication.
Engineers tend to be pragmatic, but in remote work, it's crucial to ensure clear communication to the whole team. Reiterating key points can be surprisingly effective.
I previously discussed effective communication for managers in a newsletter. Many principles from that article apply to remote environments.
Balancing Synchronous and Asynchronous Communication
When it comes to remote work, finding the right mix of real-time and delayed communication is crucial. Synchronous communication happens instantly, such as video calls and chats, while asynchronous communication includes emails, shared documents, and project management tools.
Getting this balance right is essential for remote teams to work well together. Here's why it matters:
Respect Work Styles: use asynchronous communication for non-urgent matters to allow team members to focus on their work efficiently.
Manage Time Zones: consider global time differences in meetings to avoid disrupting team members' off-hours.
Limit Meetings: avoid excessive real-time meetings to prevent meeting fatigue; balance with asynchronous communication.
Maintain Records: asynchronous communication provides a valuable record of discussions and decisions, aiding in tracking progress, accountability, and onboarding new team members.
To find the right balance, it's essential to define and document urgency and its criteria. In doing this exercise, you'll notice that approximately 80-90% of your communication can happen asynchronously. It's mostly a matter of establishing this habit.
Effective Virtual Meetings and Team Check-Ins
Virtual meetings and team check-ins are essential for maintaining alignment and collaboration within remote teams. To make these interactions productive and engaging, consider the following tips:
📌 Clear Objectives: clearly state the meeting's purpose so participants are prepared.
📹 Turn on your Camera: choose video over audio for better communication and connection.
📅 Agenda and Time: plan ahead and stick to time limits for focused and efficient meetings.
🤝 Active Participation: encourage everyone to contribute and collaborate.
📝 Post-Meeting Recap: share meeting notes, action items, and key points to keep everyone informed.
Nicola: What are your tips for conducting effective virtual meetings and team check-ins?
Luca: Start on time, end on time, and make it effective.
Meetings are the most expensive activity you can do as a team. Most of the time, they are a waste of resources because we allow slack into our rituals.
I suggest having a solid discipline around meetings to get the most out of them. It all starts with starting and ending meetings on time.
When people are respectful of other people's time, they'll trust the process more. Also, they'll learn how to prioritize their contribution to the meetings. Effectiveness can be achieved by asking ourselves, "What is the purpose of this meeting?" and then trying to answer the question. If we reach our goal, we keep going. If not, we need to iterate.
Today we covered a lot, let’s summarize the key points:
Manager Mindset: embrace patience and flexibility as a manager
Remote Management Principles: focus on Communication, Presence, Team Building, Trust & Autonomy
Challenges: address Communication Gaps, Isolation, Workspace, Cultural Barriers
Effective Remote Management: use shared rituals, fair performance evaluation, accountability
Guidelines: establish Remote Work Guidelines for clarity
Work Hours: define guidelines for availability
Communication Protocols: cover sync vs. async methods and rules
Data Security: prioritize security and privacy in remote work
Balance Communication: define urgency and when to use sync over async communication
Effective Meetings: set objectives, use video, manage time, encourage participation, follow up.
This brings us to the end of the first part of this guide. In the next part, we will see other important aspects of Remote Engineering Management, such as managing performance and productivity, knowledge sharing, time zones, work-life balance, tools and much more.
That’s all folks
That's all for today! As always, I would love to hear from my readers (and if you've made it this far, you're definitely one of the bravest). Please don't hesitate to connect with me on LinkedIn and send a message. I always respond to everyone!