How to Manage Remote Teams - Part 2
The second part of my comprehensive guide on effectively managing remote teams.
Last week, I published the first part of this guide on how to manage remote teams. If you missed it, I strongly recommend checking it out! 👇
In the previous part, we started by looking at the foundations of Remote Team Management, such as how to transition to a remote setting, establish useful guidelines for remote work, and communicate effectively in this context.
I received great feedback on the previous part, which is why I've made the second part even more juicy.
In this issue, we will cover:
🗺️ Time zones and cultural differences in remote environments
📈 How to manage performance and productivity in a remote environment
👥 How to hire remote engineers (🎁 includes a list of 35 interview questions to assess if candidates are suitable for remote work!)
⛑️ How to ensure work-life balance and prevent burnout
Just like in the first part of this guide, Luca Sartoni (formerly Director of Engineering at Automattic and now owner at Remote Leadership Works) will join us to share some tips based on his extensive experience in remote management.
There's a lot to cover, so let's get started!
🗺️ Time Zones and Cultural Differences
As you may have learned from the first part of this guide, managing remote teams is fundamentally about adaptation. Two of the most practical challenges you'll likely encounter, and where you'll need to adapt significantly, are differences in time zones and dealing with different cultures.
When you build a remote team, you have basically two options:
Build it within a similar time zone range, ideally with a maximum time difference of around 3 hours.
✅ Pros: easier team management and reduced need for asynchronous communication.
❌ Cons: limited talent pool and potentially challenging hiring process depending on your company's location.
Build it regardless of time zone constraints.
✅ Pros: access to a wider talent pool and ability to cover more hours in a day, which can be particularly beneficial for SRE (Site Reliability Engineering) teams.
❌ Cons: requires specific processes for team management, increased reliance on asynchronous communication.
Nicola: Hey Luca, welcome back! I know that at Automattic, you worked with teams across many different time zones. Could you share with our readers the best tips you've learned to make it work?
Luca: “Timezones exist just inside your head.” This is how my manager used to answer this very question.
Which is not far from true. I used to manage teams that spanned from India to US West Coast covering more than 12 timezones.
The only way to overcome the challenge was to carefully design every process to work asynchronously. Every decision making process was happening in writing, and without the need of synchronous interaction among parties. Everyone could participate and chime in, in their own preferred timezone.
It was challenging, but very effective, when properly oiled.
This is the reason I always think and work in UTC.
Cultural differences, already relevant in a traditional in-office environment, become even more amplified and challenging when managing remote teams.
Let's consider the following:
In an in-office setting, people are likely to live in the same country, and even if they come from diverse cultural backgrounds, they are inevitably influenced by the local country's culture.
Spending eight hours a day in the same worplace further contributes to building and acquiring a unique, shared culture.
However, managing remote teams presents a different scenario. Each individual's culture remains more prevalent and inevitably influences team dynamics.
This is not necessarily bad; in fact, if handled correctly, it's a great enrichment for a team. Numerous studies have demonstrated that diverse teams are more productive and drive more innovation.
Based on my experience, here's what you can do:
Take the time to learn about the different cultures of each team member. Read about them, or better yet, use coffee breaks to talk directly with your team members and gain a deeper understanding of their backgrounds.
Promote remote events where team members can learn about each other's cultures. This approach is not only useful but also enjoyable.
Establish clear rules of inclusivity and respect within your team that everyone must follow, and enforce these rules strictly. This can sometimes be challenging, as there are cultures where certain behaviors or communication styles are common but might be perceived differently by others. Therefore, it's crucial to create an environment where mutual understanding and respect are prioritized.
📈 Managing Performance and Productivity
In the context of remote engineering management, maintaining high levels of performance and productivity doesn't differ much from an in-office environment in terms of objectives. However, for obvious reasons, it does differ in terms of challenges and approaches.
Nicola: What were the major challenges you faced in managing performance and productivity remotely, and how did you overcome them?
Luca: Managing performance in a remote environment gets challenging when performance are measured via the wrong proxies such as inputs, or outputs. When you start measuring performance via the outcomes, things gets easier.
Inputs, like work hours, are really challenging to track properly without getting into the realm of invasive control of the employees.
Outputs, like lines of code, commits, PRs, or email replies, are easier to track, monitor, and evaluate. However they don’t say much beside how much people do, rather than how much value is created.
Outcomes, like happy customers, product performance, problems solved are much better indicators of performance because they are easy to track and tell complete stories about the value created.
Setting Clear Expectations
While in a physical environment, it's easy to continuously adjust your expectations and guide interactions, in a remote team, this can be more challenging. That's why setting clear expectations becomes crucial.
Here are three main suggestions:
Define Roles and Responsibilities: clearly articulate the roles, responsibilities, and expectations for each team member. This clarity helps align individual goals with the team's objectives and reduces ambiguity.
Establish Performance Metrics: develop Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound (SMART) goals.
Communicate Expectations: communicate and document these expectations through formal channels like performance agreements or informal check-ins, ensuring that team members understand what is expected of them.
Leveraging Technology for Productivity
While tools are useless without establishing good processes beforehand, they still play an important role.
I'm a big fan of tools, and while you will never find the perfect ones, it's crucial to choose the right ones for your specific needs. Here are my suggestions when it comes to using tools in remote environments:
Opt for a limited set of tools and stick with them for years. The tech world evolves rapidly, with new tools emerging daily. The temptation to switch to new tools with shiny features is high, but it comes at a cost: frustration, a steep learning curve, process disruption, and more. I'm not saying you should never change tools, but do so thoughtfully.
Avoid building internal tools unless it's absolutely necessary. Remote environments present unique challenges, and the temptation to create custom solutions tailored to your needs is ever-present. Been there, done that. While there are situations where it makes sense, in my experience, it often results in a significant investment in both building and maintaining the tool, resources that could be better used to create value for your customers.
Consider opting for annual plans: this might face some resistance from your finance department, but it offers two main benefits: cost savings (annual plans are typically cheaper) and an added incentive to commit to the chosen tool.
Fostering a culture of continuous feedback is crucial for an Engineering Manager, and it becomes even more vital in a remote environment where the natural, in-person feedback is absent. So, how can you achieve this?
✅ Regular Check-Ins: we've already covered this point in the first part of this guide and in previous newsletter issues. It's simply crucial.
📈 Performance Reviews: this is a huge topic that I plan to cover in a future newsletter issue. Here's what I can say for now:
As Luca also highlighted, avoid focusing on working hours and physical presence to measure performance.
Define your team's standards and expectations and ensure they are met.
Shift the focus from individual performance to team performance.
🗣️ Cultivate a Feedback Culture: this is perhaps the most challenging but fundamental aspect to develop in a remote team. Providing continuous feedback to your team is important, but creating a culture where feedback is encouraged and valued is even more critical. This includes both peer-to-peer feedback and upward feedback for managers.
Building a Culture of Shared Leadership
Traditional, old-style management has often promoted the idea of one person in command controlling their teams. Fortunately, this idea has evolved (at least in the technology environment) over the last 15-20 years or so.
In a remote environment, I believe the opposite approach is even more relevant: what I call "shared leadership".
If controlling people is challenging (and wrong) in a physical environment, it's nearly impossible in a remote one, speaking from experience. What I've learned over the years is that it's more effective to trust people, hold them accountable for their initiatives, and empower them to succeed, rather than attempting to micro-manage and control them. As mentioned, this concept becomes crucial in a remote environment.
👥 Hiring Remote Engineers
As an Engineering Manager, hiring is one of your main duties, and fortunately, people in the tech field today are used to remote interviews.
I have already extensively written about creating a great hiring process, selecting candidates who will stay, and much more. I have collected all these articles in the Hiring learning track for your convenience.
Hiring remotely doesn't differ significantly from hiring in person; there are just a few things to consider:
Always ask candidates to turn on their camera, as body language is an important element during hiring sessions.
Ensure to give proper consideration to assessing if a candidate is suitable for remote work; it's not suitable for everyone.
Regarding the latter, I have compiled a list of 35 questions I wrote, collected and used when interviewing candidates for fully remote positions to assess their suitability for remote work. You can get the Notion template here 👇
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