Remote work comes with its share of opportunities and challenges—and misconceptions, from the notion that overcommunicating is a substitute for communicating well, to it being “easier” to work at home, to the idea that remote workers are always online and “not really working” if they’re not quick enough to reply on Slack.
Engineering leaders need to make sure we provide our teams paths forward, and that our in-office defaults or our own physical locations don’t put remote engineers at a disadvantage.
This makes it essential for managers to reflect and understand how to be more effective leaders. At BuzzFeed, where I’m VP of engineering, this has meant redefining how I can best support my remote teams. In many ways, the expectations for remote leaders on remote teams aren’t any different than they are for leaders of teams where some or all members are going into an office: We should be present, we should be easily accessible and establish the right avenues for individuals to reach out to us, we should be transparent, and, most importantly, we should communicate often and proactively. Still, there are some things that are different when tailored to the realities of remote work.
As tech has shifted to a more remote-friendly culture over the years, I’ve noticed that people on my teams have started to think more about change. Change begets change—and sometimes this means change from an in-office role to a remote role, or thinking about how a remote role can evolve when there isn’t necessarily a precedent for it in an organization. Team members began to ask more questions about their growth, their career paths, and how their performance was going to be evaluated in a remote context. Engineering leaders need to make sure we provide our teams paths forward, and that our in-office defaults or our own physical locations don’t put remote engineers at a disadvantage.
I began working with my teams to think through some of the questions remote engineers may be asking as they forge their career paths. In true BuzzFeed style, here are the top six questions you’ll need to answer as you set up your teams for remote career success.
At BuzzFeed Tech, we’ve relied on a number of formal parameters that highlight what we measure as people progress in their careers. These range from career ladders to leadership principles that we believe every individual should strive to uphold. Whatever documents or guidance you have for your teams, you need to make sure that what you’re holding them accountable to can be clearly measured. That measurement can be quantified in a range of ways, including a scale, yes or no questions, or even numerical values. These measurements should be determined by looking at how you evaluate individuals for growth and then deciding, through that criteria, what you value most. The most important point here is that these goals are easy for managers to measure and easy for an employee to understand. And these expectations should be consistent regardless of whether you’re remote or not—so it’s important to start with this as a foundation that keeps the ground level.
Demonstrate that you want folks to grow based on the quality of their work and impact—not just how visible their achievements are.
On co-located teams, visibility is often thought of somewhat literally: being present in an office or active on Slack, attending stand-ups, participating in planning meetings, hanging out at the friendship table, etc. (Yes, we have a “friendship table” at BuzzFeed Tech where we hang out, celebrate, and come together as a team.) For remote team members, it’s easy to define visibility by their presence on Slack, email, PRs, and on Google Meet or Zoom. But that’s not how I like to define visibility, because it doesn’t offer an equal opportunity for everyone. Not everyone is going to be Slacking away all day. Not everyone has the same demeanor on video calls that they may have in person. Visibility on remote teams is fluid, and those traditional definitions and expectations of where and when a person is seen are less important. I like to focus instead on the work itself, its impact, and its delivery.
At the end of the day, we’re all driving on a given roadmap, with projects that need to be delivered on a given timeline. The delivery of those and how thoroughly completed projects are is really what matters. As a leader, you’d do well to clearly message this to your team. Demonstrate that you want folks to grow based on the quality of their work and impact—not just how visible their achievements are.
Communication plays an important role in remote success, and many leaders of remote teams or team members will pay close attention to it. The expectation shouldn’t necessarily be overcommunication—it’s more about tighter communication and follow-through. I recommend that you expect remote team members to communicate regularly and proactively with their peers, manager, stakeholders, or whoever it is they’re accountable to. It should be an equal playing field: Everyone should be expected to have the same type and amount of communication regardless of where they are. That communication can happen in a few ways, through a few mediums, and it can be asynchronous or synchronous.
Be aware that asynchronous communication work is often undervalued and underacknowledged. Your team members may be demonstrating it via means that aren’t flashy, like note-taking and follow-up docs. An impactful thing you can do as a leader to help validate and acknowledge this work is to ensure communication is on your org’s career ladder as part of the opportunity for folks to grow to the next level. For remote teams—or any team, for that matter—asynchronous communication is the glue that keeps the conversation going, helps everyone stay up to date, and enables both collaboration and autonomous productivity. Treating it as essential is, well, essential.
When it comes to deliverables, written documentation of expectations clarifies ambiguity and provides a digital paper trail for teams to refer back to. Moreover, written documentation is more important than ever—if remote developers are empowered to learn, research, and get unblocked asynchronously, they’ll be better able to deliver.
At a project level, BuzzFeed started to standardize a minimum set of deliverables a team should have for processes like project discovery, project kickoff, and outlining tech specifications (we call these RFCs, requests for comments) and data requirements. This standardized approach means engineers know exactly what to expect and can invest more energy into the deliverables themselves.
The discoverability and organization of this documentation is also pretty important for everyone (not just remote folks), so it’s key that you set up the right type of taxonomy and naming conventions and make decisions on where these deliverables should live. (We’re working through this right now at BuzzFeed, and we feel it’s best that all teams start with the same “home base” and then use that to link to other document repositories such as Google Docs, Confluence, or GitHub, to name a few.)
When it comes to someone’s career growth, written documentation of what and how they’ve delivered can be the basis for their future promotion. For many folks on my team, I’ve created and shared 1:1 docs to keep track of our discussions and decisions that either the manager or the report can refer to whenever we need to. For both project deliverables and personal deliverables, having something tangible to reference offers accountability, regardless of whether a person is remote or not. This means your team members will have a clear idea of how their output is tracking, and they’ll be well positioned to have conversations about how to progress their work to the next level.
That unified roadmap and its tributaries—the individual roadmaps—also clearly communicate the outcomes we aim to achieve.
An effective leader should be proactively identifying growth opportunities for members of their team while also paying attention to what kind of growth their reports are looking for. Growth can vary from person to person, and leaders should make sure they understand those variations. Some examples of growth could be taking on additional scope for a project, working with stakeholders outside of your tech or engineering org, or even starting to mentor others on the team. Most importantly, remote employees should make sure they have a full understanding of where teams are going and how they plan on getting there.
Most recently at BuzzFeed Tech, we’ve been taking a renewed look at how we provide transparency on roadmaps across the organization. We’re working toward an online view of the work distributed across all the tech teams—a unified roadmap—that allows anyone in the company to dig deeper into that work, what we’re investing in, and how it all eventually ladders up to themes. The themes are often part of a larger business plan (e.g., retention, monetization, user acquisition). That unified roadmap and its tributaries—the individual roadmaps—also clearly communicate the outcomes we aim to achieve. The roadmap is new and still evolving, but part of its impact in being so transparent is that it provides learnings individuals can apply to their own personal career growth. Having an end-to-end view of what’s happening in the organization, and one that can easily be broken down, is a really useful tool for managers and their reports alike to identify individual growth opportunities.
Many organizations may not have something designed or implemented in this particular way. That’s not a requirement to have an impact—it’s about developing a system that works for you and that offers an overarching view. If teams can use that system to define their goals, how they’re measured, and how individuals are held accountable, then they have what they need to put together a plan for growth.
Last but not least, remote leadership and working with remote teams can bring the topic of flexibility between work and life front and center. Flexibility can come in many different forms—perhaps someone is a parent, a caretaker, a night owl, or has physical therapy twice a week. Scheduling flexibility and career growth should not be tied together, and it’s a manager’s job to ensure this is true and not just talk. If anything, managers and leaders should encourage and model work-life flexibility so teams can move forward on their paths in the ways that work best for them.
Leaders can communicate these things in a few ways, and documenting it can be a good, accountable option here. Another technique is to make sure folks are transparent about their availability. I’m a big fan of Slack’s status bar and use it throughout the day. I also keep my calendar public so folks know my schedule: If something is blocked, they know to schedule around it and not make any assumptions, and I offer the same consideration in turn. If we ensure our overall expectations and measurements are clear, making room for flexibility should be a nonissue.
As we continue to evolve what it means to be remote first in our industry, I think we’ll see encouraging shifts in the way we work and collaborate. Engineering leaders play an important role in promoting communication and active asynchronous participation in order to make remote really successful. Through it all, it’s up to managers and leaders not just to assure remote team members they have a path for career growth, but to ensure that path doesn’t just wind through the land of the physical office and its defaults and expectations. Team members should know that they are not out of sight, out of mind, and that their managers have calibrated their expectations to align with a productive and balanced remote work experience. It’s up to us—leaders who can influence career paths and change—to ensure those paths are available and accessible for everyone.