A primer on managing remotely

If the events of 2020 mean you’re a newly remote engineering manager and you’re still trying to get things right, start here.
Part of
Issue 15 November 2020


Pre-COVID, developing management techniques for remote engineers and ensuring the harmonious functioning and communication of distributed engineering teams was the domain of a small but passionate group of folks. While remote work has increased 400 percent over the last decade, not all engineers are given the tools and resources they need to adapt and thrive in a remote environment. At most companies, the number of remote engineers remained zero to a handful.

At companies most successful in transitioning to remote work, a remote-first philosophy has long prevailed—that is, treating everyone as if they’re remote to level the playing field and ensure all team members are equally involved and engaged. For example, instead of booking a meeting room, all team members might dial in to a meeting, regardless of whether they’re in the office or remote. Today, by necessity, pretty much every engineering organization is remote or distributed. Many organizations may decide to embrace this approach for the long haul. While “remote first” is a good starting point, management of these newly remote or distributed teams, composed of team members who may not, in other times, have opted to work outside HQ, requires additional thought and planning to keep communication not only going, but flowing.

Good communication goes beyond anticipating ways remote employees might miss structured communications like scheduled meetings. Remote workers, by definition, can’t benefit from in-person, situational communication like ad hoc meetings, “watercooler” conversations, or a quick visit to a coworker’s desk to discuss a problem. Without digital replacements for these in-person communication channels, teams that lack prior experience with remote work may suffer from the problem of remote workers being out of sight, out of mind. We can expect this issue to be exacerbated among entirely remote teams.

Learning to communicate entirely remotely can be like learning a new language with a vocabulary, structure, and nonverbal cues all its own. To communicate well in this context, we need to leverage approaches that support clear, concise, and accurate communications over different mediums, usually asynchronously. In this article, I’ll discuss a few techniques to favor and some to rethink for communicating and managing across remote and distributed teams.

To adopt

Be human, be kind, be thoughtful

Whether your team is remote, distributed, or co-located, management is all about trust. The tough thing about building trust is that trusting folks is scary. It can be even harder to build remotely, as we rely so heavily on in-person interactions to build rapport and, from that, trust. Even the most mature and evolved leaders have the hindbrain fear that they won’t do a good job managing their team, causing or contributing to friction or their team not delivering. If you’re influenced—or worse, ruled—by that fear, you risk increasing any disconnection your remote team may already feel. You need to learn to trust your team and build a relationship based on that trust. The best way to do this is by believing your team is acting in good faith and to assume trust rather than making your team earn it, until proven otherwise.

Additionally, if your team is newly remote, don’t forget why this change occurred. A global pandemic is a massive cognitive load. Your team members may be worrying about their own health, their family’s health, and their economic stability. With an onslaught of travel and visa restrictions, those far from home may be worried about their ability to see loved ones or about their immigration status. For our Black colleagues and friends, the latest spate of horrific racist attacks and the resulting protests may have generated immense emotional turmoil, fear, and anxiety.

If you take nothing else away from this article, remember this: Be kind to your teammates and your team. If you already put great care into ensuring your actions or messages are inclusive and humane, double down. Be aware that people will need space and support to process events and emotions. Let your team know they can take time off, encourage them to practice self-care, and remind them of any services your organization provides to help employees. Be conscious that your language, tone, and demeanor could have an outsized impact on your team’s emotional state.

Remember, too, that many signals we take for granted in face-to-face communications, like body language, don’t always come through in video or text communication. Your team might struggle to read your expressions and tone (or each other’s). Make ambiguous or implicit communication explicit. A good rule of thumb: If you read a message to yourself and can’t determine how someone else will react to it, then you need to make it more clear. Try reading the message out loud or asking a friend to read it for you. If it sounds stiff or unnatural, it probably is. Recently, a teammate pointed out that my emails didn’t always come across as very warm. We walked through several emails she thought were warm and several she didn’t, identifying which language worked best. (A sneak preview: “Cheers” may be perceived as a much warmer sign-off than “Kind regards.”)

Finally, if you have 1:1s scheduled with your team, continue to have them. One of the first signs someone may not be doing well is skipping 1:1s. There’s a lot of useful material out there on running good 1:1s, but my advice is to leave space for people to share and spend most of your time listening. I start every 1:1 with a reminder that this is their time, before asking, “How are you and what’s been happening?”

Do meetings right

Early research suggests remote meetings are far more emotionally exhausting than in-person meetings. Ensure all meetings have agendas, and make sure the agenda is distributed by the owner well before the meeting begins. No agenda, no meeting. If your team spans multiple time zones, carefully consider the optimal time for a meeting. Sometimes there isn’t one, and you’ll need to schedule several meetings to include everybody.

For teams distributed across multiple time zones, handovers may be especially useful. Many agile teams operate with a stand-up call, meeting, or status tool check-in each morning to discuss what people are going to work on that day and any blockers they have. If team members are in different time zones, some people may not be able to make the same stand-up. In some cases, status reporting tools, like Jell or Friday, can fill in the gaps as folks come online, but a handover meeting can be useful to ensure everyone knows what’s happening, what’s in progress, and what needs to be worked on. The handover creates a two-sided stand-up: The people clocking off can share key updates and anything else folks need to know, while the people starting can share their plans for the day. If you’re in many time zones, you may even do this multiple times a day, following the sun. This process is similar to how shift workers, like nurses or factory workers, handle shift changes.

It’s also a good idea to record events like all-hands and larger meetings so they’re available to the entire team. (Most modern videoconferencing platforms support recording, no special tools required.) To help cover all bases, nominate someone to take meeting notes on a rotating schedule to ensure there’s a record for people who can’t attend. These notes are also useful for documenting decisions.

Write things down

This is also the time to roll out style guides and standards for code review, user stories, and support tickets, as well as to generally level up all written communication. Keep your writing clear, accurate, and succinct. When you’re not working together in an office, documentation is key. If someone in a different time zone doesn’t understand a decision or a specification, they can lose substantial time going down rabbit holes or waiting for answers. At Glitch, we ran our quarterly planning entirely remotely using cloud-based resources like G Suite and Mural, which provides a digital work space for collaboration with tools for polling and voting on priorities and running workshops.

Having everything documented not only means people can see what’s happening and what needs to be done, but also encourages review, collaboration, and feedback. In a recent conversation about code reviews, a fellow engineer mentioned that she’s careful to make suggestions or changes clear and unambiguous, knowing that she might not be available to explain her feedback to the author. In my experience, written comments in documents tend to be more thoughtful and clear than verbal feedback, perhaps because you have the ability to edit yourself and there’s a greater degree of permanence to written communication that can encourage more reflection.

To avoid

The all-seeing, always-on video call

One technique I’ve repeatedly seen recommended is the always-on videoconference. In theory, it sounds great: Everyone is on a shared call all day, as if we’re in the office! Except that’s not what the office is actually like. In the office, people come and go, move around, and vary their work locations. However well-intentioned, pretending remote work is the same as being in the office simply doesn’t make sense. An office is a designated place where coworkers congregate and work together on shared goals and deadlines, not somewhere our partners, children, parents, pets, neighbors, neighborhood, or lifestyle abruptly intrude or take center stage. Plus, daylong video calls don’t mimic how people actually interact within an office. Humans don’t make continual eye contact for eight hours a day. When was the last time you made eye contact with anyone you know, much less a coworker, for even an hour straight?

There’s also an element of the panopticon, a punitive monitoring technique, to the always-on videoconference. It may erode trust and increase stress among your team members rather than helping them bond. I know I work better when my team and my boss trust me to deliver, rather than feeling like I’m constantly being watched. In a recent role, I had a private office for the first time in years. Having my own space and not constantly having to process the movements and conversation of the people around me made me noticeably more productive.

Treating it like a nine-to-five

While working from home is a very different experience than working from an office, it doesn’t eliminate any of the roles you take on in day-to-day life (except that of a commuter). Many people are now juggling work, childcare, homeschooling, feeding their families, and, hopefully, a lot of self-care, all at once. When working from home, your start and end times also become muddier. Expecting your people to work a traditional nine-to-five while remote is unrealistic. Let your team know that they can schedule caregiving and other activities around and during their working time.

Being flexible doesn’t mean enabling people to come up short on their workload. Instead, it means understanding that they might need to take a longer lunch break if they’re feeding kids or additional family members, or that they might need to hit pause to receive packages, wrangle kids, or take the dog for a walk. Make the boundaries to this flexibility clear by modeling the behavior you expect and being transparent and vocal when you take breaks for these purposes, too.

When workers are remote, it can be easy to keep working well past work hours because there’s no explicit separation between work and home. You can combat that blurriness by making it clear that you expect your people to stop working at a reasonable hour, rather than extending their workday into the evening. Again, the best way to do this is to model the behavior yourself. One approach I’ve seen at some companies where roles span multiple time zones is an email signature like:

Received this email outside of my standard work hours (ET)? That means I’ve chosen to do some work at this time; it’s not an expectation that you do the same.*

If you don’t model this boundary-setting behavior, you risk increasing your team’s stress and fostering a culture of overwork, which can ultimately decrease productivity.

*This is our editor in chief’s email signature. It was a surprise and a delight to see it used as an example.

Putting a lid on growth

Unfortunately, as many industries have transitioned to becoming fully remote, mentoring, training, education, and other learning and development activities have fallen by the wayside. Some of this appears to be the result of remote growing pains, while some of it is simple deprioritization.

It’s the wrong time to reduce activities that bring teams together and help people grow. Instead, you should be actively bolstering connections. Create a mentoring program, or ensure your existing program is running smoothly. Host remote training sessions, demos, and brown-bag lunches. If your organization has education or learning goals, ensure your teams are still working toward them. Working together, especially in a learning environment, can help teams feel more connected and supported.

This new reality is both a challenge and an opportunity to create a new way of working. We can take advantage of this new opportunity by being thoughtful and measured in our plans and implementation. We can make real change that creates work environments that increase equity and flexibility for our teams. Let’s do our best to meet this challenge, building workplaces that are healthier and more productive.

About the author

James Turnbull is VP of engineering at Sotheby’s and the author of 10 technical books about open-source software. Previously he was VP of engineering at Timber and Glitch, CTO at Microsoft for Startups and Kickstarter, and CTO and founder at Empatico.


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