Ops: How should you adapt your approach, as a leader of remote engineers?

Tips on adapting your leadership to guide your remote software engineers.

Discussion host: Robert Turnbull, Agile Coach and Director of Agile Services


The honeymoon period of exploring remote working is over. It’s now business as usual. Things won’t ‘go back’ to how they were, things will ‘go through’ to the new normal – be that fully-remote or partly-remote.

As a leader you attract what you deserve. Your stated preferences may be undermined by your expressed preferences. You may want the behaviours/things to be better, but not more than the behaviours/things that you won’t give up.

Let’s explore some of the considerations.

Setting the remote culture

Open source projects have long solved the kinds of problems that office-based engineering teams are now facing while rapidly adopting remote working. This is achieved by the systematic adoption of good processes and remote-friendly leadership.

Take time to identify the culture that your company has, versus that which it wants. Find out what the culture has become post lockdown; you may be pleasantly surprised. 

It may not greatly matter that things are a bit different while things settle in if the work’s getting done and people have a sense of belonging.

Communication across remote teams

Remote tools, if not well implemented, offer a small slice of what in-person communication afforded. Managers can no longer overhear the office chatter. Gauging chatter through the tools becomes noisy, making it harder to retain a sense of where people’s thinking is going.

With serendipitous chats at the water cooler also removed it can be harder to retain the pulse of how people are thinking. Communication should therefore become more intentional. This isn’t easy if you’re relying on the old ways of doing things.

One analogy is that TV (in-person verbal dialogue) is typically less information-dense than radio (written or recorded dialogue). TV builds a mood with padding and scenery, whereas radio has more actual content. You may feel you’re missing a feel for things from in-person/verbal situations, but once you’ve boiled things down you may not be missing as much as you think.

Take time to consult with your people and map out the information that the organisation and its management needs to know, and explore new processes to deliver this. 

People have tended to communicate in ways that felt most natural to them. Outgoing and bubbly team members may initially miss their verbal in-the-moment dialogue. On balance, quieter or introspective team members may now be finding a more equal voice.

Adopting new communication processes, where everyone acts as if remote, helps to level the playing field – fertile ground for fresh and beneficial thinking to filter through.

It’s your extraverted people that are mostly likely finding distance from their colleagues and social groups the hardest. Such people may benefit from digital social hangouts/breaks/lunches; one participant was exploring tools such as https://gather.town/.

Your people will likely have some ideas as to how to replicate the watercooler chats digitally. 

Parents now homeschooling will have an extra burden on their time and may welcome a consciously flexible approach to their hours and deliverables. It’s worth identifying such people and encouraging them to formulate an approach that works best all-round. On balance, you should see no measurable difference in output.

New starters won’t be ‘learning by osmosis’, and this is true across most firms. Learning in a circumstantial fashion was never a good thing – too many inconsistencies. Much better is for your people to create good onboarding processes, knowledge resources and to hold ongoing learning discussions.

You may have lost some symbols of company culture – pizza for the team, chats at the tea point, meetings, etc. These were a means to the end; an exchange of knowledge, connections and ideas and not in themselves culture-generating, they just symbolise the culture you have.

You could consider quarterly or bi-annual company get-togethers held at the original office space, or at new locations. These may be for intense bursts of work, or something more social; such in-person activity still has good value and many ‘fully-remote’ firms do this. 

Away-days can be a good forum for addressing sensitive or political aspects. Such events can seem tiring, but generate less cumulative fatigue and expense than your people’s daily commute.

Managing remote engineering teams

Managing things may seem harder, but first take time to identify what metrics appear to be missing, or what you are struggling to communicate, and examine whether things really are any worse or just different while things adjust.

Set the heartbeat for the communication across the business in conjunction with your managers. Determine the frequency accordingly – such as an all-staff meeting every fortnight, underpinned by team/project-level meetings – to give what you need.

Engineers hate context switching. What you may regard as being within the objective, or a dependency of it, they may regard as an unproductive distraction that loses their train of thought. 

Robert says; 

The main target here is meetings. Witness the eye rolling when having to interrupt development work, which engineers tend to see as their primary purpose, to attend meetings, which they tend to see as unproductive interruptions. This is exacerbated when management ramps up the pressure by expecting more on shorter timelines, then undermines them by scheduling more meetings.  

A secondary target is responding to ad hoc questions. One reason why Slack is popular among engineers is that it’s asynchronous. They can respond when their thought process is complete. As a manager, schedule meetings in blocks to get them out of the way. Sometimes an eye-opener as to how much contiguous development time is eroded by meetings. Limits would be in order. 

Also some people ask more questions than others. Sometimes questions (as opposed to Googling) can waste time. Sometimes can save time. Have the team decide on the balance and encourage team members to cooperate. 

You will likely need to manage at three levels of communication and management; departments, projects and teams. This may warrant three views, and to strike the right balance for delegating the day-to-day work management.

Think about what you can manage. Set objectives, or, let your people set their own objectives and be responsible for what they deliver. 

You are managing a social group of people, and it’s better to look for productivity patterns across the group rather than to manage an individual’s productivity closely.

Robert says;

Empower teams to work autonomously and to self-organise. Implement a simple process, like Scrum, for doing this. The point of a process is that if you implement it well, you get the desired result. Therefore, instead of trying to measure individual efficiency, measure how well the team adheres to the process. Provide the reflection to the team, so they can correct course. When it goes badly, learn, adapt as quickly as possible, but don’t panic and don’t abandon your process.

KPI’s are just numbers, but these can show you where to look. 

Robert says;

Manage deliverables and not tasks. Tell the team what to do, and not how to do it. (Assuming architecture and design are built into the team’s process.) Require the team to set a goal, and the deadline, and commit to both. Be available to deal with issues that threaten to get in the way.   

In most cases when teams fail to deliver work to which they have committed, it’s because they were unclear on what was expected of them, or how to do it, and in some cases, depended on work product from other teams, which did not materialise.

You can help your teams succeed by helping them manage their dependencies. Make sure the team spends time understanding the requirements, spends time on solving the problem and how to implement the solution, and make sure that third parties are aware that others depend of them and that they commit to delivering on time.  

When facing adverse prevailing conditions, it can be helpful to tune down the KPIs and to publish the intermediary KPIs across the teams, allowing each to adapt and find the right ways of working to deliver what the business needs. This will likely come as a relief. You may even see improved productivity.

Published by Andrew Gifford

Co-organiser of Threads South West. Founder/MD and people person at techfolk. Interested in the people aspects of running a progressive business.

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