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Cloud security, risk management and web services engineering. Author of Securing DevOps.

25 June 2021

Managing Remotely

by Julien Vehent

After five years of managing teams remotely, and a few more as a remote individual contributor, I’ve picked up a few patterns that I thought may be valuable to share. Engineering management is hard. You need to be a good engineer, but also a good manager. New managers typically get into the field by being good engineers for long enough that it is assumed they’ll also be good managers. But people are not computers, and you can’t engineer your way around managing a team efficiently. It’s an entirely new set of skills you have to learn, and one where making mistakes has direct consequences on people’s careers and livelihood.

When managing remote teams, communication is harder, building a culture takes more time, detecting and handling performance issues is more difficult, etc. All the signals you would naturally collect by being surrounded by the people you manage for several hours a day must now be acquired through well established processes. I’d like to describe some of the processes that I found useful.

1. Measure transparently

The routine of a remote manager is very different from that of an office manager. While your calendar is still split in 30min/1h meetings all day long, you’ll see your entire team as a group perhaps once a twice a week, as opposed to eight hours every day. Your team members get a lot less of your time, and as a result, they also lose the micro-feedback they’d normally get by talking to you several times a day.

So you need to be explicit on how you measure their performance. It’s not good enough to set one lofty goal for the entire team for the entire quarter. Each member of the team needs to have their own goals, with clear success criteria, and you need to continuously give them clear and actionable feedback on how they are performing against those goals.

If you’re familiar with the OKR model, then you’re already half way there. OKRs help create an environment where success criteria are clearly defined, and where an individual contributor has clear visibility into what they need to achieve to meet their performance goals. But you also need to support that process by discussing performance regularly in 1:1s. When managing remote teams, you can’t expect this feedback to transpire through everyday conversations and confidence reinforcement. It needs to be explicit, ideally during 1:1s because that’s the only time of the week your team members have access to you.

Don’t surprise folks with a performance review at the end of the quarter. Have these conversations early and often. And whether they are doing poorly or really well, you should assume that they are not fully aware of it, and provide that feedback regularly.

The ultimate goal here is to be so transparent about how you’re measuring performance that folks can self-assess against the ladder you’ve set for them, and when you have those performance conversations, there’s no surprise at all.

2. Get peer feedback regularly

Somewhat related to the previous point, managing remote teams makes it harder to get a full checkup on the health of the team and its contributors. In an office, you’d get data points through every day conversations, but those become harder to acquire when remote. So the feedback you’d normally be getting from a team member about another team member being stuck on a project and struggling is harder to obtain. You’ll have to specifically retrieve it from folks.

You should ask each of your team members how they are doing at a professional (and sometimes personal, when appropriate) level on a regular basis. You may not always get a straight answer, and it can be hard to detect stress or frustrations while sitting in a video-conference. The power dynamics of managers to employees also tampers with these conversations. So you can’t rely on that feedback alone, and need to collect peer feedback on a regular basis, explicitely.

When asking for team members how their peers are doing, the feedback I seek is entirely focused on preserving the health of the team, both for benefit of the team members themselves and for the quality of the work we produce. The goal isn’t to have team members tell on each other, but truly to identify issues I may not have directly notice, so I can resolve them before they become problematic for everyone.

Humans will naturally look out for each other in a group setting. And when we are all in the office, this happens naturally, without anyone noticing. But, here again, these mechanisms don’t automatically activate in remote settings. As managers, we have to foster them and make them explicit. Get feedback on your people, and it will help you get better visibility into the health of the team.

3. Break the isolation

It’s been a tough year. And for many, it’s been their first year of remote work. The saying goes that pandemic-work-from-home is not work-from-home, which is true, and we are dealing with an extreme level of isolation. But it is also true that being fully remote, even outside a pandemic, can make you feel very detached from your team.

Managers can help break the isolation by creating a culture of open communication. Everyone should feel safe to share their ideas, feedback and comments on everyone else’s work. And they should do so in a polite, professional and respectful manner. The role of the manager in these conversations is to moderate and empower.

Moderation is needed to make progress on difficult topics, keeping the conversation on track and making sure everyone gets a say. Some technical features of modern video-conferencing systems can help, such as the “raise hand” feature in Google Meet, but it remains the role of the moderator to ensure even the quieter members of the team have an opportunity to share their thoughts. There’s a balance to be found: you want passionate debates, but not aggressive ones, and certainly not dull meeting where no one speaks up.

Empowerment supports the less vocal members of the team into speaking up and sharing their ideas by creating safe environments. And if they are not yet comfortable doing so in a large group setting, which is okay, allow them to pass that feedback through you, or through any other communication channel (email, doc comments, etc). You want to make sure all comments are heard and taken into account, and not just silently discarded. Praise people who spend extra time providing feedback and comments on their peers work, and create that culture of safe and healthy collaboration within the team. It’s a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it gets.

Compared to in-person communication, all remote communication channels are slow and frustrating to use in group settings. It’s not pleasant to get interrupted when in-person, but it’s even worse in video-conferencing because there’s absolutely no way for two people to speak at the same time. As a manager, establish respectful communication patterns within your team, or you may run into the risk of isolating folks even further.

4. Mentor explicitly and implicitly

I often hear the concern that junior members need to be in the office to grow into senior role, while senior folks may have acquired the maturity to be remote. And while I agree that in-person learning is generally better than remote-learning, I do think both can work quite well under the right structure. After all, I have personally grown tremendously over the past decade, and I’ve been entirely remote the whole time.

Regardless of the geographic strategy, healthy teams naturally mentor junior folks implicitely. When they join the team, senior members will take turns to train and teach what they know to junior members. This often does not require a predefined structure, and is simply a natural dynamic of a healthy team. (a corollary is that unhealthy teams often lack this implicit mentoring culture).

But remote settings make this implicit mentoring harder and more costly. It still happens, of course, as junior members collaborate with senior members. But the junior members won’t be able to listen in on office conversations. They won’t be able to peek at those architecture meetings. They won’t acquire historical knowledge over lunch. And so on…

So in addition to implicit mentoring, it is also critical to have explicit mentoring in place. New members of the team should have at least two senior members assigned as mentors. They should have regular meetings with them where they can ask questions, acquire the history, propose ideas, etc.

Why two mentors? Because you want to reduce the impact of mentoring as much as possible. And you want to make it possible for the mentees to round-robin their questions so they don’t feel like they are always bothering the same person.

And as a manager, check-in on the mentee and mentors regularly to make sure the relationship is healthy and productive. Mentees should feel supported, have their questions answered, and get a sense of growth. Mentors should find the mentoring load adequate and get a sense of pride from helping grow the next generation.

As an aside, there’s no notion of age or level of experience when I use the term “junior” and “senior”. Those are relative to seniority to the team. It is perfectly acceptable to have a younger engineer mentor an older one, and for that relationship to be productive, respectful and fruitful.

5. Turn your face into words

There’s a lot more I’d like to say about managing remote teams, but this is already a long post and I want to be mindful of your time and attention. So we’ll keep this short, and maybe I’ll do another post in the future.

But I would like to finish on a somewhat lighter note. A bit of self-deprecation, if you will.

You see, I suffer from a strong case of Resting Bitch Face. To the point where it is nearly impossible for my coworkers to tell if I’m happy, sad, frustrated, angry, or simply tired.

Let me illustrate the point a little more clearly.

This is my facial expression when a coworker delivers an update on a project.

julien-rfb

And this is my facial expression when hearing about a major performance issue a team member may be experiencing.

julien-rfb

And, finally, to further drive the point home, this is what I look like when someone announces a big success to the team.

julien-rfb

As you can tell from these pictures, it can be somewhat difficult for the untrained eye to tell the exact mood I may be in at a given point in time. And this has caused issues in the past, where members of my team worried or even stressed about their situation because of how I looked during meetings.

hulk

Now I’m not the most expressive person in the world. And the long hours spent staring at a screen don’t exactly help relax the zygomatics. But I’m also a fairly happy and cheerful person, so I don’t want to give out the impression that, unlike Bruce Banner, I’m always angry.

Over time, I’ve learned to turn my facial expressions into words. The RBF may still be on. I fear it is hear to stay. Thanks Dad… But now I’ll explicitely say what is going through my mind, and not expect folks to extrapolate it from the video feed.

I strongly urge you to do the same, whether you have the most expressive face or not. The last thing you want when managing remotely is for folks to navigate uncertain body language through an imperfect medium.

And, seriously, smile a little!

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