This article originally appeared on Medium
I’ve been in software engineering for a long time and have managed a number of teams in various situations. I’ve been a consultant with 80% travel, I’ve spent all day in an office, and I’ve worked from home. In my current role, I manage a fully remote team with members from around the world.
Manage by Walking Around without Leaving your Office
This is a technique popularized by Sam Walton, where the manager would walk around the office, building, or workspace, and physically check in on team members. It allows for a meaningful connection between the manager and the employee. In my experience, it’s a key part of building trust and getting to know the people you work with.
How do you do this in a remote setting? There’s no exact corollary; you can’t walk around and meet with people. It’s much harder to have a chance (or purposeful) interaction during the day. Instead, you have to setup time to meet with people. You need to reach out on chat, or instant message, or whatever tools you have for direct, informal communication. In my experience, a fully remote team takes a lot more time to get to know, and understand, and you need a number of different types of interactions to make the connection.
- Informal chat groups, and individual chats.
- Group meetings where there are many people to ensure no one feels singled out. These group meetings are great for general discussion on various topics. While you’re getting to know the team, or checking in on progress, and looking for potential issues, everyone on the team has an opportunity to interact with everyone else.
- One on One meetings — in my case, I use these as a way to ask what I can do for the team member. I may have specific questions, but I try to find a way to provide value to the employee. Get to know the person on the other side of the screen. Learn the names of everyone in the family. (Take notes!) Get to know what the person is interested in, learn something about a topic and ask in a follow-up meeting.
There’s no set prescription to replace the process of managing by walking around. I’ve had to experiment with a number of different techniques to build rapport with the team, and ensure we’re all on the same page.
Additional Materials for Review
Set Expectations, Communicate Clearly
I read once, somewhere, that every employee knows their manager’s working style and expectations. The employee will learn this either by someone else on the team telling them, or the employee will hear it directly from the manager. You’re going to have a much better relationship, and outcomes, if the manager clearly communicates their expectations.
As a manager, this means you need to know what you want. What’s your style? What do you expect from people who work with you? Do you know what you want, and how to communicate it? Obviously, every manager will be different, and understanding your personal style is key to your success, and that of your team and each employee on the team.
I make it a point to talk to everyone who joins my teams and personally let them know what I expect from them. I have four fairly general rules, which define “how to be successful when working with me”.
- Be an adult
- Do your job
- If you have a problem, let’s talk about it
- If you’re not happy in your current role, I’ll help you get where you want to be. Even if that means writing a referral for another job.
Straightforward, with a lot of leeway for the employee to implement as they need. I try to share these with an example or anecdote for illustration to ensure the expectations are clear.
Be an Adult
Seems easy, but folks forget what this means. You have things to do, perhaps a family to care for, and a company which expects your time. You are an adult and can balance these things in the best way. You know your time, schedule, preferences, needs, etc., much better than I do. I trust that you are going to manage your day, week, time, to make the most of what you have available. Need to take a child to the doctor’s office? Great! Go take care of that. Don’t stress about it. Communicate the need, and execute on it.
Do Your Job
Closely related to number 1; you were hired for a reason. You have skills we, as a company, desire. Apply those skills to the best of your ability. I’m not concerned about when you start your day, or when you finish, as long as you do your job. If you have 4 things to do, and each takes 1 hour, I trust you will use your time in the most practical manner to meet all of the needs of your day. As your manager, I don’t want to set your schedule; I want you to use what you know about yourself to ensure you can do the most good with your time that day.
If you have a Problem, Let’s Talk About It
Everyone runs into issues. These may be work related, or personal in nature. Often these problems directly impact items 1 and 2. In the course of our relationship, I try to let every employee know I’m here to help. I can help with priority, problem resolution, and many other things. However I have to know about it to be helpful.
Running into a conflict with someone on your team? Maybe someone in another area? Let’s chat. A third party can often see the situation in a different light, and will be able to provide feedback to help solve the problem. Having an issue at home with a parent or child? Is this issue impacting your ability to focus on your job? Let’s talk about the resources we have available. Let’s make a modified schedule. We’ll find a way, together, to make things work. Communication is key.
If you’re not Happy in your Role
This is definitely the hardest one. When an employee is not happy with what they’re doing, they often start to look for another role, in another company. The current company and manager usually finds out about this when the employee tenders their resignation. That’s usually too late. Keeping an employee after they have another offer is pretty hard, and doesn’t work long term. Not to say we won’t try, but it’s a long road.
If you’re not happy, I want to know. Hopefully, with our one-on-one conversations, I’ll be able to pick up on this, but it doesn’t always happen. I want to know your career goals, and understand where you want to be in a year, five years, etc. The best way to do this is open communication.
When we have this conversation, it could be that you’re considering a new opportunity, and you’d like to talk about it. I’m willing to help. I take rule 4 seriously. If we can’t provide what you need/want, I want to help you get there. Need to take some time to prepare for an interview, I’m going to give you that time. Want to talk about what to ask , or look for, or anything else to prepare? Again, I’m here to help.
These rules are all about my style, and what I’ve found over the past 20 years which resonate for me and the people I work with. When hiring, I try to figure out through the conversation if these rules would help the candidate flourish. Would the person I’m considering be able to work in this loose framework, or do they need more guidance, or something more strict/formal.
Trust, Verify, Let Go
One of the hardest parts of working with a remote team is trust. You get to know the people working for you, but it’s hard to know if they’re really getting things done, and doing what they tell you. As a leader and manager, you have to trust what you hear. You also need to verify the work, and make certain you’re both talking about the same things. This is another area where clear expectations, via communication, are crucial.
I frequently work with developers which makes verification straight forward. If you’re talking about a user story, with specific details, it’s easy to know if the developer was able to complete the work in the agreed to time. You can take a look a the check in logs, the notes on the story, and ultimately, the product itself.
It sounds super simple, but it’s not so cut and dry. Many times, features are complex, timelines are fluid, and interruptions are a reality. If you have agreed to specific deliverables in a sprint, you have to be mindful of scope creep, social loafing, and interruptions. Think about a developer working on a team where the business is frequently adding requirement, or changing their minds. Progress will not be linear. It’s likely the developer will need a number of meetings to understand and make changes to stories, potentially things already in flight.
This is where you have to learn about the developer. Can you pick up on clues? Are they always talking about issues with a certain person, module, feature, or bug? Can you find the blocker, which may be real, or imagined, and determine if the resource is working, or slacking? One of the ways I work around this is through asking questions about the project, sprint, or feature. Can the developer tell me what they’re doing, where they’re stuck, or a piece they’ve recently finished? If not, you may have a problem.
In this area, “developer” could be any resource on the team. The problems, blockers, or excuses will vary, but the method to investigate is still similar. You have to talk with the person to get a feel for what’s really going on.
In my mind, this is a very soft skill. In remote teams, you likely won’t have visual cues, or body language to rely on for insight. You have to listen carefully, and discern what’s really going on. Most of the time, I try to reset, or clarify the expectations which I thought we agreed to. It could be the understanding was off. It could be the sprint goals changed slightly. It could be the business asked for a change which the developer picked up on, and I missed.
Finally, you have to “let go”. You’re not going to always know what’s going on. It won’t be clear on a day to day basis. That’s okay! Apply what you learn about each sprint, and each conversation. Schedule a one-on-one and follow-up. Have the hard conversations and asked pointed questions. You’re better off having a direct “adult” conversation with the employee, than stressing yourself out about it.
Most importantly, don’t try to micromanage. You may need to adjust your style to help the individual employee be successful. Own it. Make the change on your side, and do what you can to help your employee flourish. This won’t be easy … you’re busy, you’ve got things to do, deliverables of you own. Remember, you’re in a management role because you can help multiply people. Your guidance helps many others be more productive. You’re not in an individual contributor role — you’re there to help others be successful and make individual contributions.
Good luck! Working from home, and managing remote teams, is likely part of our new reality. Take some time, lean in, and learn to lead from your home office!