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CTO opinion column: Managing remote teams

This article has been scheduled for months, but with the last status on the COVID-19, I have no choice but to take the time to write it now as my small contribution to the current world situation. This article will target managers of remote teams.

At Saagie, we have prioritized remote work from the beginning. There are two main differences between making that choice and this dark mountain we are facing today. First, remote work is not a choice. Second, for parents, remote work is usually done without kids.

When you think you are not remote, but you are…

Perhaps you work in a big bank, insurance, or other industry everyday and you think you are not working remotely.

Think again. Are you conducting cross or virtual team meetings with people from other sites and countries?

If yes, you are working remotely with co-workers, suppliers, and customers.

Many of the following tips can apply to you, especially the first three.

Tip 1: Remote-first meetings

This is the simplest to execute but also the most impactful. People-oriented profiles (such as sales and CEOs) might find this not-human at first glance. But, when you take a step back, it’s just basic courtesy.

The tip is simple: everyone participating in a meeting should be in a remote-first condition, end of the story.

What does it mean? Everyone is in front of their laptops, tablets, or phones with their own headsets. No exceptions.

Why? Because everyone has the same feedback loop of communication. There is no side-talk during remote-first meetings. If the communication is broken for one person, it’s usually broken for everyone.

Yes, the video conference rooms of big corporations are the anti pattern of remote collaboration.

If you are not convinced, go home or to a café and try it! Start with a remote meeting with everyone around one computer and you on the other end. Then try the remote-first set up, with everyone on their own device with their own headset. You’ll see.

If you apply this first tip, you’ve gone down 40% of the path to remote work!

Tip 2: Provide good headsets & time to train

You’ll see non-tech and even tech employees fighting with their headsets and configurations (yes, you know the tech people who are always fighting with their linux drivers).

Start by providing good headsets to your employees. I am not talking about 100-200 € headsets for podcasters. A simple 20 € headset will do. Even the basic iPhone headphone can do the job. It will be far less expensive than not starting a meeting on time.

Then, provide time for people to train themselves on your company’s video conferencing tool. Ask your IT department to show everyone how to switch to the right headset within that tool if you can.

If your team members are using a mobile device, note that the apps from webex and zoom work well.

Tip 3: Manage asynchronous & written communication

Another main pitfall with remote working is managing asynchronous and written communication.

Asynchronous means your coworkers might not be available at the exact moment you have a question. Take the time to write a slack message, use the notification rules properly (@here @channel on slack), and wait for people to answer. If it’s really urgent, notify them on slack, and then call them. It’s a matter of patience and respect. To learn more about the topic, here it is a conference from Bertrand Delacretaz of Adobe: https://youtu.be/xkC4zjtAyRc (French) // https://youtu.be/HPjYa_O6yEk (English)

Don’t fall into the written communication traps which, with lack of context, trigger misunderstanding.

First, you need to use the right tool for the right job:

  • Wiki for documentation.
  • Email for a long explanation.
  • Slack/Teams/Discord/IRC/ICQ for short synchronization.
  • Phone/Video conf when you need to understand each other (followed by a summary in slack).

Then, you need to add context in the message you send. Emoticons are not only for teenagers. For example, when I am being ironic, I add the troll emoticon to my message. Teammates update their status with words and emoticons on slack to share their mood. (You know to use the tired face when you arrive at work in the morning and your kids were up sick all night).

On the other side, when you receive a message, don’t over-interpret it. 99% of the time, people have good intentions. If it’s not clear, ask for more details. Don’t be afraid to pick up your phone or use video conferencing tool. I know it’s not easy, but it’s where you’ll lose a of time on your teams.

Finally, feedback: try using phrases like, “I was feeling bad/good because of…” and, “When I received your message I felt…and it had this effect”.

Tip 4: Zoom “café”

It’s not because you are remote that you can’t have small talk with your colleagues. At Saagie, we have what we call a “zoom café” room (replace zoom by your video conferencing tool). People can come and go to chit chat with their colleagues (and not only about Game of Thrones and Kaamelott…).

I think we underuse our Zoom café at Saagie, but it’s up to you, managers, to set the example.

Tip 5: Double your one-to-one meetings

When working remotely, you have far fewer interaction with your teammates. If it’s not the case yet, your one-to-one meetings must become weekly.

And it’s not optional. I know this is hard and sometimes you have cancel one or two one-to-ones because of customer meetings, but here, discipline is key.

Maybe you think it’s too much time on your agenda. Oh, wait…what’s your job title? Manager? Don’t try to escape from your role.

Tip 6: Always on video and/or voice conference

One other practice we established from our SRE (Service Reliability Engineering) team and pair programmers is to have a zoom or a mumble (open source VOIP solution: https://wiki.mumble.info/wiki/Main_Page ) open all day, organized by team/squad.

It has several benefits :

  • easy for teammates to synchronize,
  • mitigate loneliness that results from working remotely, and
  • allows the CTO and other managers to reach a team (don’t abuse this).

Tip 7: Manage misunderstandings & slack drama

Even when managing with care, drama happens. You’ll get this slack thread of 99+ comments with people disagreeing and rage quitting. Often, they’re simply using the same word to signify different concepts.

One solution I’ve found is to have a video conference with the experts in that area. Let them know 30-60 minutes in advance that you need to meet for about 30 minutes. Giving them notice helps reduce the pressure. The goal is to make a decision by the end of the meeting.

My experience is that people arrived to that short meeting prepared and the issue was solved in fewer than 20 minutes.

Tip 8: Physical gathering

With remote teams, the social needs of human beings can be hard to manage (yes even you Jonathan…).

That’s why it’s important to gather your teams together at least once or twice per year, minimum. By gathering in the same physical location, people will make stronger connections and create memories, which will boost collaboration.

And don’t forget, for these gatherings, it’s either full remote or it’s full on-site. If you compromise for something in the middle, it’s always a mess. We’ve tried it due to the strikes in France, and it’s not ideal.

Tip 9: Make your team learn to manage work-life balance

One common question I hear from non-remote managers is, “How do I make sure my team is working?” I’ve heard this question from journalists and so on.

Honestly, this question is far from the real problem.

The real issue is that remote work makes for a very, very thin barrier between work life and personal life. You don’t have the commuting buffer time to change your state of mind, and you’ll see the following behavior: Ok, 10 more minutes to tackle this last task…two hours later, oops, it’s 8pm; I was supposed to stop at 6pm.

Let’s repeat the process days over days, finishing at 8pm, 9pm, 10pm…people burn out. I have almost reached this point with two people in my teams. When managing remotely, you need to be aware of this. It’s one reason you need to keep weekly one-to-ones to detect the weak signal of this kind of behavior.

To drive the point home, let’s say you are 60% productive in an open space. Going remote will get you easily to 80%, then you optimize, and you optimize, and you go to 90%, 95% productivity. Repeating this process every day will make the teams more and more tired with nobody asking them to take even a coffee break.

Maybe it’s up to you, manager, to organize this.

Tip 10: Give trust

Last but not least, remote work means that managers need to change their mindsets. It’s seeing that their people are working and counting the hours; it’s working on a clear mission, on clear targets, and on prepared delegation. In fact, it’s just doing your job, more over doing the hard part of your job.

It will allow you to give more autonomy to your team. It would also help you to solve the issue between the tasks done by your team and your expectations.

But first, you have to try and let it go!

Let it go! - Frozen

PS: Thanks to Cyrielle and Coley for the review.

Images credit: @TRex via Freepik / @fanpop



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