On being a remote … manager


On being a remote … manager

After 2.5 years as an individual contributor working in the Etsy Brooklyn office, I became a remote IC from Denver, CO; 11 month later, I switched to the management track, and became a remote Engineering Manager. In this post, I will try to share some lessons I learnt and practices I follow, hoping it could help others in similar situations, or at least spark a discussion.

Why not?

In my opinion, leadership is about creating an environment where your team can thrive : set the boundaries and ground rules, and let your teammates do their thing. Achieving this does not require your physical presence.

The “one remote — all remotes” rule

Have you ever been in a meeting where you’re the only remote displayed in big on a screen? How well did it work for you? Were you able to express your opinion the same way as if you were “local” ? Were you able to interject to respond to arguments? Were you as “plugged-in” and involved in the conversations as others in the room? Odds are you answered no to all of the above. Regardless of how good your internet connection, camera setup and microphones are, any meeting with a group of “local” people sharing a camera in the same room and one or more remote employees will present an unfair disadvantage to the remote person.

No shared camera : everyone dials in using their laptop

In the past 3 teams I’ve lead, about half of the team was remote (including me) while the other half worked in the office. The rule for the weekly meeting is always the same : I don’t book any meeting room — everyone individually dials into a shared meeting room. Sometimes, the local employees have to book a meeting room, most of them equipped with a nice video-conferencing setup : shy away from it and stick to the built-in camera on your laptop. Everyone should be represented the same way in the meeting — and the more you can read someone’s facial expressions, the better.

Try to apply the same rule outside your team

As a manager, I do have to meet with other team leaders in the company, most of them local — I really push down hard to apply the same rule (since I am remote). One sneaky way to approach it is to actually not book any rooms. Of course it takes some explanation on the why and really asking (begging) them to use their own setup, but it works (about 80% of the time).

IRC/Slack over in-person discussions

Not every interaction is planned — it’s really nice to be able to walk up to someone to ask a question or clarify a point. Thankfully, Etsy has a very IRC-driven (now Slack) culture — people sitting beside each other would more often than never communicate on work items via Slack. While it’s a disaster from a human perspective, it has the benefit of reducing “the interruptions cost”, potentially sharing information with the whole team (when applicable) and leveling the playing field for remotes.

Empathy building

Office rituals (morning coffee, lunch break, 4pm cookie) are a great way for team-members to catch up and interact with each other. Such natural interactions are difficult to plan for remote teams. Some remote teams have the Friday afternoon “drink and chat” where anyone can dial in to talk about anything and hang out. I personally made a point of using the last 10 minutes of the team meeting to go around the team and have everyone share something personal — what did they do over the week-end? What are their rose and thorn that day ? In the first few weeks with a new team, the 10 minutes can be awkward and superficial : some people do not appreciate (or do not see the point in) sharing their personal life with others, but as trust builds up, this exercise becomes a good way to foster communication and interest among team members.

Another way to engage more deeply with your remote colleague during 1:1 is to occasionally conduct them on a walk over the phone : conversations tends to be a little longer, less forced and for some people, walking can help with the thought process.

Tech

Get the best internet connection available in your area

As a remote employee, my job depends on my internet connection and as a remote manager, I attend a lot of video-conferences. As such, I cannot afford technical glitches or poor quality audio or video. I strongly encourage every remote employee on my team to invest in the most performant internet setup available in their area — and luckily work is helping us out with the internet cost.

Find the best camera and microphone positions

Microphones can pick up a lot of ambient noises that can turn a conversation into incomprehensible noise (for eg. my laptop microphone sometimes takes over my display microphone and you can’t really hear anything). Similarly, it feels more natural to speak to someone facing you, as opposed to seeing her profile (when placing your camera next to your display). Making sure your camera and microphone are positioned and adjusted properly can help your interlocutor feel more engaged.

Your home office is visible to anyone, sometimes even when you don’t want it to be!

This goes for any remote employee, but having a dedicated workspace in your house, with a neutral background and no visual interruption is key. You do not have to share your screaming toddler or barking dog with other peers — while it’s funny at first, it’s not really professional. A good tip on this is to make sure your camera does not have any doorway in its frame, and even have a system of “do not disturb” / “ok to come in” in place.

Similarly, depending on your video conferencing software, people may be able to dial into your space without your permission. Sharing that simple fact and explaining, tactfully, how intrusive that can be can go a long way — for most of my meetings with other remotes, I ask if it’s OK to dial into their video room (and most people do the same with me).

Get really good at muting/un-muting

Imagine a video conference with 10 participants dialed in, sometimes from their desk or a coffee shop — it becomes quickly difficult to stay concentrated on the conversations with all the background noise going on. The general rule is to be muted when you’re not talking. I personally use the “shush” app that allows me to mute/unmute by pressing a key on my keyboard but any method works.

Embrace being behind a screen

For team meetings or 1:1, having every participant being behind a screen can have its advantages. Meeting agendas (including for 1:1) and meeting notes are collaboratively worked on via shared documents (we use google docs at Etsy).

Keeping in touch with the company

No hallway tracks

As managers, information is our currency : being cut-off from the “hallway track” is probably the most difficult aspect of my job. I refer to “hallway track” as all the impromptu conversations you may have in the staircase, by the coffee machine, or just overhearing other people talking.

To tackle this, one may adopt techniques such as regular 1:1 with local people outside of your org to get the pulse on the company. This works especially well with local employees who are really plugged into the office politics and keeping tabs on what’s happening at work. Another technique would be to incorporate a “gossip, rumors and lies” agenda item to the team meetings (see Rands’s article on that topic).

Visit the office, every 3 month if possible

You may have a network of allies that can relay information for you, the best way to keep in touch with the rest of the company is to actually come visit regularly, every 3 months if possible. When visiting, do not plan on doing any work other than meeting with people. That is especially true for Individual Contributors : I really push hard on my fellow team-mates IC to NOT do any coding while visiting the office, but instead to focus on meeting as many people as they can.

It’s not always fun to travel for work, being away from the family and being constantly in a “work environment”, surrounded by your colleagues — but each visit helps build or tighten significant relationships with other managers and employees.

As a remote manager with other remote employees on the team, I really encourage the whole team to travel at the same time : that’s a great time to meet together and have social events outside of work that week (the classic Escape the Room, Pasta making class or cruise around the NY harbor).

Offsites

Offsites can be extremely effective, especially during the storming phase with your team. While not necessarily applicable to remote teams only, offsites play a significant role in bonding the team together. I will not go in-depth on the topic, but the few rules I learnt from the 2 offsites I organized are:

1. Make sure everyone has their own safe space to retreat to and rest.

As a french person, the meal experience is an essential daily ritual : optionally cooking together, sitting around the table, saying a good old bon appetit and sharing a meal while engaging with each other. To that effect, I’ve always gone the airbnb way for the two offsites I had the chance to organize. Finding a place that can fit 8 people can be difficult, but finding a place that can fit 8 with 8 different private spaces is challenging, but pretty critical; your offsite is not summer camp — your colleagues are not here for fun, it’s still a work event : people need their space to retreat and rest.

2. Leave room in the schedule for downtime and exploration.

I tend to live a fairly hyperactive lifestyle, trying to pack too much in one day — this works most of the time for myself (although I now realize with an infant at home that it does not work anymore). Take it easy and leave time in your schedule for exploration — maybe 2 teammates will want to go checkout a coffee shop and strike a turning conversation : you can’t force it to happen, but you can leave room for such opportunities.

3. Be sensitive to the neurodiverse needs of the group e.g. some people may require more uninterrupted alone time than others.

Odds are your team is made of introvert and extrovert people — embrace it while remembering that introverted people tend to “recharge” by spending time alone.

4. Conscious effort should be made to avoid inadvertently forcing your expectations of the offsite on others.

5. Survey the interests (and disinterests) of your team beforehand. Not everyone enjoys the same experiences and some experiences may cause anxiety in others.

During the last offsite in Denver, CO, I really wanted to take the team on a beautiful hike up a little mountain — the views are stunning and the hike pretty challenging. Little did I know that my colleague actually had vertigo and that the hike was actually a source of stress. On another offsite, I had planned a group bike ride (as a surprise) in a wine region — it’s too bad that one of my teammates really disliked bike rides!

6. Sharing/watching YouTube videos can be a great segue to conversation.

In both offsites, the teams rallied around “How Things Are Made” and live conversations ensued — I had never watched that show but it was really fun to do so as a group!

Being a remote Engineering Manager is not easy — but honestly, the remote part is not the most difficult one if you follow some simple rules — if anything, being remote will force you to become a better manager by creating a solid environment of trust within your team.

Source: Medium:Remote Working
On being a remote … manager

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