Managing a Remote Team

In today’s larger organizations, it is commonplace to have teams spread out across the globe.  This is challenging for many reasons, not the least of which is developing the relationships that make you an effective manager and that allow the team to operate at their fullest potential.  Managing folks from far away is difficult and a skill that must be developed.  Remote employees often feel disconnected from the team and require more/different communication than the people on your team that you see every day in the office.

Communication is the most essential skill for managing a distributed team.  The spontaneous conversations that occur in a centrally located team simply do not happen when coworkers are spread around the state/country/globe.  These conversations need to be replaced by intentionally targeted time set aside for the purpose.  In my opinion, a manager should have 1:1s with every employee in her organization at least once per week.  This may get untenable once the group reaches a certain size but I believe it is critical for remote employees.  Even if it is just 30 minutes, it is essential for keeping in touch with the concerns of those you don’t see every day.  It is their time on your schedule to raise issues, talk about the local (home) office they’re in, or just have the casual conversations that build a relationship.  These conversations build some semblance of connection that would otherwise be impossible.

In addition to frequency of communication, the type of communication is also important.  There are a million blogs / articles / studies that talk about non-verbal communication and its importance in conveying meaning.  Certainly all layered meaning is lost over email.  Written (be it email, Twitter, or whatever) is the default communication method for many in technology but, much of the time, it is simply not sufficient.  When you cannot speak face-to-face (many companies limit the ability to travel), using the phone or preferably video conferencing are much more effective than email.  While this is not always possible, I find that having a five minute conversation over the phone is far more beneficial than trading a couple emails.  Take the time to pick up the phone.  For directs that sit outside your office, it would be odd to send an email for something quick when you could simply ask them in person.  Similarly for remote employees, make the call.

In addition to communication, there are other ramifications of having a distributed team.  When do you have a team meeting?  Do you have multiples to cover different geographies?  How do you form project team so that regions don’t become segregated?  If necessary (think operational support), how do you make sure skill sets are properly distributed?  All of these issues emerge when you start to spread the members of the team apart.  I don’t believe there are answers that apply in all or even most cases.  To a certain extent, the proper course is unique to the individual team.  I would say, though, that as managers of distributed teams, we must be sensitive to these complexities and develop skills / techniques to deal with them.  Some techniques I’ve implemented include rotating meeting times so that, in the event of non overlapping timezones, you rotate the pain of a non business hours meeting.  Similarly with project teams, mix them as best you can and rotate the leadership opportunities so that one region is not always in charge.  The solutions will be what the team needs – the important thing is to consider them carefully and be sensitive to the locations of your team members.

For those with teams dispersed over long distances, as opposed to a few local offices, culture is also a complicating factor.  People from different places operate in different ways.  Similarly to learning to interact with different personalities, managers should be sensitive to cultural differences.  In my experience, the manner in which folks in Asia work is far different from those in Eastern Europe.  Western Europe is different from those and the US is another case entirely.  Understanding and managing differently based on the cultural norms of the remote employee is another way in which we can bridge the divide of distributed teams.  Some people are used to working for an American company (in my case) and are thus used to a US style of management.  That can make things easier but does not remove responsibility from the manager to lean into those differences.

The final point I would make about remote management is that it pays to build a relationship with a manager local to your remote staff.  Assuming they come into a local office (rather than working from home), there will be a management presence of some sort.  It is important to have someone in that office you can rely on for local HR information, facilities, benefits, or any of the other items that may vary based on location.  It is also useful to have someone to use as a sounding board to better understand a particular employee or situation.  S/he will know the culture and the person better and can be incredibly helpful in navigating difficult situations.

Having a remote team is a level of complexity higher than one that is centrally located and these types of teams cannot be managed in the same manner.  Simply realizing that and paying attention to the differences on a daily basis will go a long way toward making you successful.

Why Trust is Critical to Leadership

In my opinion, there is nothing more important to the leadership of a team than the trust that develops between the team members and its leader.  This is true across many industries and careers so, in that sense, this post won’t be dedicated to pulling out the distinctions for technical teams.  I believe most of what I intend to discuss is almost universally applicable.  To begin the topic, I’d like to reference a historical text that has been used to provide guidance on leadership.  In The Prince, Machiavelli famously stated that, “It is far safer to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.”  I mention the quote not to debate the main points of the book (that has been done endlessly) but to outline some possible aims of leadership.  I hope you will indulge the comparison.  In the context of leading organizations, I would modify Machiavelli and state that it is better to be trusted than it is to be feared or loved.  Leading out of fear simply gains followers based on a threat.  Leading as someone who is loved is too personal for the business environment.  Managing as someone who is trusted to act fairly and to do the right thing is, I believe, critical to the success of leadership.

Perhaps the comparison to Machiavelli is unfair based on context but I would like to investigate the three leadership styles in play to illustrate my thesis (apologies to Niccolò).  The first style of leadership, one based on fear, is one that I have seen (although not too often) in technical teams.  Leaders of this type tend to introduce fires, what-ifs, and other situations to drive a sense of urgency on the team.  While this may be effective for a short period of time, over the long run, it exhausts a group.  One cannot be expected to jump from crisis to crisis continually without tiring.  Not everything is a P0 and when the team wises up to that fact, the leader has lost all sway.  A leader that continually cries wolf will end up with a slaughtered flock when an actual crisis crops up and no one picks up their cell phone.  While I use the metaphor, this is not contained merely to the operational realm.  Setting false deadlines on projects, introducing new must-have deliverables that are really nice-to-haves, and casually mentioning performance reviews are all examples of this style.  In the business world, this is certainly not outwardly aggressive (that would be an HR issue) but is instead passive, meant to instill uncertainty and in it’s most insidious form, fear of termination.  From my description, it’s obvious I don’t approve, but I know there may be some that say I’m not giving this style a fair shake – please feel free to comment!

If not leading out of fear, what about being loved?  I’m planning an entire post on personal relationships in the technology team space so I won’t dive into that here.  I’d like instead to contain the discussion to the idea of being liked by everyone on your team.  Early in my career, this was a priority, and if I’m being honest, still lingers to this day.  I’ve come to accept that there are those that simply won’t get along with you and that is OK.  Some leaders however, do not accept this limitation and strive to be well liked by everyone in their group.  While this is good from an influence perspective, I believe it is fraught with risk.  The biggest issue I have with this style is the inability to have difficult conversations.  People are, in general, conflict averse and having hard conversations around performance is not something many people do effectively.  Take a look at your last performance review and try to find a place where your manager decided to be overtly critical.  Find a place where needed improvement was mentioned without a softening compliment soon after.  It is hard to be critical of each other, especially when we want to be well liked.  As leaders, this is extremely difficult because while we should all strive to grow our teams through constructive feedback, a negative reaction to criticism is a real probability.  Those that desire to be loved shy away from that tense situation and in the end, let their teams down.  Some practical examples may be a failure to deal with an under-performing employee, promoting someone based on tenure, or bowing to a more aggressive team member.  All of these examples may be well-intentioned but do not serve the team in the end.  I suppose that I prefer this style to being feared but they both fall behind trust.

Leading through trust involves a lot of things but most key in my mind is transparency.  Honesty with your team is critical.  This means conveying information you’re at liberty to, being open about your expectations, providing timely feedback, admitting your own mistakes, and being open to feedback from your team.

As managers, we are privy to large amounts of information prior to our teams.  Some of this information can be shared and some cannot.  Knowing where that boundary lies is critical to developing trust with your team (and in some cases, keeping your job).  It is important that you share relevant information with your team as quickly as possible.  A well informed team will make good decisions without the need to consult you.  This is empowering and creates and environment of constant communication – something good for any organization.  From a practical perspective, I convey this information in 1:1s, at team meetings, project meetings, and where ever else seems appropriate.  I try to focus on getting the right information to the right people at the right time.  This can be hard to accomplish and problematic if you accidentally exclude someone but is something I work at constantly.  In technical fields, as in other occupations, information is key and holding back or delaying is detrimental to the team overall and can hurt relationships if people feel intentionally left out.  While this may seem obvious, I have had interaction with leaders who have intentionally held back information so as not to “muddy the waters” but ended up being counterproductive.

Communication of expectations is also important in establishing trust not only with your team but among team members.  One practical example of this concerns annual reviews.  Whether the giver or receiver, the worst possible outcome is to be completely misaligned when it comes to someone’s performance.  If, as a manager, your employee disagrees completely with what you have written in a review, you’ve failed.  Performance, and expectations around it, should be a constant dialogue with your team.  Whether it is around something as large as an annual assessment or as small as the next project task, it is critical to be clear on what needs to be done and when it needs to be done by.  Team members will return this transparency of expectations by making commitments and hitting them (something I’ve mentioned in a past post).  This results in a completely above-board and trusting work environment.  And no surprises when it comes to performance.

Feedback between a team and its leader is the final part of trust that I want to address.  It is important to provide feedback to your individual team members in a timely manner.  Positive or negative, waiting a week to mention something from the meeting you just held isn’t very useful.  Be up front if someone does something that doesn’t meet your expectations but let them know in private.  If someone does something great, let them know as well – and do it publicly if appropriate.  As leaders we must also be open to feedback from our teams.  Do not wait for people to speak up, search it out.  Just as important as hearing criticism is acting on it.  You need to let the team know that you’ve heard where they’d like you to improve and are taking steps to do so.  Admit your mistakes and report out on your progress in rectifying them.  Nothing is worse than getting up the courage to talk to your manager around something that is bothering you and being blown off.  Constructive criticism is a two way trust relationship.  The person raising the issue needs to trust the recipient to hear, respond to, and take steps to resolve problems (as opposed to flipping out and storming off).  Likewise, the recipient of criticism must trust that the source is not trying to be a jerk and has an honest concern.  I think a mark of high performing teams is when team members can challenge each other to be better in an open and honest manner and that this feedback is received in an open and healthy manner.  No better place for this behavior to start than with the manager.


Balancing Work and Home

This may seem like an odd topic for a leadership blog but I think encouraging work / life balance is an important (and very difficult) thing to do within technology teams.  High performing teams are typically made up of individuals who enjoy what they’re doing for work.  It would be odd to see a team that functioned well if some or all hated their jobs.  For people that enjoy their jobs, the lines between work time and leisure time can become blurred.  As technology is so rapidly changing, technologists may use their free time researching to stay current or working in their home lab.  It is difficult as a leader to, on the one hand, drive the team to meet deadlines while on the other, tell people it’s time for a break.  While certain past experiences (read, burn out) have forced me pay mind to this balance in my own life, I have found it difficult to force those on my teams to do the same.  I suppose vacations cannot be dictated but I believe there are other ways to push people away from work, if only for a short time.  As leaders, this skill is essential to protect the team against overwork, low morale, or even, in the extreme, outright mutiny (that never ends well for the captain).

I believe that technology fields off two unique challenges to the balance between work and home.  The first I’ve already alluded to – it changes so rapidly.  It is necessary to learn outside of normal working hours (as companies usually don’t allow enough time for training) because an outdated technologist is not going to be successful.  Those of us in technology also like to learn and understand the bleeding edge because it is new and exciting.  So while others may surf the latest entertainment blogs or sports sites, we figure out how to write that piece of code or find out if the bug we’ve run into is fixed in the next beta release.  I’m not saying this is true for everyone of us but I believe that, for technologists, a lot of our down time is closer to work than other fields.  This presents challenges for balancing work and home as the line between the two becomes foggy.

The other unique hurdle for technologists (at least those in any sort of operations role) is the idea of being on-call.  While most occupations have set hours with some expected overflow, I have slept next to my phone ever since I joined this profession.  It can ring at any time and it is expected that I answer it.  I’m not putting technology jobs above others, just saying that “carrying the pager” makes technologists different.  We are certainly well compensated as a result but this does however force the lines of work and home to become more vague.  Unless I’m on vacation, I don’t shut my phone off or leave it at home.  Maybe that’s just me and others are better but it makes me anxious to be without that little communication device.  And when I carry the phone, I tend to check and respond to email and thus my workday extends.  The benefits my company gets for shelling out for the device and monthly plan are enormous.

So with these things in mind, how do leaders prevent their team members from tipping the balance in their lives too far toward their job?  This is a huge issue in the US (where success is judged primarily by economic status) and is something I face on a daily basis.  There are a couple of methods I use – one direct and one more indirect – to combat this.

I’ll start with the more indirect of the two.  This idea is around managing expectations and while that may seem a little odd to connect to work / life balance, I promise I’ll get there.  I have a simple rule that I employ with my teams: make commitments and hit them.  If you are unable to meet the expectation on delivery, let me know as soon as possible.  This does a couple things for me.  It makes planning simpler as I generally know when to expect deliverables and if they slip, I know as soon as possible.  As a manager, it is important to deal with misses in a rational way.  Delays will happen, that is a fact.  When they do, reacting with anger or insane disappointment is out of line.  If you do, your team won’t trust you and will let you know of delays only as a last resort.  That only gives you less time to re-plan, reset expectations, and adds tension – not a positive outcome.  Your team must trust in your response and know that you are on their side.  It also helps to guide your team on setting expectations.  If you are forgiving without being a doormat, people will add less padding to their work estimates, ending up with more accuracy.  Reiterating the importance of making and meeting commitments along the way serves to solidify this.  All of this serves to make work more predictable and reduces the chaos of the multiple workstreams / projects / skunk works efforts that are common in a technical environment.  This helps work / life balance tremendously as it fundamentally changes the way the team works.  Rather than jumping from rushed deadline to rushed deadline, the team can plan and when a day to catch your breath is necessary, you can take it rather than having it domino a ton of efforts out of control.  The work itself “slows” and the team knows that their leader has their back and understands that sh*t happens.

The other part of this indirect method is to hone your skill at managing up.  Just as your team will set expectations with you, you must set expectations above.  As you develop trust with your team and get better and better work estimates and flow, your ability to be predictable to upper management will improve.  Ideally, this predictability brings trust and with it, some calm.  Unfortunately, that may not always be the case and many of us have dealt with management that never seems satisfied or appreciative.  In these cases, it is important to remember that, as leaders, we must act as buffers to our teams.  Be honest with them as to the pressure you’re facing and never toss them under the bus to your management.  It is our job as leaders to own that responsibility and manage expectations.  Doing so is critical for both the sanity of the team and your own well being.

The more direct method of dealing with work / life balance concerns being in good communication with your team.  It is important to know how the individuals on your team are doing, both within and outside of the workplace.  You don’t need to be friends with everyone (that’s a personal decision and a different post) but as leaders, it is important to know the pressures facing your team, no matter the source.  The ability to sense work overload or other sources of stress is a critical leadership skill.  In a perfect world work would be stress free and while it can be managed, work is never free of stress.  There are times when as leaders, we must react and do so in support of our team, potentially at a cost to a project.  In the long run, the team will appreciate it and the business will benefit through increased morale and work output.

A couple of examples to illustrate the point… you might have an employee who suddenly changes his or her performance.  Normally she is great and enthusiastic but lately has been quiet and might have missed some commitments.  Don’t delay addressing this as it may compound with time.  Faced with an under-performing employee, some managers will make the conversation simply about that and simply send the “pick it up” message.  That isn’t my approach.  If you have someone that is traditionally a good performer, the benefit of the doubt should be given 100% of the time.  I start these types of conversations with, “Are you OK?”  I mention that I’ve seen a change and want to know how she’s doing.  I do this because I truly care and also because I want to know what I can do to help.  Employees will share to varying degrees based on their personality and level of comfort with you.  Regardless of the degree of disclosure, it is important that your team knows that you care.  Just asking and sensing tone or if in person, body language, can give you insight.  Once you have it, it is important to act.  If you sense someone is over-stressed, pick a day, call her up and tell her to take the afternoon off.  If pressed, it is a reward for a job well done.  These small acts may have more of a positive effect then you know and only come at the cost of a few hours.

Another situation you might run into is an employee who comes to you with a personal concern.  It might be that a parent is ill or they have an auto repair that they need to get done but haven’t been able to find the time.  Given this type of situation, I immediately offer time away from work.  Family has been and always will be more important than the job and as a leader, it is important that you reinforce this to your team.  The belief that one might be viewed as under-performing if we need to ask for time only serves to compound personal stressers and can dissuade us from requesting it.  As a leader, offer it.  It takes a lot of pressure off folks if they know you’re supportive and won’t respond with, “That’s nice, now back to work.”  These situations won’t always be as obvious as I’ve presented here so it is important to build your skill in reading your team.  It takes time but putting the balance of work and home front of mind for yourself and your team will go a very long way.  It is critical to our development as leaders.


The Importance of Listening to Your Team

When folks read the title of my blog, I’m guessing the first thought that comes to mind is management.  A manager leads the team and the team members follow.  While that is certainly my current role, being a manager doesn’t qualify you as a leader, nor does it fully define what it means to lead.  Leadership can happen at all levels of an organization and in all functions.  This is especially true in technology where most teams are not staffed to their full compliment and individuals are often expected to operate with a fair degree of independence.  Leadership opportunities arise within projects, through subject matter expertise, and even through attitude and mindset.  Simple acts can make you a leader and it is in these moments that I see leadership.

I’d like to define leadership by describing some qualities that make a good leader.  These can be applied no matter your position, you just need to find the right opportunities.  I’ll also get into some examples of poor leadership techniques that we all can fall into.  Understanding and correcting improper tendencies as as important if not more so than demonstrating good qualities.  I’m going to describe what I feel makes a good leader in many different posts because I believe that each quality is nuanced enough to warrant a lengthy discussion.  I don’t think there’s any Top 10 list that applies universally so I’ll tackle them over time.

One quality that I feel is critical is the ability of a leader to listen to his or her team.  Leaders like to talk.  Generally speaking, those that gravitate to leadership roles are expressive and willing to share their thoughts and opinions with others.  While this is certainly a positive trait, good leaders also know when to keep silent.  The ability to listen and respond thoughtfully to your team is critical.  People want to be heard and respected.  If you are constantly talking through, over, or around people, you’re not leading, you’re babbling.  Opening your ears comes in handy in many situations.  Listening to a peer vent, discussing career aspirations with a report, or understanding the amount of risk in a project timeline as a team member are all examples.  Too much can be missed when your mouth is moving.

I struggled with this early in my career and still do today to a certain extent.  Too often I wanted to make sure that I was heard and didn’t take the time to truly hear others.  I had many a manager, project manager, or peer pull me aside and tell me that I was too brash or came on too strong.  Normally they respected my opinion but didn’t appreciate how I had conveyed it.  It took quite some time for the advice to sink in (and I’m no master of it now) but I’d like to think I have grown a little from that young man right out of college who knew everything about everything.

The practical applications of this trait are numerous but I’d like to focus on a few techniques that I have found effective.  As a manger, I schedule 1:1’s with nearly everyone in my organization that wants one (and even with some that I’m sure don’t).  The frequency isn’t too high but I treat it as the other person’s meeting.  It is his or her time on my calendar and I set that expectation right up front.  If I control the conversation, I believe I’ve failed.  I want to hear how that person is doing, how their work is going, how they’re enjoying it, what they want to be doing more of, what they can’t stand, and most importantly, what I can do to help.  I want to understand “the pulse” so to speak.  I’m very transparent about the process, telling the individual that this is their opportunity to tell me what’s going well and what isn’t.  Not everyone engages and that is fine – the fact that they have the opportunity is the point.  Too often, managers simply dictate because there is too much work and too little time to check in and see how the team is doing.  This can lead to low morale and in the worst case, attrition.  Too often in large corporations (which is the entirety of my professional experience), that fact that we work with human beings is lost amongst the huge machine that surrounds us.  While changing corporate culture is beyond my skills, I try to humanize my small space within it as much as possible.

Another technique I use is a round table at the end of every team meeting that I hold.  I leave time in the agenda for open items that anyone can raise.  It can be a question for someone else on the team, an accolade for a peer, a concern someone has, a question from an earlier portion of the meeting, anything at all really.  It is a time where each team member has the opportunity to take the floor and be heard.  Sometimes it causes the meeting to run over, other times there’s complete silence.  In the latter case, I will sometime ask someone who I know is comfortable with the spotlight if he or she has anything to bring up.  Be careful about who you do this with as folks with more reserved personalities can feel very put off by it.  This can get the discussion rolling but doesn’t always, and that’s OK.  The result doesn’t matter as much as the fact that the chance to speak is there and that I, as the leader, am stepping back and letting other dictate the conversation.

The first two approaches can be applied broadly across industries but the third I’d like to discuss is applicable directly to a technical environment.  As a manger, there is a tendency to move away from the day to day of your organization.  This is especially true the higher that you go in the food chain.  It is a fact of the managerial career path that you lose your technical depth.  It is a decision we all need to make in our careers.  In general, management (if they are focusing on managing) can’t stay up to date with all the newest technology that their team employs.  While this can be disappointing for some, I embrace it and am very transparent with my team that I rely on them for the technical knowledge.  I don’t have the answers and need them to lead me to the best technical decisions.  In this spirit, I periodically take the time to attend deep technical meetings (the ones the team has without stakeholders so they can actually be productive).  I use it as an opportunity to educate myself and to switch roles with my team members.  They become the leaders and I the follower (a certain Star Wars quote comes to mind here).  I ask questions, not to challenge the ideas being presented, but to truly understand the topic being discussed.  I take note of the participation of each team member and may follow up if I sense someone was drowned out by louder voices.  For me, this achieves two things.  I stay in touch with the technology to a depth that is required and I also get to hear the thoughts, ideas, and interactions of members on my team.  Some may argue the point over the technical knowledge required to be a good manager of a technical team (I’ve got a post about that in the hopper so I’m not going to dig into it here) but reading manuals and configuration guides is something I gave up long ago.  For my purposes, gaining technical information is secondary to listening to the team.

While I’ve described these practices in a managerial context, they can be applied generally.  I openly encourage my team members to hold 1:1s with each other, especially if they have frequent interaction.  If both parties go into that meeting wanting to hear the other, great communication and collaboration will happen.  Similarly, PMs, technical leads, or anyone facilitating a discussion can leave room for the table to be heard.  Take the time in the agenda to allow for it – don’t skimp.  And finally, anyone can take the opportunity to expand their knowledge in a new technical arena.  Ask to attend a technical discussion outside of your comfort zone.  Ask questions and learn from your peers.  This may not seem like leadership but letting someone know that you are interested in what he’s doing and want to better understand it is very powerful.  You will earn respect and trust – two things critical to being a good leader.