July 25, 2016
by Hannah Jennings-Voykovich

A Life of Screens: Managing an All-Remote Team

People-managers are charged with building teams and figuring out how to help their employees do their best work as part of a group. So what happens when every member of a team works remotely?
RemoteExperience-11 Simple’s office employees learn about the remote experience.

Michael G took a job at Simple because he wanted an engineering job that he could explain to the elderly.

For years, Michael worked for companies like Heroku and Github, where his work revolved around building things that made software development work easier and more efficient.

“The work was rewarding, but nothing that I could ever explain to my grandmother,” he says. “I was in a place where I wanted to find a way not to just build technology, but to be applying it to people who aren’t just engineers.”

Michael came to meet Simple’s now-VP of Engineering Will M, who introduced him to the company’s mission, and the issues Engineering was working to solve. Intrigued, he decided to take the plunge.

Michael says, “Money has always been a source of anxiety for me, so I appreciated Simple’s mission to make people feel more confident about their money right away. Knowing that I could work for a company that can succeed in making that anxiety go away seemed like a good move.”

Thankfully for Michael, taking the job did not mean moving in the physical sense. He and his young family had an established life in Oklahoma City, and Michael was already well-versed in working as a remote engineer. Initially, the work was challenging, but navigating his place as a remote engineer was not. His real challenge came around six months later, when he was promoted, and began to learn how to run a team as a remote employee.

From far afield

Michael had not managed people before he was promoted, and says he’s learned a lot about managing personalities, technology, and the interplay of both through his role as a manager, and now director.

He now manages infrastructure engineering, which is a team of 12 people. All but one team member live outside Portland and work remotely, meaning that the one Portland-based engineer on the team has to use the same technology as everyone else to have meetings. Michael says, “Given that everyone else is remote, we consider him remote as well.”

During his time managing the infrastructure team, Michael has learned a number of lessons about team strength and camaraderie, despite distance. Here are his top five tips to creating a strong, healthy team of remote employees.

1) Establish a rapport

For a remote team like Michael’s, periodic in-person meetups help him get to know his team, and play a huge part in his ability to manage remotely.

Michael says, “Being remote means you don’t get personal contact; you can’t have lunch with them whenever you feel like it. It takes coming together in person to establish a rapport. There are certain limitations to remote communication that just come easier when you talk in person.”

To maintain this rapport, Michael ensures that everyone on his team has regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings with him.

“It’s an opportunity for us to connect and have a really good conversation with each other, and get to know each other better,” he says.

2) Make the mission clear

Michael says that establishing clear goals—and pathways to these goals—has played a crucial role in his team’s success.

“You need to have clarity of where you are, and where you’re going,” says Michael. “Once you have direction, you can set up processes and methodologies that give people the tools to succeed.”

One of the pathways to achieving team goals has involved team members establishing clear working hours with the department. When it’s clear what hours someone works, their team can interact with them easier, and know what to expect from them at any time during the day.

“The general expectation is that you’re putting in the same amount of time as everyone else,” says Michael. “If you take breaks, or your hours aren’t the norm for your timezone, that’s fine too, but I do ask that everyone has normalcy and pattern to their working, and that they’re able to make standup meetings with us all.”

A typical meeting setup for Michael and his team

3) Find reliable tools

Establishing best-practice for communication among remotes is a huge part of Michael and his team’s process. The group uses Slack, Github, and Zoom, depending on the level of immediacy and permanence required.

Michael says, “Slack is a combination of actual tactical coordination to work through problems, technical discussion, and frankly, a whole lot of banter back and forth; it’s where we get our personal connection with the team. We use Github as a way for having long-running discussions and more permanent communication. Then we use Zoom for discussions—we have a weekly standup where we have an ‘in-person’ sync, I have weekly one-on-ones with team members, and sub-groups have their own meetings, too. We’re able to coordinate and communicate very much like an in-person team.”

Michael says that it’s not only important for remote employees to communicate through these tools; office-based employees should, too.

Michael says, “If important conversations are happening around the water cooler and you’re remote, you’re left completely confused. Things will just be happening around you, and you won’t understand where decisions came from; you just see movement. Thankfully, Simple employees embrace communication tools, and use them all day. It keeps remotes in the loop.”

4) Be intentional with communication

While Slack is a great way to stay in touch, Michael says it can also be a tool of distraction.

“Slack is a very busy and noisy source; you have to know when to turn it off, and be intentional with your focus,” Michael says. “What this means is that if you need to step away from Slack to get work done, you need to tell your team that you’re not going to be there, and we as a team have ways to get in touch with you outside of Slack. We have to be deliberate, and develop a pattern of what being away looks like, so people know how to work around it if something important comes up.”

5) Make the most of your differences

Michael says, “Having people in different timezones is useful. For starters, we have people on the ground from at least 6am Pacific Time, until at least 5pm Pacific Time. Also, if the office loses connectivity, the upshot of having remote Infrastructure engineers is that someone can keep things operational and investigate from an outside perspective.”

Simple’s conference booth out in the wild

Continuing to expand

With his team of remote engineers chugging along, Michael has a task ahead of him—maintain the team’s effectiveness while scaling to meet the needs of the business. There are a lot of factors to take into account when scaling a team, but Michael is happy that structures to support more remote employees are already in place.

“As a company, we’re committing to creating product teams, which is ripe for a mixture of remotes and Portland-based employees. With this model, there’s no reason why we can’t run as many teams as we need.”

As for finding the perfect people, Michael says that having an active presence all over the country is a great way to ensure that the best candidates find your business, regardless of their location.

“One of the benefits of a remote team is we can meet people at conferences and events, and tell them that it doesn’t matter where you live, you can work for us,” Michael says. “I can go to any major technical conference or any opportunity I have to find people who have an interest in Simple or doing the things that Simple needs, and we can bring them in.”

Michael says, “Portland is a great town with a great talent pool, but I would never buy into the idea that we should be sourcing all of our skills and talent from here. If we’re hiring the best, we need to have the widest net possible, and a good remote culture allows for that.”

all-hands-25

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