Managing Remote Engineering Teams: How, Why, When
Most of the world is two years into telecommuting — fully or partially. Most team leaders have tested different team management tools and tactics and formed opinions about the benefits and drawbacks of working from home. As a fully remote company, the oVice team decided to share our ways of handling the most common remote team management challenges. Here are our answers to 7 pressing remote team communication questions: How do you check if employees are “on the clock”? Or how do you get status updates from teammates?
A virtual office company that bridges the gap between remote and hybrid teams.
At the time of writing, most of the world is two years into telecommuting — fully or partially. Most team leaders have tested different management tools and tactics and formed informed opinions about the benefits and drawbacks of working from home.
Statistically, communication and team management are the biggest challenges leaders face.
As a fully remote company helping other teams transition to working online and improve communication between teammates, the oVice team decided to share our ways of handling the most common remote team management challenges.
Here are our answers to 7 pressing remote team communication questions.
1. How Do You Check if Employees Are “On the Clock”
As most teammates have Slack, messengers, and collaboration tools on their smartphones, they can reply to messages when they are not at their desks. As a result, managers have no way of knowing whether an employee is actually working throughout the day.
Since our team’s key project is a virtual office for remote teams, we use our own tool to control availability. At any given moment, we can take a look at the office space and see who is working.
When a manager wants to get a quick status update from an engineer, he can walk up to him for a casual team. Through oVice, we can seamlessly connect with people in our branch offices in Japan and South Korea.
As for the alternatives not involving virtual offices, you can try the following:
- Availability and attendance channels on Slack. Unless teammates post in the #attendance channel that they are unavailable specifying the amount of off-time they need, you as a manager have the right to expect availability.
- Fixed working hours for each member during which you expect them to be available. Since distributed teams are often international, coordinating time zones can be a pain. To that end, you can have each team member specify their working hours in a single time zone and expect to find them available for calls and messages at that time.
- Task-oriented performance tracking. To run a productive remote team, you don’t need to know if everyone is “clocking” their hours if they get the job done. Shifting the focus from time- to task-oriented performance tracking takes some reorganizing but it’s easy to do with project management tools like Trello or Asana, regular scrum, and status update meetings.
2. How Do You Get Status Updates From Teammates
While scrum and standup meetings are helpful in bringing the team together and sharing what everyone is up to, there’s no point in holding them “just because”. If you, as a manager, stopped getting useful information out of daily scrums, here are a few ways to improve their yield:
- Start a personal Slack channel for each team member where they can post questions, concerns, project updates, and relevant information. Both the manager and everyone from the team can follow each other’s accounts and stay in the loop of the latest news and statuses.
- Keep a short rundown of project status updates on Notion. This way, you’ll keep engineers accountable and encourage them to make realistic projections in meetings. Also, scanning through meeting logs gives managers an idea of what the team discussed, was concerned about, and accomplished during the week/month.
- Encourage public update sharing. Rather than exchanging DMs, build a culture of sharing data in public Slack channels. This little tweak helps improve the situational awareness of the entire team and makes following brainstorming, code reviews, and spontaneous Q&A sessions between teammates a lot easier.
3. How to Onboard New Hires Seamlessly
For a new hire, joining a full-remote company can be a nightmare — you don’t know anybody and have no clue where to start. Everything is moving too fast and everyone seems too busy to spend extra time with you.
Managers need to acknowledge the need to mentor and oversee new hires. In our experience, outside of the virtual office where newcomers can casually ask senior members technical or work-related questions, the following was extremely useful:
- Slack onboarding bot that walks an employee through all stages of setting up corporate accounts, payroll, and setting 1-on-1s.
- Organization chart that shows what your teammates are responsible for. It’s an excellent starting point for new hires, as they know who they should reach out to.
- Slack channel dedicated to welcoming newcomers — here, everyone joining the team can introduce themselves briefly, and touch on their previous experience, hobbies, interests, and other relevant information.
- Assigned mentors who become a reference point to a new hire. Got a review request? Let your mentor know about it. Found a confusing part in the documentation? Your mentor is here to address your concerns. Also, it’s a good idea to encourage mentors to introduce juniors to other teammates so that new hires are quickly and seamlessly integrated into the workplace.
4. How to Encourage Employee Training Remotely
Remote work made organizing company-wide workshops and knowledge-sharing meetings a lot harder, making developers have to walk the extra mile and find ways to encourage teammates to grow professionally.
The good news is that remote work doesn’t put a stop to employee training. Here’s how we go about ensuring project growth and development:
- Find out what job transitions teammates want to make during 1-on-1 calls. Feeling uninspired at their jobs can cause even FAANG developers to quit their jobs. To make sure your teammates aren’t bored with their daily tasks, allocate some time during catch-up calls to find out whether there are role transitions or new skills an employee wants to learn.
- Encourage experiments. Learning by doing is one of the best ways for remote employees to continue training and professional development. However, it’s not feasible when engineers are swamped with monotonous urgent tasks to be done ASAP. Make sure to give teammates time to test new hypotheses, research the topics they are curious about, reflect on product development, and so on — be it through side-project Fridays or a few “exploration” hours every day.
- Encourage employees to connect with people outside of their teams. This strategy is beneficial in multiple ways: giving engineers a big-picture view of product development, enabling knowledge sharing, and helping teammates foster personal connections.
5. How to Avoid Micromanagement
In a distributed workplace, it’s easier to give in to the temptation of breathing down each teammate’s neck with a “Hey, just checking in” than it ever was at the office. This kind of micromanagement eats at a team leader’s time and no one on the team likes it.
Here’s how oVice managers seamlessly oversee engineers at oVice without being push-overs.
- Observe, don’t intrude. Checking out Slack activity from time to time gives insight into the dynamics of the team, people’s concerns, questions, and fires to put out. Most of the time, you can learn more by watching your teammates interact than by pulling each of them out on a 1-on-1.
- Be there to help, not to judge. Keep in mind that a catch-up message can evoke different emotional responses depending on your intent. If a manager is checking in with an employee to praise or give a helpful suggestion, most teammates will be happy to get extra engagement. However, if you are chiming in because you are suspicious or concerned, the engineers on your team will feel micromanaged.
6. How to Keep Meetings Natural
Smooth interpersonal communication is one of the benefits of office-based workplaces. In a remote team, it’s common to lose focus during meetings, multitask, or silently wait until the discussion is over.
To create a smooth communication flow, engineering team leaders can:
- Move away from agendas, goals, and bullet points. Organizing everything you want to say in a meeting helps save a lot of time but it leaves teams with no “breathing room”. If your latest calls with engineers feel robotic and scripted, it may be time to check whether your agenda is not too rigid or your scheduling isn’t too optimistic. Giving all participants 10 extra minutes for chit-chat or voicing their concerns helps bring the team together.
- Don’t rush to wrap the meeting sooner. If you put an hourly meeting on the agenda, it’s okay to take things slower and discuss everything you need to. After all, winning 10 extra minutes by wrapping up sooner only encourages mindless social media scrolling and losing focus before the next engagement. On the other hand, if you keep running out of issues to discuss, and there’s a lot of time left, it’s a good idea to cut the meeting time as a rule.
7. How to Synchronize the Office Team and The Remote Team
A hybrid workplace — allowing people to choose whether they come to the office or work from home — is a new trend. On the one hand, it gives employees a chance to escape distractions awaiting them at their places, as well as meet in person and build connections with teammates.
On the other hand, the teammates who don’t want to commute and prefer working from home can keep doing their jobs remotely.
Running a hybrid team is a unique challenge, as it creates a disconnect between the office team and the remote fraction of the team. Often, the distributed half of the team is not in the loop on the things in-house employees are doing so engineers can feel left out.
To bridge the gap, hybrid team managers should:
- Encourage the office team to communicate in ways accessible to the remote team: Slack, email, and collaboration platforms.
- Set up game nights and team-building gatherings remotely so that the entire team can join.
- Document (and record) all office-only meetings to keep developers working remotely updated.
As an idea, a product, and a team, oVice was born during the COVID pandemic. Our team is fully remote — some teammates meet in real life, others have never spoken in person. Nevertheless, in two years, we’ve expanded to over 150 employees and keep growing.
Through our virtual office technology, we help remote and hybrid teams stay connected. Since its launch, oVice is supporting over 2,200 organizations all over the world.
Recently, we revamped the interface of the platform. The update is live on the oVice tour space - check it out and learn how virtual offices can help your team stay connected and productive. We are excited to see your feedback and answer questions.
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