How to handle the underperformance of a remote engineer

Cosmin Nicolaescu

CTO at Brex



"A third of Stripe's engineering team works remotely, so as a manager I handle a mixed team of San Francisco-based and remote engineers. I started noticing a drop in engagement in one of the remote engineers. He was not online on Slack and was slow to respond. However, I don't believe in relying on these symptoms alone, as I do not believe they are objective enough, and as an engineer, I needed a good understanding of his contribution (e.g. his code output and pull requests). At the time, our way of tracking deliverables wasn't as good as it is now, but I managed to get a good sense of his performance and it became clear that he was underperforming. He had been a good engineer so I needed to understand what was going on."

Actions taken

"Stripe remote workers come to Stripe headquarters every quarter, so luckily we were able to talk face-to-face a few weeks later. Some things are hard to express remotely so I prefer having face-to-face discussions if possible. However, you shouldn't wait too long once you've noticed a problem. I came to the meeting with a very open mind and no assumptions regarding his underperformance. We went for a coffee out of the office and started with vague facts. I didn't go into too much detail, so he didn't feel threatened. I then asked what was going on. Most importantly, I showed support by asking him how I could help. It turned out that his personal circumstances were affecting his productivity. We talked and I suggested that he take some time off and commit to less work in order to avoid issues with other teams."

Lessons learned

"The first step you should take when faced with an underperforming employee is to put a good system in place to judge the performance objectively. When tackling the issue during a one-on-one, it's important not to have assumptions and to create a safe environment for your engineer to engage with you. Finally, being supportive and providing help is the best way to react when employees tell you that they are facing personal issues that are affecting their performance. I believe the key factor of success in this story was timing. By being proactive and measuring performance, I managed to detect the problem and handle it before it became a big issue in the team."

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Cosmin Nicolaescu

CTO at Brex

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