“Managing in a Remote World” — Tips from a manager of 100+ people across 20 countries
6 April, 2020
With the COVID-19 crisis, a lot of people are being asked to work from home these days. For those of us who need guidance on transitioning, operating, and managing remotely — we got great tips from Christian McCarrick, an engineering leader who’s been managing teams for 20 years.
You can watch the full Ask-Me-Anything session that we recorded with Christian here on YouTube where he was interviewed by Plato Mentor and founder of Confirm, David Isaac Murray. Here’s the cliff notes:
Uniqueness of working during a crisis
Christian McCarrick: Let’s be clear, these are not normal times. For everyone jumping into remote or distributed work right now, this is not the equivalent of how things would function normally. So, from a remote standpoint, don’t think what you’re doing now will commensurate to what it would be like to work for a distributed organization ordinarily. People are anxious and personal circumstances vary. Understand that it’s a difficult time for everybody.
Approaching remote leadership for the first time
Check in, and check in a lot more frequently than you would have in the past. Overcompensate for the time missed in the office but also be genuinely interested in individuals’ situations. Ask your team: How is everybody doing, really doing? It’s a combination of making up for loss of human interaction and reassuring people about the circumstances. Therefore, continue to conduct team meetings, one-on-ones, and stand-ups while also checking in on people throughout the day over Slack.
Sustaining team morale and relationships
I think that these two points not only apply to remote work but for colocated offices as well.
• Facilitate personal conversations — During colocated meetings, people in the conference room have private conversations. Unfortunately, this interpersonal connection happens less often when individuals are distributed. Individuals show up to virtual meetings, wait, and speak when spoken to. Due to this fact, don’t forget to take time and make small talk with everyone. What did they do this weekend? How’s their dog? Talk about sports or hobbies people are interested in. As a leader, really try and facilitate these things over your video calls.
• Celebrate wins — Working remote you don’t get a lot of accolades from people walking by and patting you on the back. So how do you give kudos to team members? I like to have demos every week or month and make them available for the whole company. I think showing off what you’ve worked on can help team morale. It makes people feel good and encourages a culture where people support each other and have each other’s backs.
Monitoring and tracking remote individuals
I don’t believe in tracking time. However, I am able to monitor workflow by looking at the trends of each individual. Look at the past patterns of team members and use this arrangement to oversee the work. For example, if somebody’s style is to check in everyday and they haven’t for a few days, reach out to them. If they used to comment on pull requests and they no longer do, inquire about the change. If they were really chatty and now have become silent, this might be evidence that something is off. Look at changes in patterns and then go from there.
Humans leading humans
In times of crisis, people look to leaders to be strong, stable, and to give guidance. But there’s also an interesting caveat that during difficult situations, it’s also important to be vulnerable. I think that you can be both a rock through the crisis and also project a sense of vulnerability. Be open to the fact that this is an unknown situation, that this is not business as usual, and that you may be struggling with a few things yourself. Then, give people information on how you’re coping with the situation whether that be through meditation, working out in your bedroom to Youtube videos, or signing up for online classes.
Tips for onboarding remotely
• Synchronized timing — If you can, stagger onboarding and bring people in cohorts, maybe once every week or two weeks. What I’ve found is it gives everyone a sense of camaraderie because they’re all starting at the same time. So cluster people together and have them start training on Zoom where they can see and interact with each other.
• Buddy system — Clearly articulate and pair a new hire with a veteran team member. Set up some pairing sessions for the new employee and designate 1–2 hours a day for pairing sessions.
• Use video recordings — Ask an engineer to screencast work that the new hire will need to perform. For instance, deployment. Engineers are more obliged to record 10 minutes of work that they normally do, rather than writing it down and documenting it. It’s efficient and effective.
• IT issues — Take care of any necessary technical issues (laptop, VPN, credentials, etc.) before the new hire is contracted to start. It will probably take longer to get them these things because you’re all not in the office.
Dealing with meeting fatigue
I think there is a pendulum that exists for people working remote, especially during a crisis. You want to stay connected but you also don’t want to micromanage. For this reason, when your team is distributed, you must embrace documentation. You have to write, and you have to write a lot more. Document during your meetings, after your meetings, and in lieu of meetings. Google Docs is your friend.
Measuring the performance of distributed teams
What gets measured, gets done. What gets measured, gets managed. Measuring for remote teams should be the same for measuring colocated teams. As mentioned, I look at trends of individuals as well as deployed frequency, lead time, meantime restore, change failure percentage, and length of pull requests. I’m really trying to drive efficiency and make sure we’re working on the right things. As a rule of thumb, measure the KPI for the business. Set your KPIs to good business values and metrics, then measure those.
Final words of wisdom
Remember, working remote today is not necessarily the best practice of how you would ordinarily operate remotely. However, if you’ve found positive aspects in spite of all that is going on, imagine how effective your company could be working remotely going forward.
And another thing: remember to take baby steps. Don’t try to implement every single distributed best practice in the next two weeks. Pick one or two things and run with those. Don’t go crazy and try to change your entire culture overnight. Baby steps.
We had a wonderful time chatting with Christian McCarrick! We want to thank him for sharing his knowledge with us, and we want to thank all of you that joined us.
Next week we’ll have our second AMA session. Join us then and bring your questions! You can sign up here for Managing in a Remote World (Part #2).
Have you suddenly become a remote leader? What challenges have you faced? How are you managing yourself and your team? Share your stories with us in the comments, below, or join the conversation over on Twitter. It’s a challenging time for a lot of people but we hope that you all, and all your loved ones, are staying safe. This AMA was produced by the mentorship platform, Plato.
Written with support from Ashley R. Bentley
You're a great engineer.
Become a great engineering leader.
Plato (platohq.com) is the world's biggest mentorship platform for engineering managers & product managers. We've curated a community of mentors who are the tech industry's best engineering & product leaders from companies like Facebook, Lyft, Slack, Airbnb, Gusto, and more.