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Managing in a remote world - tips from GitHub's VP of Engineering

21 April, 2020

It’s pretty surreal how the world is being reshaped around us due to the effects of the coronavirus. As engineering managers and leaders, this has all led to rethinking the way in which we work. Compelled to stay at home, we’ve adjusted by working remotely and have encouraged others to do the same. But with these changes comes a learning curve, which is why we’re here to support you on this endeavor!‍

Plato's newly launched Ask-Me-Anything (AMA) series is currently focused on the topic of "Managing in a Remote World." We recently sat down with the VP of Engineering at GitHub, Dana Lawson, for an authentic and engaging discussion on remote work. Touching on a variety of remote-work topics, Dana touched on issues on promoting morale and maintaining motivation during a pandemic, measuring team happiness and engagement, distributing information from the top of the company to remote employees, advocating for remote policies to stay in place after the quarantine, and building company culture remotely. If you missed this entertaining and informative live AMA event we highly recommend taking the time to watch it. Head over to our YouTube channel to watch the full discussion or to view the other events in this series on Managing in a Remote World.

We’ve captured some of the highlights below:

Reaction to the current situation

Dana: I feel scared, uncertain, and doubtful, but also excited! I’m excited about this opportunity because at the end of the day we’re all technology innovators and I’m eager to see what comes out of this. We’re never going back to the world we were at before this. We’re heading towards World 2.0 and that’s exciting to me!

Vulnerability as a leader

These are trying times and people are freaking out! Leaders need to lead but we also have our own insecurities. Everybody has imposter syndrome to some degree. But as a VP, I feel like it’s even more important than ever right now to show that I’m scared. But I’m also hopeful! Humans are innately awesome and kind and we want to do the right thing. Just sometimes we let our fear get in the way.

Maintaining motivation during a crisis

Be realistic about goals. In software, we utilize systems of gamification to keep people motivated. This doesn’t stop because of the virus, instead we just tweak the goalposts. We want people to continue to feel fulfilled. So think about the current situation, reflect on the mission, and set realistic expectations for individuals on the team.

Promoting morale remotely

  • Have radical transparency about how you feel. There’s a misnomer that as leaders we have a coat of armor and anytime we show weakness it’s a chink in that armor. But that’s nonsense! Get that out of your head. Instead, show up, be authentic, and show that you’re vulnerable by expressing your uncertainty. But also be prepared with actions you're going to take and work with the team to keep the ball moving.
  • Encourage people to turn on their cameras. See how they’re doing. 80% of communication is nonverbal.
  • Increase the amount of touch points.Take the extra steps to go in and make sure everyone’s doing okay.

Measuring qualitative aspects of distributed teams

This depends on the relationship you have with your team. Hopefully there’s a culture already in place that allows for transparency and people are comfortable saying when they’re impacted or impeded. I assume that you’re already measuring the success of the team so you can marry what you’ve already measured from a data set with the conversations that you’re having during your 1:1s. Look at the trends and any tweaking moments, including the new variables that are coming with this pandemic. Things are extra hard around this time so there’s some expectation that there will be a reduction in velocity.

Avoiding meeting fatigue

Think about what’s foundational and what is situational. Foundational are meetings that you have to have, situational is deciding on a time or whether that meeting can be optional. At Github, all of our meetings are optional and that’s because of the situational global asynchronous nature of our org. As a result, all meetings are recorded giving people the flexibility to view it on their own time.

Video calls vs. meetings

Working from home it may feel like you’re always in meetings. This is likely because you associate your video conference tool with meetings. You need to disassociate the tool from what you’re actually accomplishing. If, for instance, you're messaging back and forth on Slack for more than five minutes, then you should probably just video call with that person. It would be the same as if you were collocated in an office and walked down the hall to talk. But these aren’t constituted meetings. So we have to reframe what is considered a meeting and what is actually a touch point.

Best practices for onboarding remotely

  • Make a short 3-minute introduction video so that people get to know you and put a name to the face. New hires then have felt more open to send me a message on Slack because of this video.
  • Pair them with an onboarding buddy.
  • Schedule their days so that their calendar is already filled for them. Don’t wait for them to self-serve on their own. Give them enough stuff to keep them busy.
  • Digitalize materials so that everything is written down and it’s located all in one place.
  • Check-in with that person, at minimum, two times per day - once in the morning and once in the afternoon, at minimum.

Disseminating top-down information remotely

Record your company all-hands and cascade off of that. The company level trickles down to organizational level and then to management level. Everytime the information is reinforced through emails, Slack channels, and localized messages. Ensure that you have a clear view of all the places that you need to post so that no one ends up feeling disconnected. The same way that the execution of a product is revealed externally, you need to handle information the same way internally.

Initial mistakes as a remote manager

  • I didn’t set nor write down constraints on how we worked together as a team. For example, having the camera on during video calls, dialing into the call separately, or time constraints like setting calendar availability and Do Not Disturb on work channels.
  • I didn’t record calls. Now all of our daily standups and calls are recorded. If you’re working with a global team or have people impacted during these times, recording ensures that they can go back and view it on their own time.
  • I didn’t establish a written culture. You absolutely have to write everything down.
  • Initially time zones were a real struggle for me. How we worked across time zones and team composition.

Building a culture remotely

It’s possible! First off, write everything down. I’ve said it before but you have to have a written culture while working remotely. Also, double down on your mission statement. Don’t just say it but show up and take the action behind it! Plus, set moments aside for human connection and human togetherness. 

Hiring is your first opportunity to instill culture. When a recruiter talks to that person, give the interested person a packet that says who you are, your mission, and get them excited from the get-go. Onboarding is another point of contact for how your culture is going to be. When someone joins your company, what is their initial experience going to be like? They need to imagine that it’s a place they want to be and a place they want to stay.

Culture isn’t something you set and forget, it’s something that you have to do. Part of culture is the continual growth and building of something great. To do this, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel! There are plenty of awesome companies that have done or are doing remote work currently. Talk to peers, reach out to leaders, and check out resources from companies who are 100% remote, for example Zapier, InVision, and Auth0. 

Encouraging remote team bonding

  • Virtual happy hours
  • Virtual get togethers - opportunities to get on a call and talk for the sake of talking, with no action items
  • Watch videos or movies together
  • We have Mario Kart parties!

It was a joy to welcome Github’s VP of Engineering, Dana Lawson to our AMA. Her energy and enthusiasm are infectious and we want to thank her for the incredible information that she shared with our attendees!

We also want to thank Confirm’s President, David Isaac Murray, for leading and contributing to the discussion.

If you missed this live event you can bring your questions on remote work and join us next week for the fourth part in this series. Sign up here for Managing in a Remote World (Part #4)!

In the meantime, we’d love to hear from you! How are you maintaining motivation during these times? In what ways do you promote remote team morale? What activities does your team engage in to encourage team bonding?

Share your experiences with us in the comments, below, or over on Twitter!

We hope everyone stays safe, stays healthy, stays home, and stays connected!

This AMA was produced by the mentorship platform Plato. Visit us at Platohq.com.

Written by 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.