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Managing Remotely: Balancing Team Cohesion and Focus Time

Remote
Micromanagement
Meetings
Internal Communication
Productivity
Psychological Safety
Performance

26 May, 2022

Jonathan Belcher
Jonathan Belcher

Engineering Manager - Patient Experience at Curative

Jonathan Belcher, Engineering Manager at Curative, explains how to balance team cohesion and individual focus time, tapping into his experiences of working remotely for seven years.

An Engineer’s Dilemma: Meetings vs. Focus Time

I became a manager two years ago. One of my responsibilities is making sure that my team feels cohesive while still having enough individual focus time. What do I mean by cohesive? A team that knows one another, trusts each other, and works towards a common goal. Team cohesion is critical because it directly influences how well the members work together. Naturally, this has a critical impact on our deliverables.

Achieving cohesiveness and providing focus time may sound like a simple enough job, but there's a contradiction that I'd like to draw attention to. An important way to make people feel like they're part of a team is by having meetings. The problem with meetings is that it cuts into focus time. And developers want a lot of focus time. So, I set out to find a balance between the two goals: fostering team unity while letting people do their thing.

How to Efficiently Strengthen Your Team Dynamics

STOP IT WITH THE STATUS UPDATE CALLS

The first thing I did was to stop doing status updates on calls. Never do a status update on a call. The same thing goes for stand-ups. In my experience, it's always proved to be a waste of time.

Simply tell your team to write up their status updates ahead of the meeting and send them in written form. First of all, they're going to be much more detailed. Second, they'll be easier to follow when reading. Third, this will free up time on the call for team building.

ALLOW FOR FREE-FLOWING CONVERSATION

Let people talk about whatever they want. This is going to vary based on your team and the distinct personalities in it, but just let the conversation flow for a while. That being said, avoid taking the lead to force small talk. A lot of managers try to seem involved by going around the room and asking everyone what they did over the weekend. Be mindful that some people may be very uncomfortable sharing their personal life with the team, especially at first, when they don't have a connection with the other members.

I found that it's best to stick to topics that interest everyone yet aren't too personal. For example, my first team worked on a project in which they got to choose their own stylistic elements. In that context, bringing up a stylistic element that people have strong opinions about led to really fun conversations.

STREAMLINE YOUR TEAM’S MEETING SCHEDULE

A simple trick for creating a balance between meetings and focus time is establishing time blocks. Dedicate specific days and time frames in which meetings can occur. Only pencil in meetings outside of the time blocks if there's an emergency. This will give your engineers regular, uninterrupted focus time.

Another thing I strongly recommend is weeding out superfluous scheduling items. I evaluate every single recurring meeting on a monthly or bimonthly basis to ensure that all of them have value and a clear purpose. I also check my notes to determine whether a meeting's outcome fulfilled its purpose.

PROVIDE A SAFE PLACE FOR RAISING ISSUES

A quick note to ensure that your meetings provide value: make sure that your teammates can voice their concerns. In my experience, when people aren't raising blockers, it's usually an issue of psychological safety where they feel scared to do so. Because that's the whole purpose of a stand-up meeting. As a manager, it's important to provide safe places for people to talk about their problems.

ENCOURAGE ONE-ON-ONES AMONG IC’S

Within the established time blocks, allow your team members to schedule meetings among themselves— don't do it for them. In my current company, we encourage ICs to organize "pairing time" where they reach out to someone that they haven't worked with yet. People don't necessarily have to be working on the same project to pair with each other. This strengthens the sense of unity and togetherness among our employees.

The Dos and Don’ts for Your Next Meeting

  • Regularly eliminate recurring events that don’t have any real value.
  • Create meeting time blocks that don’t cut into your engineers’ individual focus time.
  • Request your team members’ status updates and stand-ups in written form.
  • Don’t dictate the direction of conversation during meetings. Allow room for people to converse.
  • Encourage your team to organize meetings among themselves where they can get to know each other (without your presence).

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