Managing from a distance can be hard. Here are five lessons on how to make it work.
When I became an engineering manager at Criteo more than three years ago, I expected to be with my team every day in an office. But when the pandemic hit, I started managing through a screen. It's now more than two years on, and I’ve learned a lot.
In this article, I’m going to share the five most important things I’ve learned (and am still learning) about how to make remote management work, with practical tips for how to adapt to the remote needs of a team.
Lesson 1: Remote managers must foster a positive, flexible environment
As managers, we’re working with people of different ages, nationalities, family situations, and backgrounds. Each of our teammates have their own needs, which evolve over time. Get to know everyone's constraints and be flexible about their working rhythms. Work needs to be done, but we all have different ways of doing it. Some people love to work in the morning, while others prefer the evenings, either for personal reasons or because that’s when they’re most productive. Since giving my team the freedom of choice about their working patterns, we’ve never been more efficient.
Avoid micromanaging, give more trust to ICs, avoid continuously checking on project status, and default to asynchronous, offline communication (for example, through Slack) whenever possible. I’ve learned that we must give teams the necessary space to grow, and trust them with their daily tasks.
We can also rely on more senior teammates to help us with some of our management tasks, like leading medium-sized projects, handling the communication with stakeholders, or mentoring junior engineers. I’ve only seen benefits here: as managers, we have more time for primary responsibilities and background tasks, and our reports can develop new skills.
Another tip is to create ‘sacred time’, which is time away from meetings. Personally, I always block out lunchtime, whether to take a nap, meditate, or spend time with family. It's up to each of my team members to decide what they do and when, but I encourage them to preserve time for breaks to find a healthy balance between their work and personal life.
Lesson 2: Remote managers must create community and stay in touch
Create virtual substitutes for elevator/lunch conversations where teammates can socialize. For example, you could schedule ’coffee time’ chats with the whole team. I’ve found that it's nicer (and more spontaneous) if the invitation can be sent at any time by anyone in the team who feels the need to take a break, rather than having a dedicated, regular meeting in the calendar. You can also take some time for small talk before starting a meeting, and if you finish early.
I also use online games to engage with my team. I often play quick, online games (such as skkribl) during breaks. Some online games, such as virtual vacation, are great for starting conversations, in this case about each other’s travel experiences. You could also try an online team escape game. Personally, I find games a great way to learn more about teammates and their ways of thinking. On the professional side, this helps me approach them better and leverage their strengths.
I use video conferences to make virtual conversations more personal. It's not always possible for everyone to turn the video on. Still, it's better to be able to see each other at least at the beginning of the meeting. Having said that, if it's a group meeting that lasts a bit longer, I encourage everyone to turn off the video from time to time, and not hesitate to take time to take a coffee or tea to stay focused.
It's also a good idea to organize team getaways from time to time. Even though our velocity has never been better, I believe it’s essential to take time away from development. Team days or trips help to create real-life, invaluable bonds between teammates.
Lesson 3: Remote managers must lead with empathy, even from a distance
It’s so important to take care of each other within your team. It's easier to spot someone who needs help when they’re sitting next to you in the office, but it’s definitely more challenging with the distance. As managers, we need to let our teams know we’re always available to support them, whether that’s defining their priorities, helping on a technical task, or just talking about everything or nothing for a couple of minutes. Tell your team you’re there, and prove it through your actions.
I also initiate personal check-ins with team members, usually starting with a Slack conversation but also jumping on Zoom every now and again to see each other’s faces. During these check-ins, be an active listener, pay attention to their anxieties and concerns, and react quickly if there's something that needs actioning.
Lesson 4: Remote managers should encourage cross-collaboration and communication
This lesson is all about creating an environment of trust, knowledge-sharing, and collaboration, both within the team and with other functions. This starts with the simple act of encouraging people to ask for help, inside or outside the team.
It’s also important to over-communicate. In an office, you can rely on oral communication, but in a remote scenario, documentation is key. Everyone should have access to the same level of information, and communication should be made early and frequently. Dedicated Slack channels are a great way to make information available to all.
You might also want to assess your team structure. I’ve recently changed the way my team is organized to deal with the workload. In the new model, instead of having individuals tackle their own objectives in isolation, two or three people tackle each objective together, and I try to avoid always having the same groups. This has helped us to foster collaboration and boost productivity.
Lesson 5: Remote managers need to find their own work/life balance
You need to support yourself before you can support others. To do that, it's important to set up a work routine. For example, I encourage my team to adopt regular working hours (that work for them) and have a designated work area, and the same goes for us as managers. It’s essential (if possible) to separate your work and personal life spaces at home. For me, it's also important to avoid switching from the sofa to the living room table, and then to another place, as it disrupts my workflow.
Another way to create a boundary between work and home is to use a virtual zoom background. Some people are comfortable having their children, pets, or even their bedroom on display during a meeting, but personally, I like to keep the two spheres separate. The virtual background can also be an excellent ice breaker.
It’s also important to exercise frequently, if you can. Before the pandemic, I used my commute to clear my head from work. Now, I use exercise as a way to disconnect instead. Even a quick bike ride every now and then helps let off steam.
I hope these tips can help you in your day-to-day challenges when managing remotely, and give you some new ideas to integrate into your team's routines. Remember, we’re supporting real human beings behind the screens, and we just need to be more intentional in recreating authentic interactions in a virtual setting. Good luck!