Engaging the Team

Overview

I have been managing a mix of onsite and remote teams now for about seven years and prior to that worked with remote teams as an engineer for about twelve years. In that time, I have accumulated some opinions of what works and what doesn’t.

This essay is meant to help managers who are faced with a distributed team and are suffering from some of the disadvantages that come with it. Many of the things here jive with the many, many articles on the topic. What I hope to bring to the conversation is my own perspective which focuses more heavily on the problem of belonging.

What’s the Problem

Ask yourself what your chief concerns are:

There are practical, tool-based partial solutions to each. But there is the much harder, fundamental problem: communication and trust.

It is cliche at this point but the truth is that we are social creatures. The extroverts, introverts, cynics, and naive all have something in common: they want to belong.

For some people, though, work is not the place to satisfy that need. It’s work, and in no way defines them as people. Others’ personae are more intertwined with their work. For them, a sense of belonging at work can heavily impact their happiness. It is these people that the techniques in the rest of the essay are trying to help.

One more thing: remote workers are not uniquely afflicted with this problem but they are much more likely to disengage from the rest of a team and so there is a special emphasis put on them throughout.

Detachment

Detachment, as I define it here, is the absence of a feeling of belonging within a team. This is intentionally vague, as the degree and shape of this need will vary widely from person to person. In this section we talk about the effect of detachment on a teammate and some of the ways we can mitigate it.

The Effect of Detachment

When a person feels detached from the work they are doing, the effect it has on the quality and quantity of output is significant. Without the driving force of context and an understanding of the goals of the project they are working on, the only motivations remaining is learning and income. Both of those are good personal motivators but do little to benefit the team and the project. In fact, in both cases, these can be a detriment to the project. The engineer who is focused mostly on learning, for example, might choose a technology they don’t have experience with rather than choosing the one that is more appropriate for the project, the time constraints and other engineers who are and will work on it.

On the other hand, context can do wonders for decision making in ways that an engineer couldn’t predict. It is difficult to even know what questions to ask if you don’t have enough information about the genesis of the project that she is working on. Things like target audience, long term plans, and revenue targets can all have an impact on the decisions an engineer makes.

Knowing the goals of the projects, for example, might inform key decisions on whether to “generalize” the code base — meaning, projecting what might be needed in the future and coding for that as well. This premature generalization is extremely common and is a natural impulse of many engineers. But it can add significant complexity, take more time and ultimately be not useful at all.

In other words, understanding the context of the work that you have been asked to do can also help make better decisions about what not to spend time on.

Mitigating Detachment

First, it should be understood that there are those who simply do not want to understand context. For these, mitigation is simply recognizing this and either not hiring that person or disengaging or letting them go.

There are also those who want to be engaged but are not outgoing enough to initiate that engagement. The manager’s job in this case is to lean in more and provide more opportunities to engage. We will talk about that more later.

Finally, engineers who are hungry for engagement tend to provide the best output, pose great questions and generally raise the morale for the rest of the team. While it is important to give them the opportunities to connect, in many cases they will force those connections whether or not the opportunity is given. The manager, in these cases, should be receptive to these requests and take it as a clue that perhaps not enough touch points are being given to the engineers on the team.

Situations to Avoid

To help set the scene for an engaged and happy team there are some situations that you should try to avoid with remote workers.

The Lonely Worker

Avoid having situations where one engineer is isolated from others in some way. For example, having an engineer who is remote while everyone else is colocated is not ideal. But if that is the case, then you can mitigate the problem by communicating as though everyone is remote. For example, using Slack for all communication, sitting separately in a large office and video conferencing for everyone not just the person who is remote.

The Lonely Worker can also come about in cases where one of the team members is isolated by the work they’re given, not they’re physical location. If every other member of the team is working on a single project, but another is being given unrelated work, the feeling of isolation can be strong. Mitigation for this can be as simple as moving the person to a team that is working on similar things or rotating the type of work to different team members with each sprint to limit exposure to this isolating work.

The Fresh Face

Those who are not experienced in working remotely will struggle in situations that are not ideal. Since most situations are not ideal, avoiding this situation altogether is recommended. If it is unavoidable then there are some straightforward techniques that can help.

  1. Have the engineer work on-site for 2 weeks or more (at least one sprint cycle) — assuming that the team is otherwise colocated — when they first start
  2. Have the engineer come on site quarterly or even monthly if possible — again, assuming that the team is otherwise colocated.
  3. Step-up the number of one-on-ones the manager has with them (we will discuss communication patterns a little later).
  4. Ensure that the junior engineers has time to speak in structured team meetings.
  5. Identify a buddy engineer who he can always go to when he needs answers to questions that he’d rather not ask of people who are not as familiar with him. For some, if they don’t feel comfortable asking a question, then won’t and will make a guess or avoid the situation altogether.

Communication Strategies

As with most things, communication is a critical part of establishing a healthy culture within a remote (or partly remote) team. How can we engage with our teammates from a distance? How can we maintain that engagement and avoid the spectre of cynicism, rumor, and bad assumptions?

The Importance of One-on-Ones

I simply cannot emphasize this enough. Frequent, regular conversations with teammates is critical. And the content of those conversations should be well thought-out and, whenever possible, should have some central question in mind. Some of the questions I tend to pose include:

That last one assumes that are you, as a manager, are observant enough to pick out red flags in behavior. These aren’t necessarily terrible things on the face of it but could be markers of something worse. For example:

Again, these things should be seen as prompts to ask questions, not to criticize. Putting people on the defensive will only serve to increase their efforts to hide the symptoms. Remember that trust is what leads to better communication and transparent, sincere communication can lead to more trust.

Team Get Togethers

There are two types of team get togethers: the directed, structured type and the more open ended working session. The former is an opportunity to share what you’ve been and find out what others are working, while the other is a freeform period of co-working that is limited in duration but allows for direct communication, specific questions and watercooler chatter.

Structured Team Meetings

Structured team meetings have a very specific purpose: dissemination of information. For the purposes of this essay we will focus on only those meetings that are intended to help with team engagement.

Using these meetings to briefly share what each team or team member (depending on audience) is working on is important. First, there is the practical benefit — which is to see if there are any overlaps of effort. Less tangibly is the opportunity to get some acknowledgement of the work that one is doing. But, most importantly, knowing what others are working on helps to establish threads between people and create a community, not just a group — or at least create a space where connections can be established. After all, there’s only so much a manager can do.

Team Working Sessions

Team working sessions are time-boxed periods for a group of engineers to work in proximity (virtual or physical) of one another. There are no speakers, no notes taken. This is not a meeting — just a shared space where questions can be asked, comments made and heard by all. When working remotely, this means keeping a channel of communication (slack video, webex, etc) open for the duration for the session.

The point of all this is to create a space where less formal questions that probably would not be asked in a directed meeting can be asked. But more importantly, it is a time where engineers establish some bonds. I’m not talking about bonds for life, just enough to humanize one’s coworkers. It interferes with our brain’s’ tendency to try to blame and choose sides. It’s much easier to give people the benefit of the doubt if you know them, have talked to them, and, preferably, like them.

A Final Word

Something I talk about a lot is trust. I don’t think there’s any question about the importance of having trust enfuse your workplace. The question is always how do you create a culture of trust. Everything written thus far is one way to open the door to trust. Notice, though, that I try not suggest that you create trust or force it through that door.

You cannot control people nor should you try. The best thing to do is create a healthy environment where trust can flourish. Ultimately it’s up to the people on the team to walk through the door. And that’s why it’s so crucial to hire the right people for your culture. But that’s for another essay.

By Karim Shehadeh on August 1, 2018.

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