Engaging the Team


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

What’s the Problem

Ask yourself what your chief concerns are:

  • Attrition
  • Productivity
  • Quality
  • All of the above

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, 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 notwant 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
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 abuddy 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.

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

The Importance of

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

  • Are you happy?
  • If there was one thing you could change…
  • If you were to interview at another company and they asked about why
    you were leaving, what would you say?
  • Do you have a specific goals for your career while you’re here?
  • Do you have any goals for your career in general?
  • Do you like what you’re doing?
  • I noticed that…(something). Is that something you would want to talk
  • Talking less in meetings
  • More negative chatter (either in 1/1s or in working sessions)
  • If they are remote, more timeaway.
  • Uptick in missed meetings
  • Any significant, sustained change in their demeanor

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
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

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
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
so crucial to hire the right people for your culture. But
that’s for another essay.

ByKarim Shehadeh onAugust 1, 2018.

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