Navigating the downsides of remote first engineering management

Engineering teams working together in the same physical space every weekday will be a rarity. Fully remote and flex work was a phenomenon on the rise before 2020, and the pandemic exponentially accelerated these trends. Tech firms had to adopt a work from home culture overnight. After some initial growing pains, most companies found their productivity didn’t tank, and many of their engineers weren’t eager to head back to their open floor plan campuses. Today even companies with a strong office culture (Google, Microsoft, Salesforce) have shifted to a hybrid setup with the workweek split between the office and elsewhere. Other high profile tech companies (Square, Twitter, Shopify, Facebook) now allow employees to work fully remote.

There will be some holdouts like Apple that retain an in-office model. Still, momentum favors more distributed work setups over time. This new reality makes remote team management skills not just nice to have, but essential.

Having managed a team across the U.S. and Canada for several years, it can be challenging to keep meetings productive and helping the team gel together. If you’re read or listened to any other remote first advice, this isn’t revelatory news. But your actions in response to these headwinds can have a positive impact.

Meetings and momentum

Keeping meetings productive and of high value was already a challenge with everyone in the same conference room. Once you start spanning multiple locations, that challenge intensifies. As you may have noticed working from home over the past year, “Zoom fatigue” is real; many of your coworkers bounce across video calls already with less stamina than usual. Nobody knows when to jump in with their opinion. Many normally chatty individuals without live social cues as a guide drone on too long or clam up too quickly.

A way to combat this is extra preparation with a strong willed moderator. Managers often take on this role, so consider a meeting’s agenda, content, and pacing carefully. Given the fatigue factor, pick and choose meeting topics selectively. If most of the communication will be one way (e.g., announcing a new recurring meeting), ask yourself if an email or Slack thread could be a better substitute to a live conversation.

Given the awkwardness of jumping into a video based conversation, set ground rules on how everyone participates. For example, run “silent reading” sessions, where individuals add comments in a shared document or Slack and a single moderator bubbles up discussion points accordingly to ensure all voices of interest get speaking time. Or have a rule so when one speaker wraps up, they then call on the next. Alternatively, favor individuals raising their hands on the call (live, virtually through the conferencing software) to speak next.

Finally, once the meeting is underway, pay special attention to extended moments of silence. Sometimes dead air can be a good thing when the team needs time to process an idea or opinion. But silence can also go hand in hand with a disconnection in the process; people can become checked out or otherwise disengaged. Consider ending the meeting early and regrouping another time.

Finding substitutes for “hangout time”

While I generally embrace our remote first future, one loss is the ability to bond with a team together face to face. A physical office provides informal check-ins, small talk, and lunch chatter you can’t ever quite replicate virtually.

I’ve tried several team presence apps like PukkaTeam as a virtual substitute, but it is never the same as a humming office. To boot, some team members (understandably) will find the idea of repeated webcam snapshots of their day to day uncomfortable. I still find optional fun “hangout” calendar invites helpful, but its fixed timing can fall during a period where people are trying to knock out work, are otherwise busy, or simply not in the mood.

Nor is a shared charter, mission, or metric a reliable substitute for team connections. Each can be powerful motivators to boost confidence, productivity, and bonds with the company. They still don’t make your teammates feel like they know and trust each other.

Instead, I’ve found the strongest way to build back up team bonding comes organically at the edges of face time that’s already part of the job. For my 1:1s, I put in more prep time to ensure the meeting runs smoothly and I can spend more time at the moment trying to connect “live” with my reports.

It also means, for larger projects, I like when team members work together in pairs or trios; team members start conversations and form connections naturally. Granted, solo work is inevitable if not preferred depending on the effort. Still, leaving a worker off by themselves for too long can be draining to morale. I try in these situations to my best to check in and connect through other means.

I’m aware what I capture here can put meetings and bonding under a distributed setup in a negative light. However, I’m optimistic that almost any engineering manager can make a positive change in the middle. The right process changes and work distribution makes for happier engineers, better output, and less turnover.