The remote workforce continues to grow in numbers and job diversity. Presently, it includes engineers who work in software and information technology, construction, marine, geology, mechanical and electrical companies, to name a few. Managers now need to learn all about managing remote engineering teams.
Research in a 2019 Airtasker survey shows that remote workers are just as productive in a virtual office as they are in a physical workspace. And engineers are no exception. Given the fact that engineering work is skills-specific and time-intensive, the benefits of balance and spending less time on the road are encouraging more engineers to embrace the remote life.
Let’s face it, the future is remote, especially for those engineering roles that are complemented with automated technology. Engineers employed in software development, for example, can reskill to machine learning and data science through e-learning and be assigned to future projects that require experience using these skills.
Managing a remote engineering team whose skills shift dynamically in line with business opportunities will require you to rethink your approach.
In this post, let us see what it takes to overcome the challenges of managing remote engineering teams!
1. Challenges for remote engineering teams and how to overcome them
There are several challenges compounding how remote teams work which include;
1.1 Communication issues
Communication issues stem from disjointed conversations. A member forgets to update the rest of the team and their manager of what they have been doing, resulting in difficulty tracking progress. Slow-moving communication seeps into work, creating dependencies where a member can’t move on to the next sprint without the go-ahead. Members also end up missing out on important and relevant updates, causing more confusion. The error margin widens, causing a bottleneck that delays progress to the next step.
How to overcome this
Communication decorum includes scheduling calls around member availability, ensuring that meetings don’t eat into the time that could go into work. Contextual communication is the golden rule to managing remote engineering teams. Be it expectations, decisions or task updates, both managers and teams should keep the communication flow both ways and discuss before, during and after completing work. Managers should make sure they aren’t leaving out any project members.
1.2 Coordination complexity
This is a mishap arising from communication issues. People lose track of who is on what, and in turn the dependencies that determine the start and finish of the next task on the plan. In a physical office with predictable settings and equipment, this confusion can be cleared up in a simple face-to-face conversation. You can also visually determine if a person has their head down in work and is yet to read and revert to your pings.
Virtually, however, there are factors out of one’s immediate control that you’d have to consider, such as personal emergencies, internet downtime, power outages in the area, and time zone differences. These factors, which can happen to anyone any time, can impact execution. It can cause work to pile up, and accountability to remain unclear for a longer period of time
How to overcome this
First and foremost, determine the type and number of skills you’ll need before creating an engineering team. It is key to ensuring you’re only roping in relevant members. This composition may or may not vary per project. Reconfirm their availability to commit before going ahead.
It’s also good practice to have backup members on standby in case of unforeseen circumstances. Once you have everybody you need, assign responsibilities and tasks according to their competence and know-how. This will help the team align their contribution.
1.3 Disparity in tool usage
Remote engineers use different tools for different purposes. The problem starts if this concept applies to the communication and collaboration software and devices in use.
Let me explain this with an example. Let’s say everyone is using Slack, or a slack alternative like Samepage. One team member uses the tool’s mobile application, while another opts for its desktop or browser extension. The former is more likely to get pings and respond to them. The latter might notice the unread mentions and notifications long after they were sent. The person who sent them will mistake the silence to be intentional, especially if it happens frequently. So, the issue is that not everyone manages to leverage that one tool for all communication purposes.
How to overcome this
Use remote-friendly communication tools that offer individual custom settings for alerts, notifications and channels. This ensures that no one is disturbed by mentions and comments irrelevant to them or their work. Encourage everyone to get on to the same tool for uniformity. This makes it easier to create conversations and moderate engagement
1.4 Unclear goals
Goals that frequently change or are unclear are guaranteed to derail your project even before the team goes to work on it. The longer you sit on a goal without understanding what is to be done, the less actually gets done.
How to overcome this
Always document goals and make them shareable. Store these compiled goals in the cloud for easier retrieval and subsequent collaboration. The team can go over action points together and clarify any doubts. They can see where their skills come in and be of better value.
1.5 Inconsistent updates
This is a challenge stemming from sporadic communication. Failing to standardize meetings, stand ups and check-ins will result in inconsistent reporting. Someone or the other is bound to fall through the cracks. Such people are not in a position to give or get work-related updates.
How to overcome this
Decide how many types of meetings you want to involve your remote engineering teams in. Remember, everyone won’t need to be in every meeting! It comes down to whether their inputs are needed for the discussion to move forward. Next, divide discussions across the day and schedule by importance. Automate intimations and get individual confirmations so that everyone can make it to the discussion on time.
Starting and ending scheduled meetings on time ensure that those few minutes spent on updates does not upset the actual workload.
1.6 Non-uniform participation
The next time you’re in a virtual call, take a minute to observe the group’s participation. You’ll see that everyone’s attitude and approach to the discussion differs. Some speak with clarity, some end up dominating the conversation. And then there are others who remain silent spectators. This non-uniformity has two reasons; one, is that everyone isn’t getting a fair speaking turn. And two, the absence of context that social cues provide.
How to overcome this
Appoint a facilitator and moderator for all meetings. Encourage people to have their camera on so that workers can feel more connected while in the discussion. Set housekeeping guidelines on the meeting tool you use, such as allowing everyone a speaking turn, and muting oneself after they are done presenting. This ensures background noises do not distract the speaker or the attendees. It also prevents people from talking over one another.
1.7 Conflict in delegation
A conflict in delegation arises when people in different levels of authority are giving conflicting instructions. For example, a manager wants reports from a team member by the end of day, while a team lead wants an update for the last task from the same person. As a result, the person is unsure of what to attend to first and cannot optimize their time to get both done, over and above their pending work.
How to overcome this
Consider using the RACI matrix to clarify roles and responsibilities. RACI is an abbreviation for who will be responsible, accountable, consulted and informed of the work. This ensures that there aren’t competing interests fueling managerial decisions.
1.8 Overwork and burnout
If you shorten deadlines for time-intensive work, the person ends up overworking to ensure that they are able to deliver the results expected. The worker focuses more on racing against an unforgiving clock than on work quality. This leads to high stress levels at work which in turn leads to burnout.
How to overcome this
I remember this online course that acclaimed project expert Jamal Moustafeuv was teaching. In the class on estimation, he mentioned that we tend to give narrow estimates to demonstrate our ability to get the work done in the shortest time. In reality, such estimates are unfair to both the worker and the manager expecting an update.
Overwork is preventable, with realistic time and effort estimates. You need to get the team member’s input as to when they can finish the work. Use a time keeping software to monitor usage of company time. It will help employees stay disciplined and check distractions at the door.
2. Best practices for managing remote teams
2.1 Review and finalize the scope
Going over the project scope should be a group exercise. Always involve your team so that they know what is expected of them and everyone they’ll be working with. The scope should list out the resources, budget, equipment, manpower, risks, issues, timelines and dependencies. This helps the team provide feedback and perspectives which can define the scope better and limit it to what can be achieved within the deadlines specified.
2.2 Communicate expectations to teams
Convey project expectations to teams before the project kicks off. Consult and encourage them to clarify any uncertainties in work-related meetings. This is a time saver because everyone starts with a clear picture of what needs doing and the sequence of activities and interdependencies.
2.3 Plan out releases
Managing remote engineering teams comes down to your ability to plan and phase out releases. If you follow an agile method, such as Scrum or Lean development, you can create time-boxed sprints to contain the project. Create a priority log for each sprint and revisit it before moving on to the next iteration. This helps you correct issues or make requested alterations where required. Planned releases help remote engineers stay on track without having to repeatedly go back and forth on issues.
2.4 Leave margins for issue escalation and resolution
As a remote manager, you’ll always get requests for approvals, or a consult for decisions. In addition to this, leave a time margin for resolving issues. Your team will want to inform you of issues as well as what they plan to do about it. Communication goes both ways, and it’s on the remote team manager to be as responsive as they expect their team to be.
2.5 Categorize meetings by time and relevance
Every meeting you schedule should have an agenda that you share with teams beforehand. The agenda lets you get straight to the point. Meetings should take into consideration the member’s timezone so that you are not scheduling calls beyond their work-hours.
3. 5 Tips To Nurture the remote work culture
A strong remote work culture keeps remote engineers connected and engaged. It supports, trusts and appreciates workers and enables them to do what they love, and love what they’re doing. Five actionable tips that you can try out are
3.1 Keep team routines alive
You can recreate office routines with a modern twist. For example, in a daily stand up that would last for 15 minutes, take a minute to announce accomplishments. Verbally praise the performers behind it, and conclude the call on a high note.
3.2 Create non-work channels
Schedule coworker coffee runs and virtual hangouts. You can encourage employees to form groups based on personal interests and broadcast it to the channel so that members can request to join in on such channels. This is the space workers can visit for breaks, or to talk about something non-work related which will help them recharge.
3.3 Participate in team-building activities
Team-building activities help remote engineering teams bond. It helps people know who their coworkers are outside of work. Such activities can even settle conflicts by supporting workers to collaborate rather than compete against each other. It focuses on involvement and lets workers enjoy building relationships at work
3.4 Leverage time management techniques
Anyone managing remote engineering teams would benefit from mastering time management. Time management techniques free you up to focus on what really matters. It helps you start and end work on time, while making the most of the work hours.
You can use the Pomodoro technique to fit work during your window of productivity, and take timed breaks so that you don’t lose steam while working. You can also make use of Kanban boards to track work done, in-progress or yet to be taken up. Such methods help you avoid having to work overtime on a regular basis.
3.5 Optimize work schedules
Optimize the work schedule such that work assignments are doable with the resources provided, and within the time frame specified. Take into account the project hours and effort hours available. The schedule should factor in priorities that utilize key skills, and leave out busywork and shallow work that cause people to work on it distractedly.
4. Tools for remote engineers
The tools that remote engineers will need are for communication, decision-making, task management, time management, workflow and project management, screen sharing, whiteboarding, note-taking, screen-sharing, and code-mirroring programs. A few examples include
Slack is a messaging platform that most teams default to on account of its simple interface, and options to chat privately, create groups, upload and retrieve files and see decisions made.
GitHub is a software development platform that contains code repositories that engineers can refer to for code. They can reuse or modify programs accordingly.
Todoist is a task recording and planning application with the option to customize due dates, alerts and reminders for tasks.
5. Visual Studio Code:
Visual Studio Code is a free editor for developers that works on several operating systems. It has inbuilt commands and customizable extensions that quicken coding work.
As you would have observed, all these tools serve different purposes. The end goal, however, is to centralize tasks, so that a project manager managing remote engineering teams can view done and pending work. This way, engineers are freed up to channel their time and energy towards meaningful work. A tool such as a code-mirroring application, for example, lets engineers work in real-time on the same project’s code from different systems. It not only prevents them from overwriting existing lines, but also lets them go over the syntax and semantics together. Similarly, tools to compile documents, capture ideas during brainstorming and leave comments for the others to see and reply to, helps the team of remote engineers collectively stay on the same page.
Managing remote engineering teams feels less intimidating now, doesn’t it? Tell us what your experience has been like!