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InfoQ Homepage Articles Five Tips on Managing a Remote-First Development Team

Five Tips on Managing a Remote-First Development Team

Key Takeaways

  • Choose when and how to communicate, and when to give your people some space.
  • Remember and plan for communicating with your people regularly. Avoid letting the physical separation turn into disconnection.
  • Get on top of your people management game: carefully plan 1o1s, career development, situational coaching, mentoring, etc.
  • Paint a clear quantitative and qualitative picture. Have clear goals, OKRs, acceptance criteria, a vision, requirements, etc.
  • Remember that you have colleagues, stakeholders, customers, a manager and other people that depend on you or that you depend upon.

Four hours. Four excruciating, soul draining, life choice questioning hours. That is how a friend of mine – a software developer at a respected tech company – felt (and looked like) about a recent planning session that she attended that week. Worse, according to her, there was not a pot of gold at the end of that rainbow – nobody in the team felt that the planning was particularly effective, a lot of cameras were turned off and, despite the occasional grunt of assent or noncommittal utterance, she did not believe that engagement was high. Indeed, she reported a feeling of dread that another, similar, session was going to be necessary soon, and certainly another one was going to happen in the next sprint. And the next. And the next.

In the remote-first world that we currently live in, the traditional mechanisms that we love to hate (and that have proven to be more effective than utter chaos or complete control) start to break down. As companies realize that they can cut office costs and people become used to not commuting every day, this arrangement may well become the norm.

We are not, however, doomed to Zoom fatigue, disengagement, lowering the bar for results or ever decreasing job satisfaction. Managers can – must – adapt to the reality of leading remote-first teams. And we do not even have to start from scratch – let us go through a few lessons learned from leading geographically-diverse teams, especially those composed of individuals working from home.

Choose Wisely How to Communicate and Get Things Done

In a remote-first environment, attention span and the power to focus are at a premium. They are limited resources that must be invested wisely and strategically, with as little waste as possible. Additionally, we are all at a natural disadvantage by not being able to see or hear each other as easily and we could have in person.

Don’t meet if you don’t have to – and if you do, do it right. Having meetings is tiresome at the best of times, but even more so in a remote-first environment. We often host meetings that are too long, too unfocused or that could have been an email. A five-person meeting is costing the time of those five people plus the energy that they could have invested elsewhere. Review your processes and systems, determine whether immediate, synchronous collaboration is necessary and, if so, make sure that the meeting is efficient and effective. There are great ways of leading good meetings, remote or otherwise.

Get on a call. At the other end of the spectrum, email chains or IM threads can easily stretch out to infinity without the context and rapport built by face-to-face interaction. Worse, it’s often more comfortable doing so. It is much easier to convey context and avoid misunderstandings on a call, even if voice-only, due to its synchronicity and ability to transfer information via non-verbal cues. Further, seeing or hearing each other helps us fill the need for human contact, something difficult to achieve in a remote-first setting. If a problem is complex enough that a couple of messages are not sufficient or if the urgency is high (ex: during an emergency), get on a call.

This is something that many managers struggle with and may overcorrect. When I first managed remote teams and remote collaborators I was so worried about lack of communications (my manager was also breathing down my neck to “hold your people accountable”) that I introduced a lot of process and, well, bureaucracy in the form of formal weekly structured updates. This was not fun for anyone involved (nobody likes writing reports) and I probably read about 20% of it.

Don’t be a Stranger

Working face-to-face allows us to not only communicate more often but also exchange lots of non-verbal communication. In fact, renowned behavioral psychologist and UCLA professor Dr. Albert Mehrabian determined in his 1967 work, “Decoding of Inconsistent Communications”, that only 7% of communication about feelings on a subject or person is conveyed in a verbal way, with 38% being conveyed by the voice and 55% by body language. While this rule might not apply to every type of communication, it does apply to critical subjects like feedback and coaching.

Working from home makes it harder to remain connected with team members and stakeholders as it reduces not only the frequency of our communication but also its quality. We tend to rely more on email and instant messaging, both purely written media (if you exclude the occasional GIF). How can we, as managers and leaders, ensure that we are fostering healthy and effective communication in our teams and with our stakeholders?

Meet 1o1 often and effectively. Unfortunately, one of the first casualties of working remotely tends to be 1o1 meetings. Most managers, particularly early career ones, have difficulties leading good 1o1s. Engineers seem to be particularly averse to bad meetings, seeing them as distractions or as waste of time. This also applies to stakeholders, making addressing concerns, conveying important updates or solving project constraints more difficult.

The importance of 1o1 meetings cannot be understated. In its famous Project Oxygen, Google found that managers with higher feedback scores also tended to have more frequent and higher quality 1o1 meetings with their teams.

If you want to avoid becoming estranged from your team and stakeholders, make sure to meet regularly, have a clear agenda (and stick to it), give the session your full attention and be on camera whenever possible. As a bonus, this also helps team members feel more connected with you and build rapport.

Mind your (People) Business

Out of sight, out of mind. It is easy to forget that we work with real people when all we see from them, most of the time, are lines of text or the occasional call. Studies show that remote workers, particularly those in tech, have a high degree of burnout and tend to work longer hours. This dichotomy means that leaders must step up their game in terms of caring for their people.

Make sure that coaching and issue resolution do not fall behind. We have already mentioned the importance of regular 1o1 meetings and those will naturally be the primary venue to address important subjects like coaching and career development. Keep a good track of past feedback, past actions and their results and carefully prepare the agenda for each session. Anchor feedback in solid evidence and make it about the behavior, not the person. A good source of advice on the subject is Radical Candor, by Kim Scott.

Build an actionable career plan with each person you serve. Make sure to keep a good track of goals, medium and long term milestones, actions for managers and contributors alike and past outcomes. Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh wrote in their seminal Tours of Duty article about the importance of creating a win-win plan with individuals, clarifying desired outcomes from all sides and targeting the 2-4 year timeframe, amongst other things. Well worth the read.

While this sounds like generic good advice, having strong career development and coaching chops and ensuring that people see results is critical in a remote work environment: it tells them that, despite you being a floating head on TV, you actually care about their work and their careers.

Developing people is one of the aspects of my job as a manager that I enjoy the most (and also one that I had to do a great deal of personal development at, but that is a story for another day). The mechanisms and the methodical approach to career development I created by working with remote folks became so effective that I use it pretty much unchanged even with those I work with in person.

Paint a Clear Picture

It is much easier to interact with others in an office setting, especially with fellow team members. You can easily exchange feedback or discuss ideas if you have someone sitting right next to you or at least on the same floor. It is much too easy to become a “lone wolf” while working remotely, losing all those small but valuable opportunities for contact.

Maintain crystal clear goals. Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) are particularly good for this. They establish a measurable, shared understanding of direction and help everyone see where each task, feature or deliverable needs to build up to. Even better, good OKRs are created in partnership with teams as opposed to being dictated in a top-down fashion, making the process of setting them as important as the artifacts themselves. The great John Doerr has written much on the subject and is a must read for anyone wishing to start or improve their practice.

Learning about OKRs was likely one of the biggest “aha” moments in my career as a manager. As an engineer, I see them as a contract between managers and collaborators similar to how acceptance criteria and non-functional requirements help product managers and engineers co-exist in happiness. Good OKRs are empowering - they allow both parties to work decoupled and do their own figuring out since everyone agrees on what the outcome is.

Provide solid context, objectives and framework for tasks and deliverables. This is a bit of a tricky one as you do not want to over constrain or micromanage anyone. Rather, you want to make sure that a person has all the information they need to decide how to best tackle a given task when they are working on their own. This means articulating why the task or deliverable is needed and who it is for, what the definition of done is (measurable if possible) and any additional notes, constraints or non-functional requirements involved. As an example: in the context of Agile software development, a high quality ticket is often the difference between a smooth delivery and a multi-week back and forth trudge that is not fun for anyone!

You do not Exist in a Vacuum

Finally, it is important to remember that your team is not alone in the world. Working remotely can make it look like, at times, your team is an island. All that matters is your backlog or TODO list. This often leads to lack of communication with stakeholders, your own manager, customers and colleagues.

This breakdown in collaboration is not only highly detrimental to the business - the work of a team is often an input to someone else or is customer facing - but it can be rather jarring. Imagine working for months on a project, thinking that you are doing great, only to remember that you actually need to demo it to a customer or integrate it with systems owned by another division. In an office setting there are countless reminders that other people exist and that you can - and often do - solicit feedback from or speak with many other folks during your day.

And this is not just your fault - everyone else in a remote-first company or division is likely experiencing the same and may be as surprised (or more) than you when that demo day or integration call comes up in their calendars.

I remember when I served at an AdTech company that had teams scattered across the world - SRE in Europe, some functions in South America, others in California -  and we took it for granted that just a few kickoff meetings between teams were enough to align on key dates, deliverables, specifications, etc. We even thought that this was an example fo how “decoupled” of a company we were. They were not, as we painfully learned (and re-learned a few more times for good measure).

You can mitigate this just by remembering that there are others in the company and that you do need to update stakeholders, you do need to ask for your manager’s advice or perspective, you do need to synch with other managers working on connected objectives or projects early and often. Remembering that this communication is necessary means that you can plan for it. Schedule multiple touchpoints, have regular synchs with other managers. Even having a generous notification setting on your key events (ex: a month of regular reminders before D-Day) can go a long way.


Leading remote-first teams is not only possible but, if done well, can be highly effective for everyone. A good manager is the difference between team members being able to enjoy the benefits of working remotely, anywhere in the world, or dreading that IM notification sound or no-camera Zoom call. You can be that manager by being mindful of your communication habits, actively supporting the development and well-being of your people and remembering that there are stakeholders depending on or that you depend upon in your organization.

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