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Remote and Hybrid Teams Panel



The panelists discuss teamwork from a variety of perspectives, from a traditional office setting to remote-first to a hybrid one, and how to be successful in a productive hybrid team.


Kate Wardin is Engineering Manager, Studio UI Developer Productivity @Netflix. James Stanier is Director of Engineering @Shopify. Miriam Goldberg is Engineering Manager @Netflix. James McNeil is Site Reliability Engineer @Netlify.

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QCon Plus is a virtual conference for senior software engineers and architects that covers the trends, best practices, and solutions leveraged by the world's most innovative software organizations.


Verma: We are here for a panel discussion on remote and hybrid teams.

We're mostly tech people here and we should just recognize that this is such a privilege for us to be remote. Although like, last couple years, we've felt like we're forced into this remote work, but we should recognize that there are other people who were bound by their duty and motivated by their compassion to continuing being in-person, and definitely thankful for all of that.

Background, and Perks of Working Remote vs. In-Person

I'm Vishal. I'm an engineering manager at Netflix. I have some remote working experience. As we introduce everybody, I wanted to hear a little bit about your background, especially in the context of remote and hybrid teams. Why don't you, as you introduce yourself, tell us a perk that you miss from working in-person, or a perk that you enjoy because of being remote now that we are in this world.

McNeil: I'm James McNeil. I'm an SRE at Netlify. I've been there for a bit over a year now. That role has been fully remote. Netlify is a fully remote company. Before that, though, I was at Pivotal and I was working on a hybrid team. Two of my teams were in different countries in different time zones, and because Pivotal was the place where you pair that also involved fully remote pairing, which was a very interesting experience. There's one thing that I absolutely do not miss is commuting. I don't think people should have to commute ever. It makes no sense to me. There's a lot of very interesting stuff about how cities were developed, and why commute. It's not a natural state of being. I do miss free breakfasts for those of us who had them.

Stanier: I'm James. I'm Director of Engineering at Shopify. I've been at Shopify for not long, two months. Prior to that I was a seed engineer at a startup. Then over the course of 10 years, we grew it and exited. Remote for a couple of years now. I previously didn't think remote working was for me, but the pandemic changed all that. The perk now is that we've relocated to be near all of our family, which is the best possible thing that could have happened to us. I agree with James, I do miss snacks and free food and that kind of thing, but being close to family is a bit better. That's all good.

Wardin: Kate Wardin. I'm an engineering manager at Netflix. I am in Minneapolis. What I love about working remote is of course taking care of my house plants during the day. That has been a wonderful new hobby for me. Also, of course being closer to family, getting to have lunch with my daughter and my husband, and take my dog on a walk when it's not brutally cold, is wonderful. I've been working remote since March of 2020, as a lot of us have. For those of you who have visited Minneapolis, I worked downtown and we had skyways, and so you would go on one on one walks through the skyways. You could walk the equivalent of miles all inside so you don't have to put on your jacket, go to a good bunch of different restaurants and stuff. I really miss the skyway walks. That was so fun and just a great way to support local businesses too. I miss that and I miss seeing people of course, but I'm happy to be home.

Verma: That's so sweet, the walks. I can almost picture people walking or myself walking. It's such a wonderful experience.

Goldberg: I'm Miriam. I'm an engineering manager at Netflix. I manage our Federated GraphQL team. I've been at Netflix for about seven months, and I am fully remote out of Philadelphia. I started working remotely in 2018. When I was working at Braintree, I had started in-person, and then moved back to Philly, went remote, switched into management. It was a lot of changes. What I really miss, honestly, is having a beer with my co-workers after work. I miss that a lot. I also love that I get to be in my hometown, just like you Kate. I love Philly. I love that I can be here again and work in an industry that I love. It's a great perk.

Verma: Again, now, imagining glasses clink with co-workers or friends. That's obviously one thing I miss. You're right, so many good things, so many things we miss also. I miss an espresso machine so much. I've considered buying it, obviously, but I think it works better when you have it at a company.

Interesting Developments around the Concept of Location

The big thing I want to start with is, the concept of location used to be so important. There's been so much written about it. We know that people have migrated countries over centuries to be in the same place at the same time. I was recently reading about Leonardo da Vinci, how he moved to Florence and he did a lot of his important work there. We all know about Silicon Valley, people migrating there. The bigger question I have for all of you, is that location used to be so important, and now we're saying that it's not anymore. We're at least saying that. What are some interesting developments you are seeing towards the concept of either location ceasing to be important anymore, news from around the world?

Stanier: This one's interesting to me, because part of going remote and relocating was that I now live in a very rural remote part of the UK. This is where my family grew up. This is where her family are from. I think the really positive thing is that when she was 18, and she was leaving home, she had to go to London six hours, seven hours away in order to have a chance at a career. I think, obviously, the whole mentorship and seniority thing in our industry, remote is hard and that's another conversation topic. I think now at least the possibility that anyone can grow up anywhere and have the same possibility of a career is incredible. The next generation of engineers could be out here in the west of Cumbria, for all I know, it used to be the universities, the cities. I think that's a really exciting prospect.

Verma: How about you, Kate, why don't you add your lens on how are you seeing the industry evolve, and do you think this is for real, like these changes for you?

Wardin: First, James, I love what you said. I think this change does make a career in tech a lot more accessible to people who might not have had an opportunity to get into it before. Also, for folks who might need to do something a little bit more like part time or that freelance opportunities first, there are so many more opportunities to network and make connections if you don't live in these major hubs. In fact, I know a lot of organizations are strategically and intentionally looking at outside of those core cities that were traditionally where people would source a lot of that technology talent. I think that's wonderful in so many different ways.

I think this is a change for good. I think there's too many people in the industry who are like, now I've moved and I'm loving it, and I'm not going back. A lot of people are going to be picky on where they're choosing to work. I think that it is here to stay, at least for a lot of organizations, just because of the talent that we can reach and the opportunities that we can provide to people who wouldn't have had those before. I think there's a lot of positives.

I'll speak to a negative. I even think about Minneapolis, and just how some of those small businesses are struggling, if their proximity was servicing folks who commuted downtown, like parking ramps, restaurants, bars. We have to figure out ways to make sure that we're still keeping them in business, too, and so I think getting creative about that. Of course, we know the success stories, and unfortunately, some of the downfalls of that. There's pros and cons.

Verma: Excellent point about empathy with people who might be seeing the negatives of that. Definitely not as much talked about. Actually, while I take that context, what you said to Miriam and James McNeil. James McNeil and Miriam, you've been doing remote before the pandemic. Going back to the bigger question of remote like, I want to ask the same thing, what are you seeing from your point of view? Is this thing real? How different is it from before when you were doing remote?

McNeil: It's real. I can speak for myself. I work for a company that doesn't even actually have a registered entity in the UK, and I wouldn't have that opportunity unless they were open to remote work. In fact, not dissimilar to James, I've within the past week moved to a much smaller city on the west side of the country, because my partner is from Wales, which is just across the border. I think that freedom and openness to different geographies, and to people working in different places so long as they are able to work is definitely here to stay. From our perspective, I've seen, and just looking at the makeup of our company, we've definitely hired much more internationally since the pandemic. I think we were a remote company but once we took the brakes off and went fully all in, suddenly, we're like, we can hire people from all over the world. There's so much talent out there that doesn't want to go to Silicon Valley or can't. One of the two. I think that companies that are open to that and that realize that are profiting from that.

I think one thing, though, is that, it's going to be very important to realize that location is not setting. We've I think in all of our talks talked about, it's a privilege to be able to work from home, both like financially and with having the right employer who will let you do that. I could totally see myself working from a co-working space in Bristol, and I'm sure at points in my life, I will have to, just because of not having the space where I'm living. I haven't done it personally. We definitely offer a stipend if not pay entirely for our colleagues' co-working spaces. I think that model, sort of a WeWork plus where there are places where you can go that have the right space, but also the right security setup from an IT perspective and from an infrastructure perspective, and people's employers, for them to feel comfortable working there. Because it's not necessarily about working from home, it's about working where suits you.

Goldberg: Building on what you were saying, James, about co-working spaces. When I first went remote, I worked out of a co-working space that happens to be two blocks from my house. I had no commute. It was fantastic. The co-working space shut down for COVID. They've since reopened, but I've chosen to continue to work from home. I think it depends on the co-working space. When I transitioned into management I began talking more over the course of the day, and shortly before COVID I was getting a couple of stinky looks every now and then. That I was making too much noise in this space, and maybe I should hire a private office within the co-working space and spend more time in phone booths. At that point, I was like, I make a lot of noise. I talk a lot, so I should just work from home. I think that co-working spaces are great. It was nice to have a community of people even if they were not my direct colleagues.

I think opening up these opportunities around the world and in areas where the tech industry isn't super well established is very exciting. I lived in San Francisco for 10 years working in tech there. Moving back to Philly, I just remember my first week back here, I went to a coffee shop. I was shocked that there were people over the age of 50, drinking coffee and talking about things that were not tech. It hadn't even occurred to me that that would be unusual, but living in the mission of San Francisco, that's what it was. You go to a coffee shop, and everyone's just talking about their startup. I'm hopeful that that may have some effects on diversifying the industry, getting people to think outside of industry bubbles, and get a little bit more creative and make things that are relevant to people outside of that.

Verma: The co-working space story or angle is so interesting. Normally, we would see co-working spaces in particular cities. I wonder if the trend is going to now take co-working spaces to pretty much everywhere, especially the more scenic places maybe, like where people would want to live. If anybody has any co-working space trends they want to share, I know it's still COVID, probably maybe not taking off as much.

Wardin: The athletic club is big here, and so you're seeing the co-working spaces like attached to a gym so you can go to a workout class, and then have your co-working space. They just opened a new one downtown Minneapolis, and then there's one right by my house, so having it in proximity to a workout facility.

Verma: That's such a good idea. I did not think about that. Now I'm thinking what other things you can add on to a location to make it even better for people. James Stanier, do you have any observations?

Stanier: Interestingly, just related to this, there's a startup called Patch. is their website. They're now wanting to open up co-working spaces everywhere, and you register your interest, and then they try and acquire a coffee shop or a building in your location. I think they've launched, I saw on Twitter the other day, but the whole idea is it's, work near home becomes a thing. I live in a very rural place, there's not really a coffee shop here I can work from, but if there was, I would totally be there. In the same way like in the UK, the pub is like your other room in your house and you go to the pub quite a lot to hang out. Again, it's like another extension of the home in your community, which I think is great. It drives revenue into these communities as well, that may not necessarily have had lots of people there.

Verma: Definitely the business models will evolve with where the demand goes. This is definitely a new area where all those businesses Kate was talking about are suffering, will find newer avenues. People do want to be out there and do things, and be part of the community.

Goldberg: Yes, about co-working spaces, and the move to remote. I think in the run-up to my going remote, one of the biggest gripes of the office that I worked in was that it was an open office plan. We were in a shop that pair programed full time, which was wonderful. I love pairing and I love collaborating, but there were times when it was really hard to do work because there was so much crosstalk. It was really noisy, people are walking through. I think that there are a lot of things about the office environment that are broken, particularly for ICs and people who are doing work that requires deep thought and consideration and focus that in some cases is solved by working from home.

I think that there's an interesting impedance mismatch because the people who are making the decisions about whether you can work from home are upper management and leadership who don't do that work. You get into the burden of space planning and making a space that is really productive for software engineers. Sometimes working from home is better. Even with my team now, we have the option to work out of the office at Netflix, and my team has settled on going in once a week to collaborate and see each other in person and build those connections. When they need to sit down and knock out some code, unanimously, they agreed that they prefer to do it from home.

Learnings and Adjustments from Pre-Pandemic Remote Work to Now

Verma: Some of you have experienced this before the pandemic started. The question is around, what adjustments did you make when you moved from pre-pandemic remote work to now, or what are some learnings that you've applied there?

McNeil: I think pre-pandemic, I wasn't working fully remotely. It was, I think, two days a week or something like that. In a sense, I didn't really take it seriously. I was working. It was like an attachment to my work week, where it was like something we're trying out. In a way, it was for the benefit of my colleagues who were working remotely, because that's an important muscle to flex essentially, and to understand where some of the rough edges of remote work are. I hadn't properly set up a desk. I had a place where I worked with a screen, but it wasn't my office. I think also, and to what Miriam was saying about offices, this is, I think, a point that we don't quite have with co-working spaces yet, or home offices, if we don't have the space, was that my partner and myself were in the same room. We both talk a lot for work, but in very different ways. When I'm talking something very bad is happening and I'm on a call with someone. She's running conferences and talking to colleagues, let's say in more of a business setting. Once the pandemic started, she left the room, and we just figured out, given the space that we had, where her office was and where my office was.

I think that what we don't have from co-working spaces yet, because a lot of them are coffee shops and modified spaces, are places for people to either work quietly, or talk without it being those sort of cubicles that started popping up in offices, because everything was open plan, and you closed the last door, and you're hermetically sealed away. I think that there's probably something in the design of these co-working spaces or offices, where we could probably get away from the giant open plan with the huge table. That's what I've noticed. You need a room of one's own, to quote Virginia Woolf.

Verma: The infrastructure basically getting in your way, like whether you're in a rural place where you're not able to have a good internet connection, or a co-working space that haven't quite caught up to the need for us to be talking all the time. I wonder if the technology will come in and step in and solve these problems. I almost remember seeing a tweet sometimes like if somebody could invent an AI based mic that just filters out everybody else, like just turns on itself when needed and only listens to you, that will be like a billion dollar company. It seems like a lot of things need to happen here and a lot of opportunity coming in terms of what we could do in the future.

Team Building and Personalization

I know that many of you are leaders, you hire people, you're managers, or directors. I want to touch the aspect of the team building. I want to hear from both you as an employee and a manager. One of my theories is that as we are going into this new world, people are going to have more freedom to personalize the kind of teams they are in. They'll affect the culture of the team much more than they were able to. James McNeil touched on some teams having international people, other teams might be more localized, so I feel like people have a lot more freedom. As you are building your team, if you're a manager, let's talk about like, how are you personalizing your team to be good at the job they do?

Wardin: The last question you asked is, how do you personalize the experience being on the team so that they're good at what they are expected to do, being remote? I lead a dev productivity team. One thing that they noticed pretty quickly after not being co-located, is that a lot of those, like forums where they would receive some of the more organic feedback from the developers that we support, even just like walking by cubes, and you're hearing someone complain about the time it takes to deploy, or build something. They'll be like, how can we help? Where you just be a fly on the wall in some discussions. We've had to be really intentional being remote. This quarter, we're trying this experiment of having developer productivity champions. Each team that we support has a dedicated champion, so they attend their demos, their retrospective, so that they can pick up on some of those things that they are missing from not being in the office. That's one thing.

Also, surveys, but a lot of people have survey fatigue. We're trying to find other creative ways to get feedback, so that we can understand like, how do we drive our priorities and know that we're working on the right things. I know that that's a pretty unique use case being a dev productivity team, as opposed to a product team. Those have so far worked for us. Also, just ways to personalize knowing that we have folks from all over the world potentially in our teams. I mentioned the photo the weekend thread. I love to say, show me something fun you did this weekend. In Slack, just post a picture that helps people get to know each other, and that trust, that bonding is going to make us a better team. We'll do an icebreaker question. Maybe you say, tell me something cool about your hometown. Just ways to again, humanize our colleagues, get to know each other, build that camaraderie and that trust so that we can be as best effective as possible.

Intentional Things in Personalizing Teams for Remote and Hybrid Work

Verma: I want to hear also from James Stanier, since you are building a team in Europe, how are you going about it? What are some intentional things you are doing in personalizing your team for remote and hybrid work?

Stanier: The interesting thing for us is like, there's not many Shopify engineers in Europe, in our area of the company. We're pretty much like rolling the road out in front of us as we are going. I'm new, my leads are new. I'm hiring leads, they're hiring their teams. We're all in it together. One is being very open about the uncertainty and not really knowing the answers to anything goes a long way. One thing that we're trying to do is every week, try and meet with three to five people from different parts of the organization, have a coffee, or have a chat with some of the other principal engineers, with other directors and the VPs, just talk. Because I think if you do that every single day, every single week, you start to build up a network graph in your brain of like, how does this company do things? Who does what? Then that's great for your team as well. We could say, "We're doing this new technical thing. Last week, I spoke to one of the other principal engineers, he spends 30% of his week mentoring people. He's probably got some time to pair with you, just go and have a chat." You have to be much more intentional and proactive, as Kate was saying, with your connections. You have to think of the office metaphor of corridors of unintentional bumping into people, a fly on the wall, and then convert those metaphors into intentional actions in the asynchronous and internet based world for sure.

Culture Personalization as a Remote or Hybrid Worker

Verma: That's insightful. We're already seeing a contrast. Kate, your team is keying on certain factors. James Stanier is talking about certain other factors, because the journey his team is in, maybe social connections are much more important right now. That speaks to how during a journey of a team, like different knobs will become more important, and we cannot personalize even during the lifetime of a team, different elements. Let's talk to James McNeil. You talk in an SRE specific environment. You've already done things to make sure things work well. What are some other things you would do to personalize the culture of your org or your team as a remote worker or a hybrid worker?

McNeil: I think one thing that's going to be interesting from an organizational perspective to look back on the past couple years, is that, we, I imagine are going to see a different interpretation of Conway's Law. Because there's so much more fluidity to the org structure and there are no hallways, or water coolers. Teams aren't geolocated, and that's going to probably break down some of the barriers that you got around, your systems reflect your organizational structure. It also creates other ones, to some of the points that some of the others have made. Some of the stuff that we do as parts of onboarding, would be essentially trying to reach out to as many people who are adjacent to the work that you're doing. This is something that the engineering manager will put together, essentially a package for every new joiner, of these are the people on the team. This is roughly the people we work with. This is the SRE that's associated with that team. Then, it's essentially up to that new joiner to contact them, to put in some time in their calendar, and to get those introductions going. Because one thing that we don't have is a lot of that informal conversation unless you make that happen.

There's a really interesting book by a woman named Marie Le Conte, about the way that the UK Parliament works, called, "Haven't You Heard?" Her thesis is that all of UK politics is based on gossip. Actually like being in the halls of power and seeing people in, I think there was like 10 pubs or something like that, has a big influence on the way that things work. I think that, in a colloquial sense, encouraging gossip, encouraging people to talk amongst themselves and not just get either the messages from on high or their track of work, is very important in an organization that's fully remote. Because that organic transfer of knowledge is sometimes where some of the best ideas come from, sometimes where some of the thorniest problems get solved, because people address things in different ways. I don't know if I've given too many solutions, but ways of encouraging people to just have informal chats I think are incredibly important.

Verma: I think, more solutions, the better. Right now we're all trying to figure things out and there are so many different situations. Maybe Miriam you can add your perspective, like you worked in payments industry also. I was wondering, does this work for everybody, like every industry or like some industry, just like not, like just inimical to this thing.

Goldberg: When I went remote, we were hybrid. At Braintree, our two largest offices were in San Francisco and Chicago. Then we had a smattering of independently remote people mostly around North America. We made it work. I think it worked pretty well, because we were already broken up across offices. We had good VC. We were used to working across time zones, and making sure that we were including people who weren't in the room on decisions. I think of a lot of the stuff that James McNeil has been saying because in payments, SRE in offices is pretty intense. That stuff is always remote, because you can't just plan to be paged when you're in the office. It always seems to happen at 3:00 in the morning. Yes, we did it.

I think that one thing that we haven't been able to do since COVID, when I moved to Philadelphia, I worked really closely, for instance, with the Docs team, because I was on APIs. We worked a lot with our Docs team to document our public APIs. They were mostly based in Chicago. Some of that was very creative, open ended, like how are these things going to work together, and we flew to Chicago before COVID. I could hop on a plane at 6 a.m., and be home by 10 p.m. the same day. I would do that every couple of months if I needed to, or spend the night, or whatever. That obviously hasn't really been an option for most people in the last couple of years. It certainly is not an option if you're talking about cross country or transatlantic travel. I am excited to start peppering our remote work with some more in-person travel as things loosen up a bit. It's definitely valuable. I just don't think you need to over-index on it.

Sustainability of Remote/Hybrid Work

Verma: Since we have all taken on this, I want to talk about sustainability of this thing. We've taken on remote and hybrid work, we want to make it last. Obviously, so far what I've heard, I'm not hearing that there's a definite point in future where we're going to switch. Seems like we're leaning more into this. I want to talk about sustainability. What are the things people should be doing, companies should be doing, teams and managers should be doing to make it last?

Stanier: There's a lot to unpack in this particular area. I think a lot of it comes from managers and leadership trying to set the tone for how you make this a marathon and not a sprint. It's so easy when you're working remotely to check all of your messages all evening, maybe even wake up in the middle of the night and reflexively check them on your phone. You have to be much more attentive to how you spend your time and your attention. I think it's making sure people don't work too long hours, and the leaders of the company being very vocal about that. There's this concept of leaving loudly, which came out of this thing, like the Australian branch of Pepsi or something. It was a program they had in their leadership where anyone who's like C level, VP level, you leave at the end of the day, reasonable time, and you tell everyone what you're doing. It is like, "3:30, I'm off to pick up the kids. I'm out. See you." You embed the culture that, no, it's not right to be checking all your emails all night, because that makes you better or you're not missing out. You have to really prioritize that thing. At Shopify, we've already had the email saying, basically, we're closed over Christmas, unless you have critical work. That's the expectation. It really sets the tone. I think there's a lot to unpack in this area with regards to burnout, and mental health, and FOMO, and all these kinds of things, especially if you're in a different time zone.

Verma: Such a great point about being explicit, and leading by example, or setting the tone so others can be comfortable doing it. I want to maybe touch a little bit, of how company culture plays a role here. Maybe Miriam and Kate, since you are at Netflix, I want to talk about, like Netflix gives people a lot of freedom in terms of how they want to take time off. We don't even have an official calendar. How are you navigating this, making it sustainable for your teams, this concept of remote work?

Goldberg: As a manager, I am always telling people to take time off. Like, you have a tickle in your throat, go home and sleep. Your kids are a lot today, go hang out with them. I have never had a manager who has really hovered over me and expected me to put in hours, and I certainly don't want to do that to anyone else. It feels inhumane and counterproductive. I don't know if this is true, I have a theory, just from observation and my own experience, that going remote at a company that you worked at in-person for, sets you up to have a harder time setting boundaries. If you join a company fully remote, it's easier to set those boundaries. I think possibly some of it is just the social bonding that happens when you work in-office with people and perhaps with the company. Maybe a little bit of emotional transference that you have in those situations where you really do feel like duty bound to show up all the time for work, that maybe you don't build those bonds. I think maybe that's much healthier with your employee.

Going back to, I think James McNeil you mentioned the HashiCorp guy, was like you're not going to make friends. I really like my co-workers at Netflix a lot. I enjoy working here. It is different than companies where I started in-person, and that's ok. I think the people who I manage now all started in-person at Netflix, actually, with one exception, we're very bonded to the work, and bonded to each other, and bonded to our mission. Just reminding them that there's a whole world outside of work for themselves and their families and their lives, and just go do that. Go pay attention to it and nurture it.

Wardin: James Stanier, mirroring what you said, like leaving loudly. I wrote that and I love that. I think it is up to the leader to lead by example. To Miriam's point, there is life outside of work. I'm going to take care of X, Y and Z priority, and making that ok, and actually encourage to do that. Miriam, you described so beautifully. That is exactly how it is. Of course, I was at Target before this, and I just felt this obligation. From being in the office together 40 hours a week, every single day, I felt this obligation to show up, and all the time be there. Whereas when I joined Netflix, I was like, there's not this expectation. I'm getting my work done, and then I'm done.

An additional thought to make this sustainable, is to make sure that we have an equitable experience for folks who are remote, as equitable as the folks who are maybe going back on site. James McNeil, you spoke to, things get done, those water cooler chats. The fact that we do have to simulate those in-person interactions, those people are literally getting those interactions in-person, how do we make sure that it is equitable for folks online? Even as simple as, if you're in a meeting room with three people in the room, and then two people online, please just turn your cameras on on your laptop so that you're not like an ant and I can't even see your expressions. Things like that can make a huge difference if you are intentional, or do just like call out if the experience isn't equitable, being remote if there are folks in-person.


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Recorded at:

Sep 15, 2022