3 ways to effectively lead a remote engineering team
This is Chapter Three of the five-part series:
“Ultimate Guide for Building & Managing Remote Technical Teams.”
Not all of us were cut out for that #RemoteLife. If you’re considering shifting your development team to remote or pursuing remote work yourself, we encourage you to do some soul searching before diving in. Our highest-performing Professional Freelancers and team leads have mastered the art of effective remote management and provided immense value to their organizations. Here’s how they did it.
What makes a great remote worker?
They’re a natural self-starter
Besides the obvious (being really good at what you hired them to do), a great remote worker is usually someone with extremely good discipline who requires very little management to get a job done. A person who is able to say they are going to do something, do it, and then do it again with consistency and dependability without anyone having to get all over them is a crucial trait for a good remote employee.
A remote engineering team is no place for micromanagement. The nature of remote teams simply cannot support that level of managerial investment—needy employees who only do the bare minimum will not make great remote workers. A good remote worker has to have a natural passion for what it is they do.
Want to run a quick test to see if they do what they do for more than just money? Ask them to show you one of their side-projects that they made just for kicks.
If they don’t have one, it’s not a deal-breaker. If they do have one, and (better yet) it’s actually kind of cool, you’ve got a go-getter on your hands.
They have a solid track record of experience
They’ve got either a solid resume of working at reputable companies for decent stretches of time as a full-time employee, or they have a stellar reputation amongst the freelance community for delivering things on-time and of excellent quality. They should also have at least some past experience working remote.
However, this is not to say that “job-hopping” is a red flag for a decent remote worker. Maybe the reason they went full remote is that they just couldn’t stand being in an office—what might look to some as a black mark on a resume may be a solid-gold virtue in a remote worker.
They are a good communicator
The best remote workers over communicate things, are transparent when things aren’t going as planned, and are upfront about what they can, or cannot, accomplish. They are fluent in all formats of communication technology (email, chat, video conference) and are flexible and available (within reason) when you want to connect. Look for prompt and specific follow-up from them when you reach out with a question. If your freelancer is on the other side of the world, then a reasonable lapse in response time can (obviously) be expected.
However, they should communicate this to you upfront. Candor is a very important trait with remote workers. If you feel someone is evasive with you when you ask a direct and crucial question to which you know has a simple answer, they may not know the answer to the question, or may not be able to deliver on what it is you are asking, or both.
In either case, you need to evaluate them just as you would a full-time hire, find out what their issue is and, if necessary, take steps to cut them loose. Also, if one of your remote teammates has a day job as a full-time employee somewhere else, you won’t get as much output from them as you would from a devoted freelancer. Their full-time job will almost always take priority (that’s why we only work with professionals who freelance full-time at Gun.io).
As long as this is communicated and understood by both parties, and you agree upon a reasonable workload, then they can still be a valuable contributor to the process, and you can have a great working relationship. But, if their role is one that is crucial to the product development process (your DevOps manager, or your chief architect, for example) and you require more time than they can give, you may want to consider other candidates.
What makes a great remote leader?
Leading a remote team is as much of an art form as it is a skill. A traditional manager of a team has the tactical advantage of “proximity” in an office setting—they are literally right there next to the people who work under them. Or, at the very least, they are somewhere nearby, and they can see people at their desks, working.
Now, unless they are tracking their team’s keystrokes, they can’t be positive their team is doing exactly what they say they’re doing, but the fact still remains, a manager’s physical presence is a motivator—for better or for worse. Remote leaders do not have this luxurious advantage.
They have everything that makes up a good remote worker, and…
They must be exceptionally good communicators, capable of radical candor but without being an evil jackass about it, and they must own and maintain the meeting cadence—stand-ups, demos, retros, one-on-ones—these are things that all fall under the purview of the remote lead.
They are always on the lookout for efficiency gains
Leading a remote team requires you to always be on the lookout for new techniques and technologies that can increase efficiency without putting too much strain on the cognitive load of the team. JIRA is a fantastic issue tracking software for documenting every little detail that goes into a software build—it’s also kind of a pain in the ass to use at first.
If your team was humming along using Trello or Wrike to track tasks and get things done, but the team leader wants to make the jump to JIRA, it’s up to that leader to know whether the “juice is worth the squeeze” so to speak and whether the move is worth it.
Google hangouts not cuttin’ it for video conference anymore? Time to demo Zoom. Zoom giving you problems? Give High Five a try. Still using Outlook for email? Get G-Suite… don’t even think about it, just do it. Anything and everything involving collaboration, communication, evaluation, and efficiency is their baby.
They are a phenomenal communicator
A great remote leader is in constant contact with their team, is upfront about expectations and blunt when things are not going as planned. They know how to communicate empathy and motivation over chat when someone is having a hard time achieving a task that they are fully capable of.
A great remote manager also serves as a sort of “de-facto” H.R. department as they tend to be the single source of truth when it comes to questions like “where do I send this invoice to?” “Hey I never got this thing from ‘X’ so I can do ‘Y’ do you know what happened there?” and other random questions. They are, in effect, super managers.
They are talented but humble
A remote lead of a software team should, on top of everything else, know a thing or two about software development. Ideally, they should have had a “hands-on” job themselves at one point in their career. Whether they were a developer (preferable but not mandatory), technical product manager, product manager, user experience designer, content strategist, product marketer or some other role where they got their hands dirty is immensely valuable to their overall ability to understand the complexity of what the collective team is trying to achieve.
However, the most important thing for them to know is what they do not know, and why they need people on their team who do know those things which they do not. A good remote team manager values what they can learn from their team. A good remote leader sometimes also empowers their team by just givin’ it to ’em straight and saying things like “Well, I don’t know how to do that… but that’s why we need you. You’re the best at this.”
When it comes right down to it, you can’t fake being a software engineer any more than you can fake being the President of the United States… ok, bad example. Regardless, a great leader, remote or otherwise, will find every opportunity to communicate to the team that they are all working towards the same goal, and the reason they are all here is that they all have strengths that must be pulled together to achieve a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
And while they (the manager) have confidence that they can hold up their end of that equation, they have genuine faith in the skill, drive and talent of the team they are lucky enough to work with to turn a couple of thousands of lines of code into a world-changing product.
We’re talking real Tony Robbins/Vince Lombardi level motivational speaker shit right here, you guys. So, hire accordingly.
Check out the other chapters of our Ultimate Guide To Remote Work for tips and suggestions on how to build and lead your world-class remote team.
Interested in working with Gun.io? We specialize in helping engineers hire (and get hired by) the best minds in software development.