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Leading a (newly) remote engineering team: important tips for overcoming virtual team challenges
The transition to working from home can be difficult, particularly during a lockdown when you’re also sharing your new ‘office space’ with your partner and family members. For team leads, who are responsible not only for their own tasks, but also for managing and supporting team members, the transition can be even harder.
Last updated17 Sep 2021
I’m Chiara, and I’ve been working with Hotjar—a fully-distributed, remote-first company—for over three years, and for about half that time I’ve been leading a team of four engineers on the ‘Audiences and Recordings Squad’. As one of five leads in the Product and Engineering department, my main focuses are:
Helping the members of my team accomplish their goals and grow in their roles
Working with Product to decide on which projects to prioritize
Writing code to build features for Hotjar’s tools
Since so many companies have recently been switching to remote work, I’ve put together a list of challenges that distributed team leads may encounter while everyone adjusts to working from home, and some tips on how to work through them.
3 tips for adjusting to a remote work environment
1. Over-communicate with co-leads and team members
Clear and intentional communication is one of the most important aspects of a remote team’s success. I try to be really explicit in my expectations in regards to the team’s behavior and the work that needs to be done. When we’re working together virtually (and asynchronously), interactions between a lead and team members aren’t as frequent as they would be otherwise.
Use project management tools to help manage communication
If you use project management tools like Jira, use them to their full potential: make sure that prioritized work is clearly defined and has enough context so that anyone can pick up the tasks at any time. It's also really important to document decisions as soon they're made.
As leads, you should be reactive to comments, questions, and mentions, to make sure that work doesn't get blocked—and ensure that your team is also responsive to their notifications and emails. Create a culture of using these tools, and remember that this is your primary line of communication, now: you can no longer turn to the person sitting beside you.
OUR JIRA BOARD ON A MONDAY MORNING AFTER OUR WEEKLY KICK-OFF MEETING
2. Manage expectations during virtual team meetings
Running and moderating a remote meeting can be challenging! Your team will experience awkward moments of silence, misunderstandings, and interruptions. Visual cues are hard to pick up on when you’re running team meetings via Zoom or Google Hangouts, especially when someone is sharing their screen.
Some common challenges of virtual team meetings are:
Teammates hold back from speaking up or participating in the meeting because they expect others to speak for them (this challenge isn’t specific to remote teams, but the lack of visual cues has an effect on participation).
A lot of people might be on mute, and are scrambling to find the unmute button before saying something, whether in objection or agreement. This doesn’t seem like much, but it could play a big part in whether or not someone participates in the conversation.
People in the meeting are distracted by what’s going on around them or by something else on their screen: they might be browsing the internet, or could be having a virtual chat on the side while the meeting is going on. This isn’t always the case, but it does happen.
ME (IN THE TINY TOP RIGHT CORNER) AND MY TEAM
And some of the ways I’ve learned to work through these challenges:
When possible, turn on your camera and encourage your team members to do the same. This makes things more personal, and I’ve found that people are far more inclined to pay attention and participate.
Try to keep up the energy and pace of the meeting. Acknowledge any pauses or silences, perhaps by making a lighthearted joke about the situation: “It’s so quiet, maybe my internet has disconnected!” Hopefully at this point, someone will step up and say something.
If I notice that someone is completely disengaged, I’ll try to follow up with them individually, after the meeting.
Make a clear agenda and goal for group meetings, so everybody can come to the meeting prepared and looped in to what there is to know.
USE THE CALENDAR INVITE TO SHARE A TOP-LEVEL AGENDA FOR THE MEETING YOU WILL RUN
Pro tip: ask your team to use headsets, or a combination of headphones and built-in microphones. This can help eliminate echo and static; crisp, clear voices will make the conversation feel so much more natural.
I understand that it might be difficult to get your hands on a headset these days because of lockdowns or delayed delivery schedules, but for leads who spend a lot of their time on calls, I’d recommend investing in a bluetooth headset: I felt so much freedom when I upgraded—I was no longer attached to my laptop by a wire and could pace around the room while I spoke to others.
3. Be patient with yourself and your team
If COVID-19 is the reason you've been made to unexpectedly shift to remote work, understand that not everyone on your team is suited to work remotely, and that should be okay. We at Hotjar place a lot of emphasis on hiring people who have particular strengths that help them thrive in a remote work environment, but this may not be possible for you right now.
If you or someone on your team is struggling to adjust to working from home, remind everyone that this situation is temporary, and will hopefully be short-term. Know that you’re not alone—the challenges you’re facing are not unique to your team, and you will all get through this by working together.
Set clear expectations, and be supportive and empathetic
If you notice that someone on your team is struggling with working remotely, I suggest spending more one-on-one time with them, and acknowledging that you understand their limits. Work with them to try and bridge the gap:
Make sure their goals are attainable: assign tasks and projects with clear timelines from beginning to end, and set realistic due dates.
Have regular one-to-one check-ins, and keep your virtual door open for frequent communication. Mentoring and pairing sessions can still happen remotely, and are a productive way to socialize (more on this later).
If someone’s uncomfortable speaking up in a group format, moderate virtual team meetings: ask for feedback directly, so every voice can be heard.
Tips for working together as a new remote team
If you’re coming from a physical office environment, team dynamic and relationships are probably already strong, but you should find ways to carry this on, and to keep everyone connected.
I’ve been on remote teams that have blocked out an hour every Friday for casual banter. Some other teams at Hotjar do this, but my current team doesn’t. We tried it, but it felt forced. Instead, we spend time before and after team meetings cracking jokes and just sharing things about our lives and what we get up to after work.
You could organize virtual team building activities like game sessions (such as Jackbox Party Games), ‘Coffee and Learn’ presentations, or company-wide ‘Chatroulettes’. It really comes down to what works best for you and your team.
SOME OF THE HOTJAR TEAM DURING A VIRTUAL 'BONFIRE' CHAT
Keep up team traditions and rituals
Companies are built on professional relationships, and when working remotely, trust and transparency are key in your relationships with your team. As I said before, be explicit in your communications and ask your team to do the same.
Here are a few ideas from our team:
1) One-to-ones: keep up with the routine of 1-2-1 meetings. We all have our different styles, but I can’t stress how important it is to have focused time at least once a week with people on your team when you’re working remotely.
In our case at Hotjar, everyone came to work here knowing that it’s a remote-first company, but I can understand how hard it can be to adjust to working from home, and how easily someone could start to feel isolated.
Here’s a checklist that can help you set up more effective 1-2-1s.
2) Routine and team rituals: revisit the routine and team rituals you had in-office, and make sure they still make sense.
Our team works in one-week iterations, in a loose 'Scrumban' fashion (that’s ‘Scrum’ + ‘Kanban’). We start off the week with a planning session, and end on Friday with a retrospective and demo. These sessions really help us switch our brains on and off to start and end the work week, especially since we work at home, where many of us are also managing our families, too.
AN EXAMPLE RETROSPECTIVE TEMPLATE. CLICK TO GET A COPY!
3) Mentoring and pairing sessions: encourage members on your team to organize coding (or other work) sessions between themselves, in pairs. If one member on your team is facing a difficult task, encourage them to connect up with another person on the team.
We usually talk about this during our daily standup calls. We do this by jumping on a call, screen sharing, and taking turns with who will ‘drive’ (i.e., who will be the person actively coding). This also helps with combatting the feeling of isolation.
How to manage your time and workspace at home
Having a comfortable workspace is really important, but it doesn’t need to be fancy: I like to work from my dining table just because I prefer staying in the living room. There are a lot of resources to help you with setting up a workspace and personal routine when working remotely.
Trying to keep a work schedule is also helpful, especially if you’re used to having office hours. Personally, I work between about 9am and 7pm and always schedule a one-hour lunch break by blocking it out on my calendar. I do take regular breaks throughout the day whenever I need to—sometimes I just chill, other times I do odd jobs around the house.
If you’re working from home with your partner (who may be new to remote work, too), discuss different workspaces and times for each of you to be able to focus or take calls in private. For instance, if the weather is good, I like to work from the balcony.
Remember that some members on your team are facing this too, so be open and talk to them about ways they can manage their time and space at home.
I OFTEN WORK FROM MY BALCONY IN MALTA, OVERLOOKING THE BOATS AND BIRDS
4 tools every remote team needs
If you’re working in tech, you probably already know which tools work best for your team. If you need more ideas, here are some of the tools we use here at Hotjar:
A shared calendar: my team uses Google Calendar. This is the central point of organizing ourselves. We find that it’s really important for our calendars to be public to everyone at Hotjar, because it allows for full transparency on where (and with whom) your time is spent.
A chat application: our team—and all of Hotjar—uses Slack to communicate with each other. We set team channels and use the app for work-related and social chats.
Video conferencing: we use Google Meet for team meetings, and sometimes Zoom for calls that will include more people, like company-wide meetings and ‘bonfire’ chats.
A project management tool: my team uses Jira. Any task or project that members of our team are working on are reflected in this tool, and all decisions are documented there.
HOTJAR'S AUDIENCES AND RECORDINGS SQUAD WHEN WE’RE NOT ON LOCKDOWN
On a final, more personal note:
The disruption of what’s happening—and the uncertainty that comes with it—is probably overwhelming both for you and your team members. Talk through it together. Be understanding and realize that your team is not going to be 100% as productive as they were before.
I’m working through this by talking to each team member about what’s going on, making sure that they have enough supplies in their household for a few weeks, and that their families are safe.
I’d also suggest discussing workspaces and setup, and making sure that everyone is comfortable and has the necessary equipment to work comfortably and as productively as possible.
I’ve also set up brief ‘coffee mornings’ with the other dev team leads at Hotjar so that we can discuss and lean on each other, and brainstorm how we can help the team members who are particularly struggling in this time.
I hope these tips have been helpful to you and your team while you adjust to a remote-work lifestyle. If you have any questions or would like to discuss things further, our content team is available at email@example.com.
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