Lessons from Leading a Remote Engineering Team

Lessons from Leading a Remote Engineering Team

For my entire engineering management career, I’ve managed remote teams. At Shopify, I manage Developer Acceleration, a department with both colocated and remote teams with members spread across four Canadian offices and in six countries.

You may think that managing remote teams is hard, and it is, but there are real benefits that you can achieve by being open to remote employees and building a remote team. Let’s talk about the benefits of a remote team, how to build your remote team, and how to set your people up to succeed.

The Benefits of Remote

It’s not a matter of right and wrong with colocated and remote. Either configuration can work and both provide benefits.

Some advantages of a remote team are: 

  • expanding to a global hiring pool
  • supporting a more diverse workforce
  • improving your ability to retain top employees
  • adding a location-based team capability

Expanding to a Global Hiring Pool

Hiring well is difficult and time consuming. Recruiters and hiring managers talk about filling the top of the funnel, which means finding suitable candidates to apply or to approach about your role. For specialized roles, like a mobile tooling developer, it can be hard to fill the funnel. A challenge with colocated teams is that your hiring pool is limited to those people who live in the same city as your office and those willing to relocate. A larger pool gives you access to more talent. On my team we’ve hired people in Cyprus, Germany, and the UK, none of whom could relocate to one of our offices in Canada.

More Diverse Workforce

A willingness to hire anywhere also gives access to a more diverse talent pool. There are people who are unwilling or unable to relocate. There are also those who need to work from home. I’ve hired people with mobility issues, people with dependents, such as young children or older parents, and people with strong ties to their communities. They are highly skilled and are excellent additions to our team but wouldn’t have been options had we required them to work out of one of our offices.

Ability to Retain Top Employees

A company invests in each employee that is hired and you want to retain good employees. By being a on remote team, I have retained people who decided to relocate for personal reasons, often out of their direct control. In one case, a spouse had a location-dependent job opportunity that the family had decided to follow. In another, the person needed to be closer to their family for health reasons. I’ve successfully relocated people to Canada, France, the Netherlands, Poland, and the USA. Relocating these high-performing employees is much less expensive than it is to hire and train replacements.

Location-Based Team Capability

A team may also have specific requirements, like 24/7 support, that make it advantageous to distribute people rather than centralize them. My release engineering team supports our build and deploy pipeline for Shopify developers around the world and benefits from having a 24/7 on call schedule without needing people to be on call in the middle of the night.

Man Working at Desk

Building a Remote Team

An engineering manager’s job is to create an effective team. They do this by assembling the right people, defining the problem to solve, and focusing on execution. There’s a key piece in “effective team” that’s often overlooked. A collection of people isn’t a team. A team functions well together and is more than the sum of its parts. This is one of the reasons we don’t hire jerks. Building a team requires the establishment of relationships and trust, which relies on really good communication. Neither relationships nor trust can be mandated. To build the team you need to create an environment and opportunity for people to interact with one another on more than a superficial level.

Shopify has two key cultural values that support remote work:

  1. Default to open internally 
  2. Charge your trust battery

Default to Open Internally

Defaulting to open is about inclusion both in decisions and in results. At Shopify we encourage sharing investment plans, roadmaps, project updates, and tasks. This means writing a lot down, and making information discoverable, which provides a facility to transfer knowledge to remote workers. It also means being deliberate about when to use asynchronous and synchronous communication for discussions and decisions.

Asynchronous Communication

Asynchronous communication is a best practice and should be your default method of interaction as it decouples each person’s availability with their ability to participate in discussions and decisions. People need to be able to disconnect without missing out on key decisions. Asynchronous communication frees people by giving them time to focus on their work and on their personal life. My team has discussions via email or GitHub issues. Longer-form ideas and technical design documents are written and reviewed in Google Docs. Once we start building, day-to-day tasks are kept in GitHub issues and Project Boards. Project updates and related decisions are captured in our internal project management system. I’ve listed a number of tools and that we use, but tools won’t solve this problem for you. Your team needs to choose communication conventions and then support those conventions with tools.

Synchronous Communication

When building teams there is also a place for synchronous communication. My teams each run a weekly check-in meeting on Google Hangouts. The structure of these meetings varies but typically includes demos or highlights of what was accomplished in the last week, short planning for the next week, and a team discussion about topics relevant that week. When managing a team across multiple time zones, common advice is to share the pain by moving the meeting time around. In my experience the result is confusion and people regularly missing the meeting. Just pick one time that is acceptable to the people on the team. Set attendance as a requirement of being on the team with new people before they join even if the meeting time is outside of their regular hours.

My teams are generally built so that everyone will be working at the same time during some portion of the day. These core working hours are an opportunity to have synchronous conversations on Slack or ad hoc video meetings as needed.

Charge Your Trust Battery

Shopify is a relationship-driven company. The Trust Battery is a concept that models the health of your relationships with your co-workers. Positive interactions, like open conversations, listening to others, and following through on commitments, charge the battery. Negative interactions, like being insensitive, demanding, or doing poor work, discharge the battery. This concept brings focus to developing relationships and pushes everyone to revisit their relationships on a regular basis.

Trusted relationships don’t just happen, but they can be given a push. Be open about yourself and encourage people to share details about themselves that you’d typically get with “water cooler” conversation. To facilitate this sharing, I set up Geekbot to prompt everyone on my team in Slack each Monday to answer an optional short list of questions such as

  • What did you do this weekend?
  • What’s something that you’ve read in the last week?
  • Any upcoming travel/vacation/conferences planned?

Participation is pretty high, and I’ve learned quite a lot about the people I work with through this short list of questions. Personal details humanize the people on the other end of your chat window and give you a better, multidimensional view of the people on your team.

Lastly, get people together in person. Use this sparingly as it can be a big request for people to travel. Pick the times when your team will get together. If you have a head office, that is typically a good anchor point. If not, consider selecting different places to share the travel burden. Support people who need it to make these in person sessions possible. For example, if a support person is required for a team member to travel, the cost of their trip should include the cost of the support person. Respect people’s time and schedule by being clear about the outcome of the onsite. Relationship building should be a component of the trip but not the only component. On our team we use our two yearly onsites for alignment and to leave people inspired, appreciated, and recognized. We also carve out time that teams can use to plan and code together in person.

Team Hands in Middle

Setting People Up for Success

Remote workers benefit from support from their managers and company. Work with them to set up a healthy work environment, give them regular attention and information, and champion them whenever you can.

Healthy Work Environment

You want your people to be effective and do their best work, so work with them to ensure that they have a healthy working environment. Reinforce the benefits of having a good desk, chair, monitor, mouse and keyboard, and a reliable internet connection. Speak with them about identifying a place that they can designate as their “office” and how to create a separation between work and personal time when their office is in their home. Some people are good at separating these parts of their life. Others need a ritual, like walking around the block, as the separator. Establish their regular working hours so that you are both in agreement about the hours that they are working and when they are not.

Connection Through Communication

People outside of an office need help to maintain their connection to the company and to you. They’ll miss out on any hallway chatter at an office and other in-person conversations like those that happen at lunch. I have a weekly one-on-one with my employees to provide them with a steady stream of information to keep them informed. I try to bring relevant information to all of my one-on-ones by preparing in a shared agenda in advance. I also ping people regularly on Slack with more timely information about the people on their teams, updates about our shared work, and to keep in touch throughout the week. If you do have an office, discuss whether spending some time there each year makes sense for them and seems like a worthwhile investment for you both. One person requested to be in the office for three weeks a year. To me, saying yes to this request was an investment in them and their future with the company.

Champion Your People

Remote people can fall into the trap of being out of sight and out of mind. Be a champion for your people. Ensure you use their name and highlight good work to your manager, your peers, and to your team. Give them credit, recommend them for relevant opportunities, and speak up on their behalf. Coach them on how to be more visible. Building relationships and working with others takes time and effort. Ultimately, their visibility depends on them and you and is important for their career progression and long-term retention.

Remote Is Worth the Effort

Building and managing a remote team takes effort to keep your team engaged, provide opportunity, and ensure that each person and the team is set up for success. You need to define your methods of communication, and deliberately stay in touch throughout the week. If you’re willing to put in the work, you can benefit from the hiring, composition, retention, and strategic benefits that a remote team provides.

We’re always looking for awesome people of all backgrounds and experiences to join our team. Visit our Engineering career page to find out what we’re working on.