Human Factors: Managing Remote Teams in the New Normal

Technical expertise is a prized value on engineering teams. But when it comes to team leadership, summoning that expertise has as much to do with human factors as it does with technical acumen. As teams are forced into all-remote mode by the COVID-19 pandemic, these human factors are even more critical to fostering an environment that supports trust and accountability. This article shares best practices for leading remote engineering teams through the current crisis.

  1. Make sure people feel safe. This is a stressful time. There are health concerns, job concerns, and family concerns. Human beings have a hard time concentrating on work if they don’t feel safe. It is important to honor the work and flexibility that employees are demonstrating at this time.
  2. Let the personal in. By now you’ve probably seen clips of video meetings interrupted by children. It’s not only ok, but it’s also good. Now is not the time to separate work from family--ask people how they are doing.
  3. Offer frequent recognition. Some 82 percent of employed American workers don’t feel that their work is appreciated, and would put more energy into their work if it were recognized. And that’s when they are in the office. Recognition is even more powerful and important when people are isolated.
  4. Set clear goals based on output, not activity. The point of work is not to log hours, but to deliver results. Clear, measurable objectives, with daily and weekly check-ins using virtual standups and retrospectives. Make standups on video calls and set a policy that everyone comes on camera, even if kids or pets are running around in the background. This can build trust as teams have the opportunity to show one another empathy in the moment.
  5. Assume the best. If someone isn't delivering the same quality of work as in the office, it’s ok to ask why. It may have to do with other pressures they are going through, especially during this unprecedented crisis. Have an honest conversation about what is getting in the way and how to remedy it. One productivity drag right now, for example, is that some people don’t have high-quality Internet access home. This can be addressed by upgrading connections or by buying data bundles.
  6. Use data to measure performance. If there is a genuine work problem, make the conversation about the work delivered, not the time spent or the perception of others.
  7. Communicate often. Silence breeds misunderstandings. Use instant messaging platforms like Slack to ask questions and help one another. Check-in once or twice a day to review the status of projects, identify obstacles, and discuss how to break through them.

The principles behind these best practices are not new or unique to remote work, save children crashing meetings. Communication, recognition, goal setting, and accountability take on a different form when the team is not in the same building. These practices require more intentionality and frequency for all-remote teams, especially in the midst of our current circumstances.For more information and guidance about building and managing remote engineering teams, download the e-book, “Making the Shift: Experts Share How to Rapidly Build and Scale Remote Teams.”

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