Making Careers: Tactical Ways Managers Develop Diverse and Distributed Teams

May 18, 2023

Research indicates that remote and distributed work is on the rise, with more individuals and organizations considering it a viable option, especially since the pandemic. This trend is driven by many factors, such as the ability to expand the talent pool, greater flexibility in working arrangements, cost savings on infrastructure, and improved work-life balance. However, it's worth considering how this shift towards a more distributed workforce impacts our approach to team development as leaders. I spoke to two colleagues in the People space, Aloka Penmetcha, Product Leader at Shopify, and Jay O'Connor, Senior Director of Engineering at Slack, to gain insights on how they are managing and developing their distributed teams.

I was curious about how remote management works and how managers can keep track of their teams. Jay explained that remote management is similar to in-person management but has differences. When managing remotely, leaders and employees must create value differently. Effective communication is essential, and leaders must embody the same expectations as they would in person.

Building camaraderie within your team

Aloka mentioned that remote management has changed how they build relationships within the team. Checking in over messaging apps and having more casual conversations during one-on-one meetings has been helpful. Jay emphasized the importance of taking time at the beginning of meetings to connect on a personal level.

I couldn’t agree more. I know I make sure I have plenty of time in my meetings. So we can have just that five minutes of “How's it going? How are your kids doing?” Visiting with one another builds relationships.

Jay recommends team members take two minutes to chat and build personal connections. Aloka's team uses a Slack channel, plays remote games, and has team-building events. Jay suggests replicating office interactions virtually, such as coffee breaks or water cooler chats. I like to encourage pair programming and setting working meetings which can increase productivity and social connections.  Remote work presents challenges in building camaraderie, but making an effort to connect is important. Remote work can make networking and career connections harder, so managers must be aware of this. Making connections is essential for growth, success, working well with others, and being inclusive. Finding mentors within the company can also provide growth opportunities.

Tips on communicating company cultural norms

Organization-specific norms are crucial for work. Unlike technical and theoretical knowledge, "how we do things around here" varies across companies and is often implicit. This becomes even more challenging for distributed teams working remotely, making communicating company culture difficult. I wondered if my colleagues had tips on teaching new people how to work. I like to make Q&A documents; if someone has a question, you can just write down the question and the answer to share with others.

How can we teach people to work together, and how do we lead to create an effective team culture, especially when working remotely? According to Jay, one way to do this is to lead by example and work in public - that is, show others what you're doing and how you're working. Document it. Share it. Make it visible so that others can learn from you. 

Also, make sure everyone knows what's expected of them on the job by defining cultural norms, career ladders, and job rubrics. This way, everyone knows what to do to succeed and can work towards their goals. This, of course, is what we do best at Pando. Embedding work expectations and core competencies in your job rubrics and career ladder helps enshrine your cultural norms. By doing this, you're saying this isn't just a nice to have, it’s critical for you to do your job and for your career.

Building camaraderie and managing time zone differences can be challenging when working remotely. However, you can still contribute to the team's success by providing constructive feedback and messages. Documentation, such as recording daily summaries, can be helpful. Having at least a three-hour overlap between colleagues is crucial - but this is not always possible, especially in teams that are distributed globally. Establishing clear expectations, such as outlining suitable remote projects and alternating meeting times, is important. For new team members, additional overlapping hours during the onboarding period can be beneficial with clear communication and expectations. I have also practiced alternating meeting times to ensure that both parties share the burden of attendance. Both sides feel the pain of either starting super early or working a bit later in the day. They develop empathy for the other person, and it helps people realize just how valuable their time together is.

Making space

The issue with online meetings is that the loudest person may dominate the conversation, making it difficult for quieter people to share their thoughts. Aloka suggests creating a board where people can submit their questions and a facilitator to ensure everyone can contribute. Additionally, a good facilitator should encourage quieter people to speak up and make sure everyone has an opportunity to share their thoughts. To help quieter individuals prepare, Jay recommends working with them to write down their ideas ahead of time and intentionally giving them space to share during the meeting. A good facilitator should also notice if someone needs to contribute and ask for their input or go around the group to ensure everyone has a chance to speak. These tactics help ensure everyone, not just the loudest person, can contribute to the conversation.

Pitfalls of leading and working remotely

I asked Aloka and Jay about the pitfalls of remote work and leading remote teams. Aloka highlighted that distractions and multitasking could lead to poor focus and quality of work. Working remotely can also lead to slacking off in meetings and side conversations, making it harder to get everyone aligned. To combat this, Aloka suggested creating norms for interaction and focus.

Jay shared that his experience at Slack emphasized setting boundaries and agreed that using tools like Do Not Disturb helps avoid distractions during meetings. Another pitfall is the difficulty of reading social cues and checking in on people. To deal with this, Jay and Aloka suggested regular check-ins and opportunities for collaboration, even in remote settings.

Increased interaction with teammates leads to increased employee engagement

As a leader, retention is always on my mind. The more someone interacts with their teammates, the happier they are with their work and more likely to stay. When someone becomes disconnected, they are more likely to leave. Working from home can make time management difficult for some, such as parents dealing with children's distractions. Aloka, who admits she struggles with time management, often finds herself working long hours without breaks, which is unhealthy. However, she thinks it's great that having children and pets appear on camera during virtual meetings is becoming more acceptable. Remote work allows for a better balance between work and personal life, and Jay emphasizes the importance of family and self-care. Leaders must prioritize building relationships and camaraderie through this shift towards distributed workforces. Leading remotely is challenging, but these strategies can help us navigate this process.

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