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Published:Sep 22, 2020

Managing a Remote Team of Developers – What Makes It Work?

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic thrust remote work into the spotlight, as companies all over the globe shuttered their physical offices and moved teams to virtual work so they could social distance safely.

But the truth is that remote work has been a growing trend — especially among knowledge workers like developers — for years. According to FlexJobs, 42 percent of remote workers say they’ve been working remotely for more than five years, and another 28 percent say they’ve been working remotely for three to five years. 75 percent of remote workers say they’d like to continue working remotely for the rest of their careers, and Upwork’s Future Workforce Report predicts that nearly three-fourths of teams will have at least one remote worker by 2028.

But like any change, the shift toward having more remote workers and more remote teams presents challenges — for both managers and team members. Distributed teams are breaking the traditions of work, and that means paving the way for new processes that set up remote teams for success.

Luckily for today’s managers, there are plenty of successful remote teams to look to for advice and inspiration. If you’re struggling with how to manage a remote team of developers, read on to learn what works and what doesn’t with a distributed team.

How to Build a Successful Remote Culture at Scale

The biggest key to success with a remote team? Ownership.

For proof of that, we look to Netflix. The company’s five levels of ownership are famous for the simple way they create a path to empowering every individual team member to be successful in their role.

Netflix's 5 levels of ownership gives us a framework for understanding teams and remote work.

Here’s how Netflix breaks it down:

  • Level 1: Demonstration. Watch me do it. Ask good questions.
  • Level 2: Oversight. Run it by me. Expect a lot of revisions.
  • Level 3: Observation. I’ll watch you do it. I’ll give you high-level guidance.
  • Level 4: Execution. You do it yourself. I’ll check in at random so I know how you’re doing.
  • Level 5: Vision. You tell me what we should do next.

Those five levels create a simple path from a team member who is new and doesn’t know what to do, to a team member who is creating new ideas, executing them, and leading others. When you think about what a remote team needs to succeed, much of it is culture-based. Expectations and pathways need to be clear. Communication needs to be highly valued. Team members need to be trusted and given autonomy. 

What role do managers play in all of this? To learn more about that, let’s look at what works — and what doesn’t — when managing a remote team.

How to Manage a Remote Team: What Works, and What Doesn’t?

Because the most successful remote teams are the ones where members focus on autonomy and ownership of their own work, managers need to embrace that reality and adjust their roles, as well. 

A manager on a remote team isn’t there to micromanager and oversee the work that gets done. Their job is instead to guide and lead the team toward functional, successful self-management.

Below are some of the most important areas for managers to focus on when leading a remote team, and what strategies they should — and shouldn’t — use to guide their team members toward remote success.

Communication

What works: Communication needs to be key on a remote team. Managers and team members alike should schedule regular communications, meetings, and check-ins. They should also streamline communication; for example, carefully consider what types of communication really require a virtual meeting, rather than an email or a direct message.

What doesn’t work: Because remote teams lose face-time with their teammates and managers, it can be easy to let communication lapse. While remote teams don’t necessarily need more communication, they need better communication. Make sure there is enough communication and that it’s direct and clear enough that everyone knows the team’s goals and expectations.

Autonomy

What works: Remote managers have to trust their teams. Full stop. 

That means giving team members the autonomy they need to work without a manager looking over their shoulder. Let your team members lead. Let them set their own goals. Your job as a manager is to make sure they have the tools and support they need to achieve their goals.

It’s also necessary to redefine what productivity looks like. When workers come to an office every day, it’s easy to measure their productivity by whether they show up (not that that’s a good benchmark, but that’s another story altogether). When they work remotely, you need new standards, like how well they meet deadlines and the quality of the work they produce.

What doesn’t work: There’s a temptation to watch remote team members even more closely. They’re not in the office, so how do you even know they’re working? Fight that temptation. Let your team members have freedom to work when and how they want, as long as they’re still accountable for meeting their goals and deadlines.

Career Growth

What works: Managers should create and present clear paths for growth — both professionally and personally. It’s easy for remote workers to feel a little stagnant, so they’re likely to look to their leadership for ways to break out of ruts, learn new skills, and climb the career ladder.

What doesn’t work: That means the onus is on managers to ensure their teams and organizations don’t get “stuck.” Even while creating new processes for helping your newly remote team become successful, think about the bigger picture: How you’re going to help your team work toward the mastery it takes to become better developers.

Teamwork

What works: One of the biggest challenges your teams will face as they work remotely is finding ways to work together as efficiently as they can when they’re all in the same place. If your team members are distributed across different time zones, that creates yet another layer to this challenge. 

Find ways to bring your teams together. One example of this comes from Sushma Nallapeta, VP of engineering at Apartment List. She described how one of her teams, with developers split between the U.S. and India, had to compromise on times for a daily standup meeting that helped them work together. They split days, so each time had some days with early morning meetings, and some days with evening meetings. By compromising, they made sure their entire team could meet without interrupting anyone’s off hours.

What doesn’t work: Letting team members become siloed by their different locations and time zones will only lead to a broken work culture, and teams that don’t communicate well or work together. If there’s no way for team members to make things work with their time differences, reshuffling teams might be in order.

Recognition

What works: Without regular in-person interaction, it can be tough for your team members to get a pulse on how their work is being received. That’s why the best managers of remote teams create regular chances for team members to recognize one another, and lead by example by publicly recognizing their team members’ good work whenever they can.

In addition to public recognition, providing regular feedback in one-on-one meetings can help lessen feelings of isolation or uncertainty that remote teammates might have.

What doesn’t work: Team members on a remote team should never wonder how they’re doing at work. That’s indicative of under-communication and unclear goals.

Hiring

What works: One of the best benefits to having a remote, distributed team is that it opens your team up to hiring the best talent for every open role, regardless of where in the world a developer is based. Search globally for team members who bring skills, talent, and value to your organization.

What doesn’t work: Avoid continuing to hire locally once your team has gone remote, even if most of the team is still based in the local area. Sure, it eliminates struggles that come with having team members across time zones. But that doesn’t make up for all the worldwide talent and skill you miss out on by failing to hire from a global talent pool.

Many of the management strategies that work best for remote teams will also be highly effective for localized teams. Clear communication, team member autonomy, and clear paths for career growth will benefit any software team. But because remote work is now at the forefront of many industries, these pillars are seen as more valuable than ever. Implementing them now will help your team stay competitive in a new world where flexibility and adaptability are keys to an organization’s success.

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