by Soo Somerset, Green Mars CEO
The advent of COVID-19 and social distancing, coupled with many states implementing Shelter in Place orders, means a lot of folks will be working from home. If managing a team remotely is new to you, you might feel some trepidation around how to do it well. As the CEO of Green Mars Consulting, a fully distributed software engineering consulting firm, I thought it might be useful to share some of the lessons I live by when managing our remote team.
Nothing Replaces the Impact of Voice Contact
Our online, text-based, communication tools are life-savers, but they cannot accomplish what a 5 minute phone call can do. Each week, I host 15 minute conversations with every member of my team where we cover a short set of topics. We do a general check-in, review their schedule/availability, discuss their workload, and examine any issues they’re facing. I give them an update on what I know, answer any questions they have, and schedule working sessions to deal with any concerns that came up in our call.
I learn so much from my team in these weekly check-ins. The trust we build together through these conversations means that when things are intense (as they are currently), the team remains steady and focused on getting the job done.
Shine the Spotlight on Priorities and Expectations
Your priorities and expectations should be as clear as you can make them. Write them out in detail, set up a slide deck, keep the timeframe short (1–2 weeks), and review them with your team.
We utilize “user stories,” not just to specify our software requirements, but also when we make requests of each other for more information. For example, compare the difference between:
“Bob, can you send me the progress report for the team from last week?”
“Bob, I need the progress report from last week by team member by the end of Tuesday so that I can compare it against the project schedule and check in with folks who are falling behind.”
The detail I give Bob in the second example helps him understand not just what I need, but why I need it and how I’ll use it, making it far easier for him to assemble the information I need in an accessible way.
Focus on the Output, Not the Hours
This may be the hardest part of a transition to working from home: your focus must shift to progress, not hours. You can’t know for certain how many hours a person is working, but you can review their deliverables and check progress on tangible work. Even for research tasks or less concrete work, you can request, given the new paradigm, that the team member write up their notes, lessons learned, findings, etc., for the time spent on these actions. Let them know ahead of time that you will want to review these artifacts with them because of your limited ability to support them in person.
Be cautious in your framing here: you don’t want to suggest that they detail every step as an opportunity for scrutiny. Instead, work with them to cultivate a format or framework that encourages constructive communication.
Trust, but Verify
You must trust your team to do their job and do it well. For some of us, that’s easy, but for others, it’s a frightening prospect. Trust is crucial in a fully distributed team. Your confidence will foster engagement within your team and help them completely own their responsibility to you and to the rest of the team.
That said, an innocent miscommunication can send even the most trustworthy team in the wrong direction, so be sure you are verifying their progress at reasonable intervals. Once or twice a week should do it. Sometimes biweekly is frequent enough, depending on your team. This verification, such as an informal demo or a document review, gives your team a chance to show off their work and cover any issues that have surfaced, along with their plans to address them. Verification gives the work a sense of immediacy that might be lost in a longer-term project.
Ask the Hard Questions
Working from home full time can be a difficult transition for workers: time management, juggling priorities, and clear communication are all easier when you’re in the office. This is where management becomes, I think, the most critically different from in-house approaches. If you have a team member who is struggling, ask them how you can help. Don’t pretend there isn’t a problem. Instead, talk about the indicators you see that point to a issue and collaborate with that team member to come up with options to solve it.
This transition is going to test your team, your systems, your processes, and your patience. Keep your sense of humor, as much as you can. Never stop believing that your team is doing their best, and reassure them that anything that prevents them from meeting the needs of the company is a problem you can solve together.
Tech startups hire the best engineers in their field to build a transformative solution and deliver powerful change to their market. With more advanced technologies, the experts are often highly specialized for their technical niche. The value of having those experts on the payroll is immeasurable — they advance the technology for your customers, build scalable, elegant solutions, and solve problems and challenges that make your product unbeatable in the industry. Yet, this focus can introduce a challenge when needs arise for skills that are not directly related to that core technology.
Just as traditional manufacturers rely on distributors, many startups with core technologies in machine learning, fintech, biomedical devices, or IoT hardware need specialized software to reliably deliver their value to their users. Medical software requires diligent requirements and verification testing for FDA approval, intricate user interfaces need automated testing or continuous integration testing to make quality more efficient, and, of course, everyone is concerned about data security in their cloud solutions. This aspect of the startup’s solution rarely involves the “secret sauce”, but requires substantial expertise to implement with efficiency, reliability, and scalability.
More and more, startup founders and decision makers are engaging trusted vendor partners to offload the technical requirements that fall outside their core technology, where, for example, the setup and maintenance of a secure, reliable AWS cloud platform, the design and development of an intuitive, extensible UI/UX built in ReactJS, or the establishment of an automated front end test harness in Selenium, can be delivered and supported while your company grows through its most critical early years.
Green Mars has built a dedicated team of software and devops engineers, QA engineers, technical analysts and project managers for the purpose of supporting startups who have need of cloud, UI/UX or testing solutions that support and proffer their core technology. Our team works with yours, as a flexible extension of resources, and our project managers ensure that budgets and expectations are met and managed.
We attract solid engineering talent: passionate about reliable, maintainable, and effective software, and, as part of a consulting firm, they never run out of opportunities to build and support stable and secure platforms or to develop powerful interfaces that promote the value of our client’s core technology. Our team collaborates with each other and with our clients, building relationships and understanding priorities and caveats, an integral engagement that is rarely seen in other consulting models.
This is why Green Mars exists: so that startups can invest in their core technology, confident that we are filling the gaps in the technical stack while they grow.
Want to learn more about why companies outsource? You make like our article Top 5 Reasons to Outsource Software Engineering.