Notes on Managing a Remote Team During COVID-19

View from Hope Outdoor Gallery in Austin, TX.
View from Hope Outdoor Gallery in Austin, TX. © 2020 John Apostol

This is for myself, to remember my feelings and learnings from this unique time.

A Realization

I had planned for 2020 to be the most important year in my career. This was the year to solidify my career goals concretely beyond “work with great people and make great things.”

I have a career in tech across corporations and startups of varying sizes. I know what kind of teams I want to work with and what kind of teams I want to avoid. For a while, these were the biggest career problems I faced. After a few proving years, having a well-paying job as a software engineer in tech felt like a given. Privileged, I know.

Now I sit on Zoom calls for part of the week, interviewing similarly-skilled and competent people. Many of them were laid off from their jobs, with one key difference between their economic uncertainty and my own situation.

I work for a company less impacted by the global pandemic than the company they had worked for.

Be Organized

The pandemic has ravaged everyone’s plans. In the worst cases, it’s taken lives and economic security. In these times of uncertainty, leaders remain important examples for their teams. Beyond giving a damn and providing assurances, we serve as guides for teams navigating confusion and anxiety.

Now, more than at any other time, it’s important to be organized in thought and action. This is not the time for chaos. People leaders need to provide a foundation for their team to succeed.

In my case, this meant ditching my outdated note-taking system. I recommend everyone take some time from typical priorities and invest in organizing their thoughts. I wholeheartedly recommend using Notion for this.

Every modern worker should have a note-taking platform with a smart searching feature. With Notion, I only need a key phrase or topic in order to find hidden footnotes from otherwise uneventful status meetings.

I note feedback, the date it was given, and other context around it.

Along with taking better notes, I also started taking more notes. Where I had been more freewheeling with my announcements, I was now preparing statements and reviewing them to make sure I communicated with purpose.

Unlike before where I was more apt to act upon feedback with immediacy, I have been more meticulous. I note feedback, the date it was given, and other context around it. This is to avoid making decisions in the heat of the moment. Where possible, leaving space for consideration leads to better decisions; something our teams benefit from.

A lot of us are working remotely for the first time. Whether we express it or not, we are anxious; sizing up own economic welfare and wondering how to work effectively. Our teams are feeling this too. We should first put good effort into organizing ourselves. People benefit from any structure their leaders give them.

Having a disorganized leader is stressful. We must free our team of that stress.

Be Available

In my Notion dashboard for my team, I have enshrined a little note to myself, Quarantine; be human. I credit this with keeping me grounded in reality.

I would start most work days with a hello to my international reports. There’s a 6 hour timezone difference between us. We’ve had a remote working relationship since way before the global pandemic, but that doesn’t make the situation any less strange for them. A simple, human greeting in the morning bridges us and provides a human tether we can both depend on.

As I noticed online indicators go green, I would say hello to each teammate in turn. It’s easy to take hellos for granted when working in the same physical space. Don’t turn this into a work update, and don’t neglect doing this.

I instituted optional working calls every day, once in the morning and once again after lunch. When my company instituted remote working by choice, and then by mandate, I was worried about whether the team would be able to remain as tight knit and productive. I was worried work would become formulaic and stuffy.

..we bought candle kits to make in our kitchens.

The optional Zoom calls were a haven for the socially restless like myself and a few of the engineers. Team members were encouraged to join in if they wanted to chat. A message would go out in Slack and a few of us would jump on to joke and chat.

I’ve been quite glad that our team has been able to have scheduled outings still. In our last outing, we bought candle kits to make in our individual kitchens. In making those kits, we learned about each others favorite smells (someone said cigarettes and gasoline) while the most experienced of us answered inane questions about wicks and heating wax in microwaves.

We onboarded a software engineer intern this past month and successfully kept our tradition of team lunches for new arrivals, even though we had to order in and talk over Zoom. Our intern just had their mid-internship review today. They only had great things to say about the experience so far. These were high accolades considering they’ve never met us in person.

In all these interactions I’ve worked to reinforce that we are still a community, we are still working together. Leaders should be available to their team, in 1:1s and in group settings, formal and informal.

Overcommunicate

I believe in setting good examples. A lot of what made me into the person I am today is because I emulated others who I respected. Let’s keep in mind that our actions (and inactions) carry weight with our teams.

If we want our teams to be more communicative while working remotely, we should expect to be more communicative.

To that end, I set reminders and review announcements I’ve already made in prior weeks so that I can follow up and answer and questions that people have had the time to develop. Here are a few other rules of communication that I follow in my day to day.

  • Check and double-check on decisions and ideas. Just be careful to not nag for status updates.
  • Ask for feedback, often and in various ways. Some people feel more comfortable in a 1:1 setting, others in a group.
  • Outline priorities and provide a vision for the team. This gives our people a window into the future, and that we’re still thinking about futures.

A good leader is a shock absorber that cushions the blows of change.

I’ve gotten over the initial year hump of people management. The training wheels have come off! I’m finally past the point where I wonder if I’m suited for the job. It’s mine now and I have people depending on me to be good at it.

Originally published at https://johnapostol.com.

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Engineering Manager at Handshake — johnapostol.com

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John Apostol (he/they)

John Apostol (he/they)

Engineering Manager at Handshake — johnapostol.com

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