The fundamentals of building and managing a distributed engineering team
When your company’s headquarters are outside of one of the major tech hubs, you’ll likely hit a point where you realize you simply cannot hire enough developers to work in the main office. A lot of companies need to start considering distributed candidates in order to build the quality crews they need.
And if you want those distributed engineers to be successful members of your team for a long time, you’ll need to follow certain best practices right from the get-go.
Maria Gutierrez, VP of Engineering at FreeAgent (and the Director of the Edinburgh Network at Women Who Code), has been building and managing distributed teams for nearly a decade. Previously, as Senior Director of Engineering at LivingSocial, she managed globally distributed teams ranging in size from 30 to 80 — and now, about a third of the engineers at FreeAgent work full-time from various locations in the UK.
Gutierrez told us that much of her thinking about distributed teams has come from collaborating with Glenn Vanderburg, a colleague of hers at LivingSocial and now the VP of Engineering at First.io. Together, they wrote a blog series on Managing Distributed Teams in 2016, and now are frequently invited to speak about the challenges and rewards of leading distributed teams.
There are several aspects to successfully building and managing distributed teams, which Gutierrez breaks down here. In a nutshell, though, she says that success is about being aware of your company’s unique reality and making sure you optimize these best practices for that situation.
“There are a lot of benefits of having a distributed team,” she explains, “but there are also a lot of things that are a little bit harder in that environment. So, as a leader, you need to be sure that you are setting everybody up for success in their position and that you really invest in making those distributed relationships work.”
Create a distributed team identity
The first thing Gutierrez says you can do to ensure that ‘distributed’ works on your team is this: Stay committed to building and maintaining those relationships.
“If you have one remote employee, you have a distributed team.”
Keeping distributed employees on your team just doesn’t work if they feel like outsiders, or feel like they’re treated as an inconvenience (even if indirectly). “If you decide to build a distributed team, whether you hire people that will be working in different satellite offices or working from home, you need to guarantee that those people will have the same opportunities as anybody else,” Gutierrez says.
That means that you need to deliberately encourage inclusivity from everyone on your team. If you treat distributed team members like second-class employees—if they’re often out of the loop, or their opinions don’t seem to matter as much as the in-office voices— these people will likely leave to work somewhere where they feel inspired, cared about, and where their hard work is recognized.
“If you decide to build a distributed team, you need to guarantee that those people will have the same opportunities as anybody else.”
One of the most effective ways to make distributed employees successful on your team is to hire a significant number of distributed workers relative to your team size. Or instead of hiring, allow current team members to work from home part-time or even full-time. Either way, it helps to reach a critical mass where a significant portion of your team is distributed. Think about it: if only one in twenty people works from home, they’re a definite minority voice, and your team as a whole is less likely to accommodate them than if even five in twenty work off-site.
“The number depends on the team,” Gutierrez says. “But probably around a quarter is good, because that starts to be enough people to require effort from the rest of the group. If there are only a few people who work from home and the great majority of the group are all in the office, then you’re always trying to bend to make it work for those few people and you can unintentionally create resentment. So, you need to have a substantial amount of people in that situation so that everybody gets used to working that way.”
Set clear expectations and hire for the ability to work off-site
The ability to work off-site is a learned skill — every engineer needs to try working out of the office to learn how to be successful at it. That’s why Gutierrez doesn’t necessarily look for previous experience working remotely in the hiring process.
She does, however, evaluate their understanding of what it means to work somewhere other than the company’s headquarters. Gutierrez tries to be very explicit about how the team works and what will be expected — even before a candidate has joined her team.
“It’s important to ask questions around how they work, what motivates them, and what concerns them about working off-site. I also like to get a bit of information about how their setup is going to work,” she says. “I’m an advocate for having a very specific environment that’s just for work. For example, my husband and I are fortunate to have a dedicated room for our home office that we only use for work. It helps us avoid distractions and helps us set some boundaries between work and home life.”
Whether it’s an entire office or your favorite chair, dedicating space just for work is similar to building a routine. It can help you get into that ‘working’ mindset much more quickly.
Ultimately, Gutierrez needs to understand that potential distributed hires have an environment where they can collaborate with others successfully and without constant interruptions.
“Building that initial relationship with the team and personally getting to know everybody they’re going to be working with is really helpful. So when they’re not working in close quarters with their team, they’ve already built those relationships and it’s a lot easier to ask questions, make mistakes, and get up to speed.”
Then, when she hires someone that won’t be working at FreeAgent’s headquarters, she brings them to the office if at all possible, no matter where they are from. That way, they get to know everyone that’s in the home office they’ll be working with—and they get to know the newbie, too.
“Building that initial relationship with the team and personally getting to know everybody they’re going to be working with is really helpful,” Gutierrez says. “So when they’re not working in close quarters with their team, they’ve already built those relationships and it’s a lot easier to ask questions, make mistakes, and get up to speed.”
Open channels for communication and connection
A great deal of success in a distributed workforce, for Gutierrez, comes down to the relationships between engineers, wherever they are located. When you are teamed up with people instead of usernames, you naturally feel more invested in the work you’re collaborating on.
“That’s why we’re very deliberate about encouraging opportunities to build inter-team connections and relationships,” she says.
For example, some of Gutierrez’s teams at FreeAgent have set up what they call The Weekly Café, which is an informal meeting where they explicitly don’t talk about work. Instead, everyone gets together (in person and virtually) to chit chat about whatever they please.
“Little things like that really help to build those relationships and keep everybody more connected,” she says.
“If you rely on people touching in when they go for a cup of coffee, you lose a lot of context. Whereas, when people know that somebody else needs to be able to pick up this thread later to understand what’s going on, they make a conscious effort to record things properly. And everybody benefits as a result — even co-located team members.”
Then, when it comes to doing the actual work, the communication channels are healthier—even if they are different for distributed teams than for co-located ones. Gutierrez actually thinks that “remote” practices benefit teams more than co-located habits, because everyone is more conscious about communicating intentionally.
“If you rely on people touching in when they go for a cup of coffee or when they see each other in the middle of the corridor, you lose a lot of context,” she explains. “Whereas, when people know that somebody else needs to be able to pick up this thread later to understand what’s going on, they make a conscious effort to record things properly. And everyone benefits as a result — even co-located team members.”
Furthermore, she keeps up the in-person contact that gets established during the onboarding process. As is common with distributed teams, Gutierrez brings together her entire team once a quarter or so to continue meeting face-to-face and building personal relationships with their peers and collaborators.
Get clear buy-in from senior leadership
Having multiple distributed offices or remote workers is a strategic business decision that needs the full support of a company’s senior leadership. As an organization, you can start building out and growing a high-performing distributed team — but if you want the off-site teams to be as successful as the on-site ones, you’re going to need to work to get clear buy-in from the top.
Now, Gutierrez acknowledges that it’s only natural that there are many skeptics to the idea of growing an off-site team. Perhaps they’ve never experienced it or they’ve seen a few unsuccessful or floundering distributed teams. These situations are not uncommon, but the underlying causes for the underwhelming performance of any team can typically be tied back to poor organizational health issues. Normally it’s due to an absence of clear communication and expectations, or a lack of suitable processes and tools that allow getting the job done successfully in that environment — not a “people don’t want to work hard” problem.
But despite the skepticism, there are still numerous companies who go forward with building out their distributed team without having the full support of their company’s leadership. If you find yourself in a situation where leadership is hesitant — but willing — to let you start building out a distributed team, here are a few of Gutierrez’s tips on how to get started from where you are and win over your company’s full support.
1. Explain your goal
Explain why building a distributed team is the right business decision for your company. What problems are you trying to address? There are many reasons to do so, but here are a few examples (borrowed from Gutierrez’s and Vanderburg’s “Managing Distributed Teams”):
- De-risking hiring and improving diversity: You want to make it easier to recruit excellent developers from a more diverse and experienced talent pool.
- Improving the product: You want a better representation of your customer’s demographics in your team or you want to provide global support.
- Improving retention or employee engagement:
- You want to provide more flexible working arrangements for employees.
- Your company was acquired by (or merged with) another company in a different city.
- A few talented developers on your team want to relocate for personal reasons, so you want to “go distributed” rather than lose the valuable skills and knowledge of loyal, dedicated employees.
- Your company is moving its headquarters to a different part of the city, and some team members are asking to work from home so they don’t have to endure a longer commute.
2. Over-communicate about your plan and how you are going to measure your progress
Once you explain “why,” you’re immediately going to get asked about how. “If you are going to set up the team for success you need to do your homework”, says Gutierrez. If you’re hiring new distributed employees, where and how are you going to find them? How are you going to budget for it (salaries, travel, office set-up…)? What are the tax, employment and intellectual property legal implications? How are you going to evaluate performance and development?
As for progress, once you’ve already started growing the distributed team, your company’s leadership is going to want to know how things are going. By regularly measuring against your goals and reviewing what is working and what is not and adapting based on that feedback you’ll be able to show clear progress. That in return will incrementally start building trust from senior leadership and your team.
“At FreeAgent, we have in-company surveys about engagement and how happy engineers are,” Gutierrez explains. “Those people who work from home are typically equally or sometimes even more engaged than those who are co-located resulting in lower attrition. If you’re able to pull that kind of data together, and show leadership how engaged and productive your entire team is — off-site and co-located — it starts to become an easier case to make.”
3. Build empathy across the organization
The process of getting a skeptical leadership team onboard with distributed teams will take time. But once you’ve seen real progress, Gutierrez suggests building empathy from co-located leaders. The goal is to strengthen the culture and processes that support your distributed team, and Gutierrez recommends doing so by encouraging leadership also to be distributed.
“In my experience, a key to success with distributive teams is when some of the most senior managers, or the senior individual contributors, worked from home or in satellite offices as well.”
“In my experience, a key to success with distributive teams is when some of the most senior managers, or the senior individual contributors, worked from home or in satellite offices as well,” Gutierrez says. “There are two reasons for that. Firstly, it exposes them to the same problems the rest of the team has. Whether we like it or not, we have a lot of influence and can sometimes prioritize any issues more promptly. Secondly, it demonstrates that location is not a barrier to progression within the business.”
That’s why Gutierrez and the CTO at FreeAgent work away from the main office at least one day every week. Other senior leaders in engineering also work from home full-time. Not only are they able to experience what their full-time distributed engineers experience every day, but they build a culture by example. Heck, if the VP of Engineering works from home, then it must be acceptable (and encouraged) here. That shows everyone, co-located or not, that your entire team is on the same footing. And that’s how you keep a distributed workforce engaged and thriving.
Get Engineering Impact: the weekly newsletter for managers of software teams
Keep current with trends in engineering leadership, productivity, culture, and scaling development teams.