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A Successful Remote Culture Starts in the Office. Here’s How to Get Started

Perspectives in Engineering

A Successful Remote Culture Starts in the Office. Here’s How to Get Started

An interview with Vidal Graupera, Engineering Leader
GitPrime elevates engineering leadership with objective data. In this interview series, Engineering Leaders talk about how to build high performing teams.

People accustomed to a co-located workplace often resist having remote workers as part of the team. Perhaps that’s just because remote work is a foreign concept, or perhaps they have a bad experience in their rearview mirror.

Vidal Graupera, Engineering Manager at Uber (previously Director of Engineering at Walmart Labs and Senior Engineering Manager at Autodesk), doesn’t understand the bad taste that remote work leaves in people’s mouths.

“It’s funny,” he says, “because people have this thing about remote work—but especially in large teams, it’s not that different from being distributed. We can be in the same office, and I don’t even see you. You might as well be 500 miles away, for all practical purposes. We have this tool called the Internet. Why not use it? As long as the git commits make it into the repo does it matter where they came from?”

In other words, you still have to do all same things with remote workers that you already do with co-located ones — a successful remote culture starts in the office. So you have a choice. You can either emphasize a co-located culture that excludes and hinders your remote team members—or you can use tactics that promote your team’s efficiency both in and out of the office.

“We can be in the same office, and I don’t even see you. You might as well be 500 miles away, for all practical purposes.”

Graupera, for one, is passionate about learning new approaches to managing successfully. He runs the website Manager’s Club, where he interviews engineering leaders from around the world to find out what works well for them. From his own experience and his cultivated knowledge, he breaks down tactics for building successful distributed teams and emphasizes two primary areas of focus: how your organization communicates, and how to conduct 1:1s.

Sponsor a strong communication system

Graupera notices that with distributed teams the workday can get a lot quieter. There are fewer meetings, fewer interruptions. And if you have employees in different time zones, they can have a few hours in their workday that fall outside your standard in-house hours. That’s practically built-in quiet time, which is often considered an advantage for creatives.

But quiet cannot equal lack of communication. Not only is it bad for morale and typically slows teams down, but Graupera also recognizes how challenging it can be to have remote workers on the other side of the planet where there’s no time overlap during the workday. The best is to have at least 4 or 5 hours of overlap. Communication between team members—both on a day-to-day and in regards to the bigger picture—is essential.

Practice Commander’s Intent

Based on his experience in the U.S. Navy, Graupera has learned many leadership lessons from the military including the idea of Commander’s Intent. You might have heard this concept before in terms of making sure your team has the relevant context. Whatever words you use, it’s all about creating a workplace where engineers develop their own approaches to meet the intended outcome.

“You can have people remote, and they need to understand the commander’s intent as to what really is desired, what the standards are,” he says. “If you don’t have that clarity, remote is not going to work.”

“We’re not writing code just to write code. What is the point in writing it —what’s the problem we’re solving? What’s the benefit for the customer? How and when do we know whether it’s successful?”

Following this philosophy is essentially the opposite of micromanaging. Less is more. You’re making sure your team understands the problem at hand as well as they can, including all the relevant context for how the deliverable will help the customers or the business, and then you’re trusting them to address the problem.

“We’re not writing code just to write code,” he says. “What is the point in writing it — what’s the problem we’re solving? What’s the benefit for the customer? How and when do we know whether it’s successful — what metrics are we using? Those are very important things to communicate. And if everybody knows these things, then we can all row in the same direction.”

Inter-team (over) communication

Your team gathers context through various forms — and in a co-located workplace, there are more opportunities for context-gathering to take place. There’s a reason “water-cooler talk” is in our vocabulary.

But that’s one of the ways that an office-centric culture needs to shift if you’re going to support a distributed team. People that don’t share the same office need to have various channels for gathering context, too. Important things need to be repeated on Slack, via email, in all-hands meetings — at different times and through various formats — because you’re always going to miss someone’s attention. And besides, the habit of over-communicating will benefit your co-located crew, too.

“Having a remote team forces you to write more things down to make sure everyone understands.”

For instance, Graupera has any distributed team member dial into each standup, no matter where they are. “In fact, once you set that up well, then you have people dial in who work from home, or they’re out sick, or they had to take care of a kid,” he says. This practice establishes a new norm, and dialing in is no longer a hassle or a hindrance. Everybody’s used to people dialing in to meetings.

Then, of course, there’s the standard of relying on written communication to ensure that your entire team—whether async or not—is in the loop and on the same page.

“You have to have things written, clear, and easily accessible” Graupera says. “Having a remote team forces you to write things down more often to make sure everyone understands — yourself included.”

Graupera offers an additional idea here: ask team members to record their conversations when discussing a topic that is relevant to others not participating in that discussion, and then file those recordings wherever it makes sense.

Facilitating face time

Plenty of office-based teams get together in the same room on a regular basis, from stand-ups to happy hours. That just doesn’t happen naturally for distributed teams, so you need to make sure it happens. It’s pretty standard practice for remote teams to collect in a single location anywhere from quarterly to annually, because, as Graupera says, “You have to have some face time.”

But the stress of planning and coordinating that shindig can be too much for some managers to handle. How do you coordinate all these activities in a city you’re not familiar with, with people you hardly know outside of work?

Graupera’s solution is simple and brilliant: let someone else do the planning for you.

“If we all go to a conference together, that’s a pretty clear agenda,” he says. Conferences usually suggest housing options, nearby attractions, and, of course, give you a full list of everything that’s happening during that week. While it can be an inspiring retreat, sitting down and planning the week together — deciding who you want to see speak and when as a team — is a great way to break the ice and get the week started off on the right foot.

Whatever you do, don’t skip out on getting everyone together. “In my experience, the best cadence for getting everyone together was at least once a quarter,” Graupera recalls. “But at a minimum, do it once a year.”

Getting the most out of your 1:1s

1:1s are also a standard practice. Suggesting you have them is typically no surprise. But what’s surprising is how often we let 1:1s slide, especially with distributed workers. Graupera suggests the opposite: “you should consider doing more one-on-ones with people who are remote.”

So step one is to make sure you carry through with your 1:1s. Even if employees are just out of the office for the day, Graupera still calls them just to keep the meetings consistent. As for the meetings themselves, here are some of Graupera’s insights into getting the most out of your time:

Split the 1:1 into 3 parts

Graupera splits his 1:1s into three general phases:

1. The first 10 minutes is all about figuring out how they’re doing — both on a professional and a personal level. “Sometimes this will take up the whole 1:1, and that’s ok,” Graupera says. “Taking time to get to know the person, and show them that you care, is really important.”

2. The second part is about inviting and offering feedback. “I ask about some things that are on their mind,” he says. “For instance, what did you think of that meeting? Or what are your thoughts on Topic X?” Consider asking questions like:

  • What are the biggest time wasters for you each week (or this past week/month)?
  • Is there anything we should start doing/stop doing/keep doing as a team?
  • Would you like more or less direction from me on your work?
  • What could I do as a manager to make your life easier?
  • What are you least clear about regarding our strategy and goals?

3. The third is about next steps and career goals. Discuss what those goals are, set milestones or learning objectives, and discuss what they’ve learned/progress they’ve made since the last meeting.

In each of these, he notes, it’s important to let your employees’ thoughts and input drive the meeting. Your job is to draw them out and facilitate the conversation.

Come prepared with an agenda

Of course, the 1:1s will bear more fruit if you don’t rely on every employee to offer in-depth discussion topics every time. Encourage your employees to come with a thought-out agenda—but also come prepared with your own, as well.

“It’s common for reports to come to a 1:1 without an agenda,” Graupera says. “So it’s always good to prepare as a manager. I’m taking notes during the week, like, ‘I want to ask about this and about that. What do you think about this thing?’”

Coming prepared with an agenda prevents your sessions from sounding like hey I’m good thx and you? Your deliverable isn’t to show up for the meeting. Your purpose is to engage on professional and personal levels to gain context and a clearer sense of each other on a regular basis.

Sometimes, you may not even discuss projects! And that’s okay—1:1s aren’t there for status updates. Just be sure to take advantage of the consistent time you get to talk directly and solely with each other.

“Leave each 1:1 with a sense of clarity and connection”

When you boil down Graupera’s insights, they always return to communication and connection. There’s no better way to prepare than to communicate about the team’s needs, and there’s no better way to communicate than to prepare and plan your thoughts.