Building relationships as a remote engineering manager

For the past few years, I had been supporting the growth of individuals in and out of office environments. I had reports that worked out of the same HQ I did and reports distributed around the globe. Ultimately, I had the benefit of having the majority of my team in the same office as I was, while I was building my skills in managing distributed teams.

This past September, that dynamic changed. I moved to Boston, shifted to an entirely new set of engineering teams, and became a remote manager. My reports were now based out of HQ (Toronto), Bulgaria, and the UK.

The majority of my reports were new-to-me, likewise stakeholders, and as well, the technology stack. What I’ve observed over the past several months is the challenges specific to building relationships within your engineering team and across the organization. This is my experience, in brief.

A stakeholder has entered the chat

A large part of a manager’s role is understanding your team, the stakeholders, and how that ties in with business needs. Relationships are built through 1:1s, lunch table chats, coffee walks, hallway chats before a meeting, and of course, within meetings.

And thus, the initial challenge is revealed. In an office environment, you have an incredible amount of opportunity to organically build rapport with a wide range of people extending beyond your immediate team.

It’s expected that you’ll build relationships with other business leaders, including those not on the engineering team. They’ll work with you to take business requirements and turn them into results — these are your stakeholders.

I believe a good manager is one who actively listens, and speaks when necessary. And I believe that actively listening is a necessary step to building rapport with other business leaders. In an ideal world, your stakeholders will come to you prepared with prioritized roadmaps, decision logs, and an army of people ready to support an initiative.

But let’s be real. They’ve had to can projects, shift timelines, juggle resources, and make compromises — just like you!

So, listen. You’ll find listening helps you ask questions with context, it allows you to be empathetic, and it builds the mental models which help you make long term decisions that satisfy that blend of functional and technical requirements.

Within that, you’ll learn about the person on the other side. You don’t have the benefit of an office environment, so these interactions are limited to bi-weekly/monthly product checkins. Consider asking for more time so you can learn beyond the projects. How do they work? What makes them tick?

You may be surprised how similar the questions you’d ask in a 1:1 with a direct report work with other product managers. Think horizontally so your relationship building has wings.

Meet these other leaders often and early. Take the initiative and setup time. Be clear what you’re looking to learn from them — get to know their problems and vision. Become part of their support network so that they can become part of yours.

Getting to know your team

It’s time for your first 1:1 with a new team member and it’s on Zoom! Wouldn’t it be nice if you could spend a week doing team on-boarding at HQ?

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. You’ll want to have the camera on and ideally, it’s not pointing up into your nose. I’m not going to get into more than that for this post, so remember one simple thing: Show your team member that you’re a human.

This isn’t just about being visibly human, but about actually being human.

A mistake I made early on in my remote management career was to focus on everything but the actual person. In our early 1:1s we dove into setting expectations for growth (goals!), understanding projects, initiatives, that team member’s understanding of the code base, and everything that did not include sharing who I am and understanding who they are.

These are all fantastic things to do as a manager, but they preceded getting to know the person on the other line. This meant that I did not share who I was, and thus, it took longer to build rapport. I genuinely struggled to get to know my team better than others within the business.

It likely had to do with the pressure of effectively using the 60 minutes we allotted for that 1:1. My brain wanted to optimize for the little bit of time we had that week while not registering that I was lacking the benefit of the in-office interactions I previously had.

So, start at knowing the person behind the screen. Let them know who you are, and make space for those human conversations within each 1:1. You may wonder, what do we talk about?

It doesn’t really matter. You can start at the weather. Share a story about your weekend. They’ll share one about theirs, perhaps. You may struggle with finding things in common, but that’s not the point. Open up first, and you’ll find others will follow. Then listen. Take note of important dates, favourite treats, a colleague they highlight as doing a great job (For the record, a great question to ask them!)

Over time, you’ll learn more about your team member, but it begins with you putting in that effort. I do believe that it takes longer to feel comfortable here, so investing that time early and often will provide results down the line.

Eventually, you may have the privilege of meeting in-person. Usually through a company offsite. You should definitely have a 1:1 during this time, and you can even enjoy a change of scenery — coffee walk!

Beyond that, an in-person 1:1 should not be different. You should not wait to provide critical feedback or performance reviews during these visits. But, you should consider the opportunities that can arise.

For example, your team member may have recently completed a significant project and you should know how they like to treat themselves — Perhaps leave them a treat on their desk?

How you interact when 99% of your interactions are online will look different than if you were in the same office, but by working towards getting to know each other not only individually, but as a group, you’ll find that we’re in a place today where the tools available to us help break down those barriers. You’ll still stumble over the End Meeting button within Zoom on a regular basis, but if you’ve built those relationships, it’s simply another chuckle for that day.

Set an example

Consider the image you portray to the people around you. When in an office, did you look busy all the time? Were you visibly present to your team on a regular basis? How did you communicate and deliver team updates?

How you present yourself is just as important as a remote manager. Yes, you should shower, and yes, you can wear sweatpants all day (For the record, I love the Uniqlo ones). However, it is the written form that has a higher significance in how you’re representing yourself.

The words you use — and how and when you use them matter. They become a huge part of your personality!

Your life as a manager includes a lot of Slack (or whatever workspace tool you use), and a ton of context switching. And as a manager, you need to be aware of what is occurring when you ping a report on Slack. Are they clear on the expectations of how and when they should respond to that message?

What I want from my teams are for them to be able to collaborate, work together towards an aligned goal, and as much as possible, do deep work.

I believe beyond explicitly stating them, practicing the habits you want to enforce yourself is key to keeping that consistent across a team. These habits come not just from policy, but through setting a good example. Be the one leading the charge, and/or lift up a senior member of your team to be that person.

Define best practices around how to use your various communication channels. For example, Slack is great for quick asynchronous discovery and sharing of bits-and-bytes, where-as you may leverage GitHub Issues to form discussions around pending architectural decisions.

And remember to balance the noise. Talk to your team about deep work. Make it clear that turning off Slack for extended periods of time is OK, and be clear what communication channels team members are expected to respond within. Do this yourself too. (Yes, you busy manager, block some time and do deep work! You need to work on the business too)

And if you haven’t realized it yet, get used to this — you’re going to spend a lot of time writing.

Consider how you craft a message in the various mediums. The way you write a Slack message that is meant as a quick consumable will vary from the documentation you write to support an architectural change, and that’ll vary from the email you write to a stakeholder about a missed deadline.

Think like a carpenter here. Measure twice, cut once. You are delivering so much in these packets of information — expectations, updates, and yourself.

This completes the third pillar of building relationships. In this case, you have the opportunity to form relationships across the team. Setting clear expectations and good examples provides teams the ability to work on an equal plane and it naturally opens up a space to collaborate effectively.

Be yourself

I’ll end this post with what I believe to be a reasonable thought.

Be yourself. Write like how you’d talk in person.

Being remote doesn’t turn you into a robot. It can feel that way, so don’t forget that you can be yourself. It doesn’t have to be all business, and that’ll help you remember the people on the other side also aren’t pixels on a screen, being projected by some dystopian A.I.

Be yourself, because it’s you that is building relationships, forming a team, and helping others grow.

Thanks for listening.