Managing around the clock

Building routines which enable you to manage globally distributed teams without burning out

Among the styles of leadership practiced throughout the technology industry, a fair chunk fall into servant leadership. At a glance, the principles behind it are valuable and common sense in a people-first business — listening, empathy, collaboration, stewardship, community, and commitment.

It is common for our last principle, commitment, to reach a place where its positive nature becomes detrimental for yourself and your teams ability to function in a deterministic way. Without structure, commitment can lose balance. This becomes a tougher problem when dealing with a globally distributed team (which is buzz speak for a bunch of people in different timezones)

This image depicts a scenario not uncommon to today’s work environment, and if you’re not there yet as a company, you might be soon.

It becomes incredibly easy — and exhausting — to manage around the clock. So, let’s explore how we do the exact opposite of that, while retaining our focus on building great teams.

Be committed to yourself

You’ve been in an airplane and seen the safety demonstrations. There’s the bit with the oxygen masks, where you’re told to put yours on first before you do it for your dependents. It’s a weird analogy, but I’m running with it.

As a servant led leader, it’s easy to over-commit under the good intentions of supporting your team. When I first began managing a team in the UK, one of my first actions before doing anything else was to check my Slack DM’s and see if they needed anything from me. I usually didn’t respond right then and there, but because I had scrolled through the chats and DM’s, my brain kicked into gear — at 6am!

I told myself this was necessary because of the timezone difference, as if getting this type of head start on the day would make me a more effective leader. This became part of my routine — Wake up, check Slack, shower, make coffee, respond to anything I could immediately respond to. Family up, breakfast, daycare drop-off. By 8am my brain’s well into work mode for two hours. I now enter my typical office hours and by the time I wrap up at around 4pm, I’ve worked my brain an extra 2 hours more than is necessary.

My colleagues who managed in similar distributed fashion spoke of turning Slack Push Notifications on because they wanted to be there for their team members, even during their personal (off) time. They were committed to supporting their team, at the expense of themselves.

As problem solvers, it’s normal for our brains to be continuously churning, well beyond our usual working hours. But, it’s also a growing trend to reduce the work week, spending less time being on, and more of that time being effective in our roles. I’m not saying to cut your working hours, but I am definitely saying you should not work more hours because your team’s hours extend yours. There’s better ways to be committed to consistent communication, and we’ll continue to explore that below.

Develop processes which establish routine communication

As managers, we attempt to reduce assumptions. There can exist an unspoken understanding that one may not respond outside of their expected work hours. It’s much easier to set expectations, further reducing any assumption. We can set routines which make it clear when communication is expected between you and the team, and between the team itself.

How do we do that? Well, we have various routines we can implement which would set the expectation on a daily basis including, but not limited to:

  • A daily, scheduled standup

  • An asynchronous standup, which allows people to respond on their schedule (Platforms like Standuply)

  • Clear communication when you are available vs. away — in the form of Slack messages or status changes

  • A daily Good Morning! and Goodbye!

In these examples, you, as the manager, initiate the routine, but are intentional in ensuring these are routines benefit everyone within the team. The questions asked in a standup, for example, typically focus on how the team is doing, what they’re focused on, and what is blocking them. This routine becomes the expected place for everyone on the team to share those points, and it allows not just you, but others to unblock and begin providing necessary support, at a consistent time, in a consistent place each day.

Establishing routine communication in a distributed team can be made more difficult by varying schedules. The overlap for everyone on the team may be a mere 1-2 hours each day, and that may be further be complicated by personal schedules like school drop-off & pick-up — which we want to keep safe from disruption.

I like to use tools like worldtimebuddy to plot my team’s timezones to quickly gain a sense of alignment. Although, it’s likely that just because a team member works out in UTC+1:00, they may prefer to work on a UTC-5:00 schedule to better collaborate and socialize with the team. And sometimes, you may not have alignment on a regular basis (e.g. for your daily standup), so consider asynchronous tools.

Establishing good routine begins by knowing your people, and then molding processes to make your team most effective.

But, routine should not be a chore. You do want to keep the entire team (including yourself) responsible, while continuing to foster trust. Finding that balance is another fuzzy delight in the world of management. Is the output of your standup actually providing value? To whom? Is your teams focus already reflected in your task management system? Are there other routines they can use to highlight being blocked? Perhaps the value of social interaction and making connections is enough for your team to maintain a standup — that’s great and should not be dismissed!

Or, you may keep it simple as that Good Morning! each day, sharing any morsels, both related and unrelated to work. When you’re starting off, there’s no right or wrong approach.

What exactly adds value, feels human, and meets the needs of building expected routine won’t be clear right away. Our engineer minds love to iterate, and this is another space for such. You may feel overwhelmed by the tools and processes available. My recommendation is to be open about experimentation, help your team understand why you’re implementing such a routine and ensure to have set clear communication standards well before you implement any tools — tools can help but ultimately won’t solve your communication problems.

Disruptions in routine will happen, but with a good foundation, disruptions are less well, disruptive. And, these routines don’t become the sole place for team communication. They are the place for everyone to have an equal opportunity to raise their needs. But there’s still work to do. People may not feel comfortable sharing failure, or even using words like “blocked” in a team setting. Psychological safety cannot be assumed, it must be built — and with that comes a critical step in this foundation we’re building. Let’s explore that next.

Gather insight to improve yourself, the team, and your routines

Gathering data about team effectiveness as an engineering manager is … difficult. We know metrics around commit productivity, lines of code, etc. are near useless, and reports from standups (e.g. capturing daily mood, reporting at the end of the month on say, “average mood”) feel impersonal and can be gamed (“I’ll just report Happy so I am not bugged”). How do you know if your team members are getting unblocked as expected? Who’s unblocking them? How do you know if you’re giving everyone the appropriate amount of time? Being up to your ear’s in everything will help you realize that, but you’re also not helping anyone being that involved. Thankfully you have one of the greatest management tools at your disposal — the 1:1!

If you’ve been listening to your team between 1:1s, you’re going to be able to dive into highly supportive conversations:

  • Did your team member continuously report being blocked in standup? The 1:1 becomes the place to gather insight into why that was the case according to them. It’s a safe place to gather information — perhaps another team was also blocked by a further factor. Could our standup be improved to make this clearer in the future? How can we better inform on cross-team challenges?

  • Gain a sense of what is and isn’t working in your routines. Do people shut off when specific areas they don’t work on are being discussed? Why? Don’t feel ready to ask those questions yet? That’s fine, build up the psychological safety between the two of you until you are.

  • Empower team members to be part of defining the routine. Allow them to offer suggestions or critique to the routines you’ve established. Gather feedback, reflect, adjust. Gather again, in due time, so you can adjust as your team matures.

  • Given all your structure, are team members clear about how they can get help? Don’t assume, rather, ask to reinforce. (A manager’s job is repeating till they’re blue in the face)

  • How are they with their use of time? Do you see them committing late into their night hours on a regular? Poke around and understand why. Do they lack information earlier in the day that pushes their schedule out, or is this simply their routine? (Maybe they go for an extended lunch each day!)

1:1s are malleable to your specific situation, so these are some ideas. The key take away is that this is your most valuable time to gather insights and feedback. Your commitment to the team does not come from reactionary actions, but through actions like these, which scale. Allowing your time to scale means you give more of that back to the team.

And so, we consider what Managing around the clock means to us.

From an outsiders perspective, great leaders can seem as if they are doing little. They scaffold, build, and iterate slowly — yet deliberately. They commit to a team by ensuring they are committed to themselves first. They build the support structures and routines not for themselves, but for the entire team. These routines provide the team an equal plane to have relaxed dialogue, unblock, and support each other. The 1:1 is used, insights are gathered, and iterations are made. We can’t ask for more time, we only can take it away. By building efficient routines and expectations, the time you spend with your team can be highly effective, while still being humane.

(I really wanted to find a place to rant about UTC vs. local time in this article, even for a brief moment, but it didn’t fit, so I’m just dumping it at the end!)

Please, when talking about time, just use UTC. Save your team member’s the mental gymnastics of converting local time and use the universally accepted UTC! Most calendar applications allow you to add multiple timezones, so it’ll be easy for everyone to speak the same language. Here’s Google Calendar:

(Available in Settings | General | Language and Region)

Thanks for reading.