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Remote Work

Tips for managing a distributed team: A Q&A with longtime remote manager Cortney Hoese

Welcome to the fourth installment of our remote work series (read part 3 here). This week, we spoke with Cortney Hoese, Data Visualization Principal at Humana, who has been managing a remote, distributed team in a variety of data and testing-oriented roles for more than eight years, which has at times included as many as 40 people. Read on for her thoughts on how to maintain agility remotely, the importance of compassion, and some of the silver linings she’s found along the way.

What’s different about remotely managing a team vs. having everyone in the office?

Today, there is a lot of management by proxy where instead there should be management by visibility. By visibility, I don’t mean physically seeing your team in the office. Just because you can physically see someone doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily working on the task that you want them to, or that they’re working productively. Many leaders fear, “If I can’t see them, how do I know they’re working?” My question back is “How did you know they were working when everyone was in the office?” You have to find a way to manage and measure what you need to without being intrusive. And that method should apply no matter where the team is located. That’s what I mean by visibility.

You have to start by knowing what it is that they should be doing, where they should be on each project, and they are making the progress you need them to make. It’s not about clockwatching, or whether everyone started work at 8 a.m. today. It’s about what the job entails, that you are appropriately assigning deliverables and holding one another accountable for the quality of the work. If you’re a manager and you’re new to remote work, these are the questions you need to ask right now: “Do I have the tools I need to assign my team work, manage their workloads, track progress, and verify the quality?” You may find you need to change tooling and adjust your management techniques. It might mean more meetings, more visibility with real-time collaboration tools, or leveraging the fact that you can still meet up and talk in a more casual (virtual) setting.

What’s the best way to assign work and check in on progress?

It’s taken multiple iterations throughout my journey as a manager, and I won’t say I’m perfect. My strategy is always evolving based on the makeup of my current team and what’s working for us. What works for us might not work for everybody. Right now, we use a combination of short and long-term goal setting. We use some SAFe (scaled agile framework) principles when we look at incremental goals. This allows us to map out how we’ll achieve bigger goals, and the timelines we need in place to achieve those longer-term goals for the year.

We also use a storyboard. My team operates in a Kanban style, and I track their work at the feature level. We set deadlines, but not necessarily hard ones. It’s more like “We want this widget in production at the end of March.” I try to empower my team to manage a lot of their stories and tasks and let them figure out how to accomplish the goals we have set. When we’re running through the feature list, I empower the team to say, “Cortney, I don’t think that’s reasonable,” or “I think I can only give you part of it,” so they are part of the process of defining what success looks like. I stay away from micromanagement, especially in the day-to-day. Instead, I say our product owners are our business partners. They want this widget, and I want to give them this widget by the end of the month. Then I let my team tell me if this is doable and then figure out how to get it done.

Is communicating with a remote team more of a challenge? How do you overcome that?

We have a daily morning meeting where we review blockers, which keeps the lines of communication open. We spend part of each meeting doing demos. I know there a lot of folks on a more traditional scrum team that will do demos once a sprint, but we do demos every day. It’s not the same person or the same thing each day, but it’s a chance to check in on key progress, let the team share, and give each other feedback on a daily basis. Allowing the team to meet our shared goals, ask for and offer help, and if there are issues or roadblocks, get that out on the table and work on a solution as a collaborative unit.

We also are using collaboration tools to communicate throughout the day. So if something is due at the end of the month, I’m not saying I’ll check in on you in a month. We’re checking in all the time, which makes people want to show their progress and make sure that they’re doing their part or asking for what they need to hit that mark. Honestly, everyone on my team wants to make sure that they deliver early. I think that’s because we’ve got the communication thing nailed. Our goal is to surprise and delight out customers, and if we’re targeting end of the month and realize we can deliver by the middle of the month, then we’re not going to sit on it. We want to get [our internal customers] value now, we want to get it to you as soon as possible with incremental releases, and having a way to track and deliver value almost daily. This really drives up enthusiasm.

How do you stay agile in a remote work setting?

We’re here to make our product owners rock stars, and we have to be pretty nimble to do that. A big part of that is leveraging the right tools to make sure our progress is visible to other stakeholders. I also encourage ad-hoc meetings with our product owners and testers as needed. Often, other people are interested in seeing what we’re doing and sharing knowledge, and so I encourage cross-functional meetings. When we’re not meeting, these stakeholders can see what we’re up to on a daily basis in the collaboration tools. As a team, we’re posting in our collaboration platforms all day long, and we’ve got separate channels we use for our [internal] customers where we can say “Here’s a screenshot; what do you think?” We’re not necessarily waiting for that meeting. We’re allowing that dialogue to take place naturally, so that when people have the time to comment when they can.

We’ve found that we hate email. Email is so singular and back and forth, and it’s really not a good tool for dialogue. On the whole, if we can just be talking about what it is we need to do, sharing screenshots and tracking progress in our collaboration tools, we don’t have to send an email, or even carve out time on our calendar, unless a meeting is truly needed. And that allows us to get the feedback we need to accomplish things faster.

How has COVID-19 changed things for your team, and how has your management style evolved?

What we’re seeing right now is there are a lot of different demands on people’s time. We‘re a distributed team, so even previously we had people in different time zones, so you can’t get a meeting with everybody that always fits time zones. Now, there’s the added challenge of juggling childcare, or caring with others that are at home.

As a manager it’s important to understand that team members may have to step away for a minute to help their kids with schoolwork, and any number of things that might come up. Your team’s typical hours might be different now too. The right collaboration tools allow you to connect with these team members where and when each of you can. So if somebody is working random off hours, they can post to me whenever is convenient for them and then I’ll respond whenever is convenient for me. This is faster and more efficient than more traditional methods.                                 

I don’t have any hard-written rules about when the team needs to be online, and that’s especially true right now. (I’m usually not a hard-written rule type of person to begin with, and I’m lucky that we don’t really need them because the way our team operates is based on trust and mutual respect.) However, we’ve absolutely had that conversation about increased flexibility and understanding. For example, a child might be in the room with them, and there might be more interruptions than you’re used to, and you have to accommodate that. I’ve got a situation with some folks that are taking care of their children, and they alternate the hours that they work. I am flexible to changing needs – because I don’t want them to not work, they don’t want to not work, I don’t want to go insane, and they don’t want to go insane. So we work together on what this new normal is going to look like. Now, more than ever, it’s important to encourage your team to demonstrate caring and compassion and to know that this is hard in different ways for everyone. 

What are some of the difficulties people who are newly managing a distributed team should anticipate?

Anticipate connectivity issues, and make sure you know how to reach people. What happens when a team member’s internet goes down? What happens when somebody doesn’t sign on to a meeting and they’re supposed to? How will you react to those things? Because they’re going to happen. Somebody’s not going to connect to something. Do you know how to get a hold of them? What’s your backup plan? Do you have everyone’s contact information, and vice versa? Anticipate hiccups, and have a reaction plan.

How do you stay aligned with company culture when everyone’s remote?

I’m actually hosting a game lunch for our department today! There is a casual side of work that can get lost when everyone’s remote. We also have a lot of non-work-related chatter in our collaboration tools as well, sharing pictures or jokes, and I encourage that. You can still meet in the virtual break room.

As a leader, I get a lot of updates from our company leadership, and I think what’s the most important is being transparent and authentic when you cascade those messages down to your team. No matter where you are, you can still be real with your team about what’s going on. I’ve been angry, I’ve cried, I’ve been upset in front of my team — and I think being human, and not a manager robot, has gained me a lot of respect.

Do you require people to turn on their video cameras during meetings?

Yes and no. Yes, on a normal day, and it’s not because I don’t think they’re not working. It’s because I want to see people’s faces. It’s a way for us to remember that we’re human. You can read a lot from people’s facial expressions and being on camera helps you connect. For me, one of my dogs likes to jump in my lap every time my camera is on, which has provided some unexpected entertainment. However, there are times when we are not turning on our cameras because they suck up a lot of bandwidth and cause some technical issues that delay the meeting.

Has your personal experience of work changed recently?

I’ve had some people say to me, “Nothing’s changed for you; you’re used to working remotely.” And that’s true, technology-wise and office-wise not much changed for me. But my husband is home now. That’s kind of weird!  And on the same token, we used to do these things to make us feel like we weren’t stuck at home all day… go shopping, go to the gym, meet friends for lunch. There are things that we do to make sure we still feel like a part of the world and we can’t do that. Just because my desk didn’t change doesn’t mean that all these parameters around it didn’t change, and the worries that are top of mind didn’t change.

If you’re managing people that were remote before, it’s important to acknowledge that just because they did it before doesn’t mean they are not emotionally or physically impacted by the situation. We all need to put on our compassion hats and realize that the only way we’re going get through this is together, even though we’re physically apart.   

Are there any benefits to working on a remote team? (It can’t be all bad, right?)

I love working at home. I think my team and I have been more productive as a result. We don’t have to set aside time for the commute or think about traffic, and we can work out or get things done around the house during lunch. I’ve also found that when people are at home, they don’t watch the clock and tend to stay on a little longer. I like to listen to music when I’m doing certain tasks, and one silver lining of being at home is that I can do that, as loud as I want, without disturbing anyone. I also tend to wear casual clothes every day so that I can fit exercise into my day. I will usually hop on my treadmill or bike during lunch or while attending more passive meetings. There are other personal benefits such as cooking healthier lunches, hanging out with my girls [my dogs] all day, saving mileage on my car, and so on.

From a work perspective, I personally find that I am more productive without all of the drive-bys and walk-ins that used to take place in my office. I’m able to configure my workspace exactly how I like it, with an extra wide monitor, lighting, and room to spread out my notes. I believe my team sees many of these benefits as well. Not to mention that some of them have jobs they would not otherwise have without remote offerings since they are not local and don’t want to relocate. And I wouldn’t have their awesome talent!

Lastly, I find our team bonds to actually be tighter. We don’t take each other for granted. Sitting next to someone might imply a relationship, but working remote means we truly have to build one and care for it. We know a great deal about one another personally and professionally, and connect on so many levels. That camaraderie and genuine care allows us to share ideas and critique without it being taken personally and ultimately put out the best product possible through our collective ideas. I truly love my team and consider them all extended members of my family.

To hear more of Cortney’s tips for managing a distributed team and adapting to remote work, check out her blog: leadingfromafar.blogspot.com.