How to succeed as a first-time remote engineering leader?

How to succeed as a first-time remote engineering leader?
I asked my daughter Julie to illustrate an article about working far from your colleagues

So, you’ve got your first fully remote engineering leadership job, congratulations! Now, just a few days to start, the realization hits hard: you have no idea how this is different from your previous in-office or hybrid experience, how to make it work without being there physically.

At least, this is how I felt 2 years ago. Managing my teams in Hungary during Covid was fine, I had years of social foundations to rely on with them, and everything was new to everyone, so expectations were fairly low. How will I start something new remotely, with people who are already used to this way of working These are the advices I would give to my younger self.

Before starting: get you and your “office” ready

Is it the first time you will be working permanently from home? Figure out where will you be spending most of the day. I recommend staying at the same area, ideally a calmer corner with a desk, comfortable chair, and presentable background for your calls. This permanence will help you separate work from life: when you’re in your “office”, you’re working — when not, you’re not. You can further help this separation with small rituals: change clothes for work (at least above the waist) even if you’re not going to have calls; start the day with a fake “commute”, by going for a walk around the block; have lunch away from your computer; take brief pauses to recreate the “coffee break” experience from office life, etc.

Boundaries can easily blur when work gets demanding.

Respecting these separations and rituals will help you prevent burnout and similar mental health issues. Same goes for your setup: if you can afford it, have a personal computer besides the company assigned one, and keep private stuff exclusively on that one. Even if you have to use the same device, set up two accounts and be disciplined in creating a hard separation between work and life.

You might be tempted to quickly check a private email between two calls, but the mental overhead from context switching can drain your energy quickly. Furthermore, if you blur the boundaries between your work and personal life, you may also feel compelled to respond to work requests during off hours, which can lead to overworking and potential burnout.

Investing in a good quality microphone and camera can be a rabbit hole of geekery, which I leave for others to explore. Personally I found that AirPods Pro with the MacBook’s camera works fine, and I get the advantage of having the same setup everywhere I travel. (This is one of the reasons I don’t use external monitors - the other one is that I can achieve better focus by minimizing distractions.)

Finally, make sure your internet connection is as good as possible. Is there a faster or more reliable package available? Having to spend a little bit more to help reliability usually pays out, and if you need to change providers to achieve that, now is the best time to do so. Did you manage to find a permanent place in you apartment to work from? Consider setting up a wired connection to your desk then, it helps with reliability and latency. (The StayGo USB-C hub with a simple TP-Link Archer AX50 router works great for me.) Have a backup plan for network outages too: with decent 4G+ coverage, mobile phones can provide sufficient bandwidth even for video calls.

During onboarding: build connections intentionally

Leadership, and especially people management only works if you have your team’s trust. That trust is built faster if you have the chance to spend time together in person. This is ironic in a remote work advise, but if you can only have one exception from having to work from home, use it during your onboarding. Get your team to an office or offsite for a few days and invest in spending time together to ensure you’re hitting the road running.

Either way, when meeting your new reports the first time, resist the temptation to start with day-to-day work stuff. Show genuine interest in their lives outside of work. What are they hobbies? What gets them excited? Where are they planning to travel next summer? If they are going to an office sometimes, how often? What days? How far do they live and how is the commute? Are they a morning person or night owl? Do they have any family commitments that may affect their availability? These basics help you build connection — and give you useful context to make your future one on ones smoother.

Think about how you can make accidental encounters intentional.

Find ways to replicate the water-cooler chats and other random office meets. Where do your new colleagues hang out virtually? Are there hobby-related rooms on your company’s chat platform? (There might be a few about sports, cooking, music, books, parenting, pets, etc. - if not, consider starting one about a topic you’re passionate about!) Can you propose a stakeholder or someone in leadership a “get to know you” call? (I found Donuts to be super efficient and great fun to automate this.) Who is someone that's often coming up in discussions? It’s probably a good idea to meet them! Ask people you’ve already talked with who they think you should reach out to next! Are there public team updates or office hour calls of various departments outside of your scope you can participate in? Show up at least once to understand the business better.

Finally, if you’ll be working with people from a different culture, research and spend some time understanding what makes these cultures different. For example, the few things I discovered working with French people included that it can be perceived as impolite to kick off a chat without saying hi and asking about their day first; that lunch is serious business; and that taking 2-3 consecutive weeks of vacation, especially in August, is perfectly normal. These are just examples, every culture is different. As an engineering leader, you can be more efficient if you can adapt to the local norms of your colleagues. Relatedly, if you’re a manager of employees, it's important to understand the basics of their respective labor regulations, such as paid time off, maternity leave, salary payment cadence and termination procedures. You need to be familiar with these to be an effective manager for your team.

If you do all the above well, it will take valuable time from you, which seems hard to justify during your first weeks, when you want to prove that your company made the right decision by hiring you. Don't think you will be judged on your first weeks’ performance only. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and the connections you build during this time will make your work easier, more efficient — and enjoyable too.

I wanted to start with the topic of building a solid social foundation with your new team and colleagues, because I find it critical to be successful. In the next article I’ll look at other aspects, like setting up remote-friendly processes for your team, maintaining engagement and team health, performance management and similar areas in the day-to-day life of a remote engineering manager.

Update: the second part of this is live.

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