A Recap on Managing People From Home

by about Management, Work-Life in Technosocial

Turns out, this working remotely thing might be better than what we used to do in the office.

The above is a direct quote from a close friend leading 100+ people in his company - one of the fervent protesters against working from home. Getting a job where you can work from home used to be a difficult undertaking. Luckily, I found myself working with remote-first companies like Red Hat and Percona. In both of these, working from home is and has been the norm, long before a global pandemic took hold of us.

When I was 18, I told my family “I don’t want to go to the office, I want to work from home.” That was in 2003 and the reaction, as usual, was laughter. What kind of job would that be? You can’t earn money from home, there are offices, factories, or other places where you go to spend 40+ hours of your life per week.

What did I end up doing? I’d love to say that I went against everyone’s opinions, did my own thing, and look at me now. No, I followed what people were saying and regularly found myself in the situation of questioning what’s happening. Why are things the way they are? Why can’t we optimize them?

My experience from working in an office has always been that you communicate with your immediate desk colleagues and, other than that, you used a desk phone to call colleagues on another floor. Even on the same floor, as the years passed, communication moved to instant messaging (nowadays that’s often Slack). With today’s methodologies of developing software, why do we feel the need to make people flock to an office, using their car and wasting time they might not want to waste in transport to and from the office?

Enter Corona ▲ Back to top

Very quickly, companies had to allow remote work and many people suddenly see the benefits of working from home. Then there are the many people who have always worked from home and feel the need to tell everyone that they’ve always done it that way. It feels like a long-needed validation and at the same time, there is a certain smugness to it. I am guilty of it myself. It does indeed feel good when you finally hear “oh, I know what you mean now” after years of trying to explain the benefits of working from home.

One of the main reasons to allow remote work is the opportunity for equal treatment. As a young mother in 2013, I did not find any company who would employ me part-time with the option to work from home while I still had a baby to take care of. Luckily for me at that time, more than a decade after my first job experience, I found a boss who was willing to 1. employ me part-time and 2. treat me well. Not only did he help me understand how to progress in my career, he also allowed me (and others) to make work work with and around my life, not the other way around. He even helped some of his direct reports move apartments, he never forgot anyone’s little tidbits of information they shared with him (he actually listened), and he always supported us from start to finish.

Fairness and Equality ▲ Back to top

Cartoon showing different animals with an examiner saying, “for a fair selection, everybody has to take the same exam. Please climb that tree!"

Equal treatment does not mean that you treat everyone equally bad and call it fair. It means you try to support everyone in a way that allows them to reach their full potential. Some will need more guidance, some will just need a sign that shows them the way. Over the years, I found more managers willing to allow me to work from home at least occasionally and in early 2017, I was finally able to work from home exclusively. It was fantastic because it meant I could bring my son to school, pick him up, and still progress in my career. This was huge and still is huge. It allowed me to move countries and still be a mother who could spend a lot of time with her child. I did not have to choose between two paths in life.

At Red Hat, I got in contact with several strong leaders. My first manager there was an inspiring leader and a true role model - and she was the first manager I had whom I haven’t met in person before I started a job. In fact, we did not meet until months after our first interview and a few months into the job. How did that work out? She followed a simple rule: she was available and she contacted me when she had questions. She listened and I felt supported. I did not have to guess whether she will stand behind me - she said it and confirmed it every step of the way. She gave constructive feedback and she let you do your best work without standing in your way. Those are the important traits of a good leader. Did office presence ever matter in any of the rare good leadership that I have seen in my 17+ years of professional experience? Not one bit.

The smoke breaks are the place where I get all my information.

Many years ago, smoke breaks in Europe were the equivalent of hallway conversations. If you weren’t a smoker, you had a harder time progressing your career. It was looked upon badly if you left your desk for half an hour to have a chat with a colleague whereas smoking was socially acceptable. This was always frustrating for non-smokers back in the days where filling out time sheets on the exact minute or quarter-hour was the norm. Fast forward just a few years later, coffee meetings are quite acceptable but now remote working is the new “oh, but how can I make sure whether they get any work done?" Even that is shifting now, although some companies are not able to adapt quite as quickly and are instead adopting monitoring techniques in order to maximize performance.

Beatings will continue until morale improves and productivity increases!

If we have learned anything from the past, it is that surveillance does not equal high productivity. It does equal fear and conformity, though. If your goal is to create and/or sell an outstanding product, surveillance of your employees is not the direction you should be taking.

Man wearing boxershorts and a business shirt sitting back in his reclining office chair at his desk, with his legs up

Best Practices ▲ Back to top

Let’s put aside the advantages and disadvantages of working from home from a logistical perspective and focus on how to build and reciprocate trust while managing people from home, how to keep your employees motivated, and stay connected with everyone so that they know they can reach out to you:

  • Stick to your 1:1s and document what you agreed on. Your people need time with you because they have things to discuss with you, for your ears only. It’s the time for update, vent, and disaster.
  • Make decisions and stick to them unless the situation changes. If you need to revert or change a decision that has been made and communicated to the teams, you also need to communicate the change and the reason for the change.
  • Keep your promises and follow up with their status. Standups are not a one-way street. While you as a manager don’t have to participate in the daily standups, you should still give your teams a way to know what their boss is actually doing. If you find out that you can’t actually summarize what you are doing in a standup, you should rethink how you’re doing your job.
  • Document your agreements, decisions, and promises. This deserves its own bullet point - you should not only document your 1:1s from your reports' perspective, you as a manager are also accountable for what you promise, decide, and agree to. Document what you promise - and deliver. Do as you expect from every team member.
  • Enable and encourage ownership. Let your colleagues (direct reports and people around you) take ownership and support them. Don’t be that person who hogs information and tries to make themselves irreplaceable. Your main goal as a good leader is to be as replaceable as possible while having a functioning team that can deliver.
  • Scrap the meetings. Go through your meetings and see which ones can be replaced with e-mails. No, not Slack. E-mails.
  • Motivate and celebrate. Celebrate success by calling out concrete actions. Don’t just go on about “…(blah blah)… reached a milestone …(blah blah)… thanks to the team’s endeavors …(blah blah)…”. Don’t be that manager. Thank people directly, but do it so others can see it if that’s what that particular individual prefers - and then thank them again in your 1:1. “Wow, Anna and Zed did an amazing job with x, thank you for the hard work! This really helps us move forward with y!” in a team chat or e-mail will be much better than getting an anonymized, half-hearted obligatory thank you card from the resident manager. You don’t have to be someone’s manager to call out good work - but don’t make a thank you message sound like you’re looking for a promotion either. Thanking someone should not exemplify how good you would be as the next manager. It should just be a sincere and authentic thank you.
  • Every once in a while, do something you used to do as an individual contributor. Write user stories, documentation, blog posts, code, or review code. Test your product.
  • Understand current processes and team dynamics. Who dislikes whom and who works really well together is just as important as which project management tools are being used. Get the big picture and then go into the details where necessary.
  • Coach, give, and receive feedback. Find out everyone’s motivation factors. Don’t make people pretend. If someone is just using the job to pay their bills but can deliver in time, support them. If someone is looking for career progress and is taking the right steps for that promotion, guide them. If someone has a bad attitude, find out the impact it has on the other team members. Give and receive feedback constructively. Work on yourself first and assume good intentions.

Never forget: the real organization chart in a company does not depend on who sits next to whom. It depends on very human factors, most of these being chain reactions to emotions. Even if you’re good at controlling yourself, you can’t control others' emotions quite as easily.