Managing Remote Workers – Part 1, Management Principles

I set out to jot down my experiences of remote management. It quickly began to sprawl so I’ve broken it out into multiple parts. Part 1 sets the scene for remote workers/management and discusses the core principles I abide by.

Introduction

Over the past few years I have been a remote manager of remote workers and remote teams. That is to say myself and my staff were all remote workers spread around the world. Our working environments could be our homes, company offices or customer sites.

A few days ago I wrote an article about my experiences as a remote worker. This is a follow up to discuss managing remote workers.

What is Remote Management

First up some qualifiers on what I mean by remote management and remote workers.

Remote Workers are workers who are not office based. They are based at home and either work there or at customer sites. They may also visit company offices occasionally.

Remote Management is where the manager is based at home and either work there, at customer sites or at company offices. Predominantly they work from home. It can also be where you manage workers in different countries.

I have spent several years being a “Remote Manager” of “Remote Workers”. Here are my experiences.

Management Staples

Management Style

Temet Nosce (Know Thyself)

I’ve been a manager on and off since I was 20 years old. I can still remember how I felt the first time. I was an apprentice, 3 months into a 2 year placement. My supervisor who managed the support team was going on maternity leave. I volunteered to cover her for 6 months and to my astonishment her and her manager said yes. I was sent on training (first time in London on my own) and a month later I was staring down the barrell of a lot of responsibility.

I was excited and terrified in equal measures. “OMG, I’m a manager at 20” vs “what if I don’t know what to do and nobody listens to me”.

Fortunately I had things I was confident about.

  • I’d already built up rapport with my team mates
  • I’d already proven to be reliable, dependable, articulate, and helpful
  • I was good at my IT job
  • Most importantly I knew what it meant to be professional (courtesy of my fathers patient teaching)

I also had experience from my school days to add to that confidence. At school I became aware that I gave a considered opinion (most of the time) which was correct 19 times out of 20 but I never flaunted it or revelled in it. I was confident without a fuss.

I didn’t think anyone noticed, until I was knocking about with my closest mates who were flamboyantly discussing a hot teenage topic of the time. During a lull in the enthusiasm I added my observations. The discussion continued a few more minutes before Al, the tallest and most physically powerful of our motley crew stopped, turned round and said “Tim’s right by the way, he’s tends to be right most of the time”.

It’s stuck with me since.

Disclaimer – I’m not foolish or arrogant enough to assume I’m some kind of oracle that never makes mistakes. I made and make plenty but, I can be the voice of reason and see quickly through a problem to find a solution.

Where am I going with this… I’ve built on my experiences but at the core I recognise there is a quiet and confident management style. I’ve also learned that this inspires confidence in others. Over time I’ve learned to add other facets and capabilities, but I have a default mode at the core.

The More I Learn, the More I Realise I Don’t Know – The Art of Parenting

I believe it’s important to understand what your core or default mode is so you are better equipped to adapt to staff needs.

Managing people is a lot like parenting. By this I mean that techniques and methods that work for one person, may not work for the next person. You’ve had mentors, you’ve had the training, you’ve read the books, you’ve scoured the internet (hell you’re reading this blog), you’ve spoken to leaders and learned from experience. None of those sources or any other will be able to give you a single sure fire universal method that works for everyone.

You will have to adapt to those staff that don’t respond well to your default mode. This may mean behaving, advising, or leading differently to what you’re used to.

Don’t fall into the trap of assuming your member of staff is wrong because you manage everyone else the same way, have done for years and they don’t have problems.

You must adapt how you manage to the person in order to be able to get the best out of them. This can be easier said than done, but seeing your staff respond in a positive manner because you found new ways of motivating or directing them is both rewarding and productive.

Sometimes You have to be Dad (or Mum)

You have a duty of care to your staff both mental and physical. It is your responsibility to look after the welfare of your staff, even in the face of the cause being your employer. It is the single most important duty you have, particularly in the IT sector where your business is people.

I care about the wellbeing of those that are under my stewardship. It’s my duty as a manager and if I didn’t care, or stopped caring about my staff then I’ve no business being a manager.

If you’re doing it right then your staff look up to you. You’re the voice of reason. When the world is caving in on them for a project delayed, a report overdue, they’ve given the wrong advice, missed a deadline, etc, they come to you. You must be approachable regardless of the situation and focus on how to solve it first, then understand how it happened after. Finger pointing and playing the blame game are a weakness, not a skill, often masqueraded as accountability Much like children, if you’re going to go off the handle if something goes wrong, they are more likely to hide it than talk to you about it.

Disclaimer – Pastoral does not = “a bit of there there”. Sometimes a frank conversation is required, particularly in the face of unprofessional behaviour and continuously repeating the same mistakes. Much like parenting, you’ll need to understand when that is required and how frank you need to be.

Sometimes though, you just have to be dad. The problems they are having at work can be exacerbated or compounded by personal problems. Applying for mortgages, navigating separation/divorce, organising a marriage, child behavioural issues, and family issues are just a few examples of tough personal circumstances that are impossible to leave at the door. Spending a little time listening, empathising, and providing some flexibility can ease those strains and strengthen the bond between you. A happy worker is a productive worker and also it’s just nice to see your staff happy.

Take One (Many) for the Team

You are accountable for the successes and failures of your team. This means you have to stick your head above the parapet and own their and your mistakes. Focus on the why, not the who and always have a plan for future prevention

Go Out to Bat

I’ve enjoyed many sports throughout my life. Without a doubt one of the most terrifying experiences was facing down a fast bowler for the first time. This was after I upgraded from mucking around with a bat and tennis ball with mates for years to playing for school in an era of no helmets.

There is nowhere to hide at the crease. Everybody is looking directly at you and no matter what you do it will be remembered. You’re very exposed but at the same time it can also feel a little claustrophobic. Not only are there many pairs of eyes on you, but everyone is bearing down on you, not least the guy trying to punch a little red ball of solid cork, string and leather through you.

If you manage to connect bat to ball you are trying to keep it low and find a direct route past your opponents to the boundary, or at least far enough for a run or two. Then you’ve got the pressure you apply to yourself not to go out for a duck, or worse. In that moment, the only things you’re armed with are self belief and faith in your team.

I was regarded as a good batsman, therefore I had a responsibility to go out to the creese early in the batting order to represent my team and face down all those other players. To demonstrate the power of my team, defend my crease and smash for six.

It’s the same for your team. As a manager you have a responsibility to go out and bat for your team, to promote them, and sometimes to protect them. They rely on you for this and sometimes it means you could be facing down SVPs and senior managers to explain their ideas, promote their capabilities or calmly walk through the situation for them when a problem has occurred.

Staff Retention

No matter how well run the company is, how well liked you are, how enjoyable the work is, or how good the pay is, staff will move on. It’s an inevitability.

Be gracious when they do. Be grateful for the positive impact and successes you’ve had together, even if they weren’t that common. I’ve always taken great pleasure in seeing my staff grow and evolve on their own merit, or with guidance. I believe it’s a good measure of a manager to see staff evolve and progress to bigger and better things (there is always a bigger fish).

Prepare for the vacuum. It’s easy to come to rely on one or two staff who excel. Over time they accumulate knowledge / skills and become go-to members of the team. Don’t let that over balance. Make sure that if a single member of staff left it isn’t going to leave an enormous vacuum that will have a detrimental impact on performance.

Define Your Vision

It is my firm belief that a manager without a vision is like a boat without a rudder. You’re always going to move, but not necessarily in any coordinated fashion towards a specific destination.

I’ve always defined my vision for the team and our impact on the business as part of application for or transition into a management role. It helps build my confidence, inspire confidence in leaders, and gives me a roadmap to work to.

Why do I believe vision so important? Let me illustrate by sharing an experience.

Two years ago I attended a Microsoft Azure Expert Architect Boot Camp in downtown Bellevue, Washington State (quite a beautiful part of the world). It was attended by roughly 600 delegates made up from Microsoft Partners and Microsoft Employee’s. The week long conference was a mix of key note speaking, demonstrations and hands-on labs. This came just on the cusp of the public cloud containers revolution and first release of AKS.

The major message coming out of the boot camp was; “IaaS is a reducing footprint, our partners should be concentrating on transformative services”.

This is the message I returned with, along with a ton of useful content for both the business and my team. I re-ran some of the white boarding sessions several times with my team and other teams.

I knew at that point with absolute certainty that I needed to extend the capability of my team to take on transformative workloads. I knew I also needed to continually push this message within the business.

I mapped out how to evolve my team, built a plan and executed it. Fast forward and that team is now consulting with clients on DevSecOps and cloud-native applications.

I had to both recruit staff with the right experience and motivate the team to evolve. Sharing my vision and plans were central to my strategy to both take the team on the journey and persuading top talent to join the team to bring fresh experience and perspective.

In order for a team to be truly effective a manager has to inspire both their team and those around them. Defining, sharing and course correcting your vision is an excellent way to generate passion and enthusiasm.

It’s important to remember that it’s OK for your vision to evolve as you learn through experience and the industry changes. Nobody is clairvoyant and I not all my plans worked out. I.E. you can’t accurately predict how everything will turn out in a 2-3 year period. You try things, they work, or they don’t. You feed the experience back into your evolution.

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