Last night, I was talking with a tech lead of a local company. He was struggling with supporting two of his teammates who are newer to their roles (let’s call them Alyssa and Ben). Alyssa, like nearly all her teammates, works in the local office, and is learning quickly. Ben is the sole remote member of the team, and he both chases features that don’t support the team’s business goals, and does everything slowly.
They’re both bright junior developers. The difference is that Alyssa takes advantage of micro-interactions around the office that Ben isn’t able to access. While greeting her office neighbor as she walks into the office, Alyssa mentions what she’s working on that day, and gets warned away from a rabbit hole lurking in that direction. She bumps into her tech lead while they’re waiting for the meeting room to empty just before the team meeting, and the tech lead philosophizes for a moment on the team’s business goals.
Ben doesn’t get that. He’s isolated and only interacts with his team three times the entire week: a 1-1 with his manager, a 1-1 with the tech lead, and the weekly team meeting. Out of every work week, Ben only has three occurrences of team contact. Alyssa gets just as many occurrences before she grabbed her post-lunch coffee every single day. No wonder Alyssa’s learning and growing five times faster than Ben – she gets feedback five times as frequently.
What can you do if you find yourself in this tech lead’s position??
Please don’t use this post to decide whether to start a remote team member, or how to start a remote team member. This post is a triage recommendation for when you realize you have an isolated remote teammate who isn’t working at their full capability because of that isolation.
Frequency over quantity
Much of Alyssa’s success – and of everyone else in the office – is because she gets a few minutes here and there spread out over her week. Both Alyssa and Ben are smart and work hard, but Ben is working with much less guidance, and struggling as a result. Even when the tech lead added a second weekly 1-1 to work with Ben, the effect wasn’t the same. Concentrating those micro-interactions into an hour or two doesn’t have the same effect as having more interactions more frequently.
Start each day with a team interaction
Here’s what you can do instead.
If you’re not doing (and don’t want) daily team standups, you’re going to need to manufacture something for Ben that’s similar to what Alyssa gets when she greets her colleagues as everyone enters the office. This accomplishes two things:
(1) Provides Ben with the same opportunity for beginning-of-work-hours guardrails that Alyssa has, so that if he’s about to embark into dangerous or not-well-aligned territory, he can be redirected to a safer path.
(2) Provides Ben and the team regular reaffirmation of his team membership. Even if Ben is meeting with only one teammate, when the rest of the team sees and hears that in-office teammate talking with Ben, they’re more likely to remember Ben’s existence without prompting – and that makes them more likely to reach out to him to share topics relevant to his work.
When should this happen?
This should ideally be at the start of Ben’s day. If he’s in a different timezone from the local office, hopefully the start of his day overlaps with the start of the local office’s day. If you can’t schedule this to be at the beginning of Ben’s day, schedule it for as early in Ben’s regular workday as possible. (So if Ben is on the east coast and the office is on the west coast, and everyone starts their day at 9am local, schedule this for 9am Pacific / 12pm Eastern.)
Who should be on this call?
Since this is a team that isn’t doing a daily team standup, pull together those who are working on the same or adjacent work as Ben. In the real world example, the tech lead’s Alyssa and Ben are working on similar tasks, so putting the two together for this daily morning call would work out very well (and free up the tech lead from taking on another regular meeting). They’ll be able to compare notes, help each other out, and the rest of the team can wave at Ben over Alyssa’s shoulder as they walk to their desks in the morning.
How should this call happen?
Use videoconference software. At Cohere, we least hate using Zoom. The audio-video experience is good and less “hi can you hear me I can’t hear you” than usual, and there’s both a screenshare and a remote control feature available. Each viewer can adjust for themself whether they see a gallery of participants, or only the speaker.
Encourage Alyssa and Ben to stay on the call and keep working together if they start working on something together, and make sure any meetings or other obligations don’t stomp on their time. You might also ask Alyssa and Ben to set up a few 2-hour pair programming sessions throughout the week (maybe Tuesday and Thursday mornings immediately after their morning call? pick something that complements your team’s meeting cadence.)
Drop $100 on good headsets-with-mics for Alyssa and Ben, or stop complaining when you hear Ben’s voice coming out of Alyssa’s computer.
Make sure both of them are able to set up their physical spaces so that they can point a laptop webcam or external video camera at their face. If Ben is having problems, have him email a selfie of his workspace so you can help him find a physical setup that works. If Alyssa is having problems, you can walk over to her desk and experiment with different configurations with her.
What else can we do?
Getting into a new work pattern can take some time. Plan to run this for at least 4-6 weeks before deciding if it’s a good long-term arrangement for your team.
Check in with Alyssa and Ben separately and regularly (preferably weekly, but at least every other week) to see how things are going, if there’s anything you can do to support them (a $300 headset for better mic isolation? YES that is totally worth making two developers more productive!).
Especially early on, hop into a videoconference with Alyssa while you’re both in the office, so you can get a feel for what kind of experience Ben is having in these calls. Grab a conference room and see and hear what Ben is experiencing. Is the background noise distracting? can you hear Alyssa’s voice clearly? how does screensharing feel?
Ask each of your other teammates to meet virtually with Ben once a month. They can join the morning session, or grab a virtual coffee with Ben. At 30min once a month, it’s not a big request for any one individual, and you’ll see it start to pay off with more information exchange happening after a few short months.
A few parting thoughts
Supporting a remote teammate is a skill that must be learned, but it can be incredibly rewarding once you’ve got the hang of it. The skills Alyssa learns by working more closely with Ben will help her grow as a leader on your team. She’ll be exposed to more work and ideas than she would working only on her own tasks. She’ll learn to do for Ben what her teammates do for her, of identifying and calling out warnings of possible dead ends and rabbit holes.
And Ben? His productivity will go up, he’ll pick up more context around what your team is trying to accomplish as a group, and you’ll find he’s aligning his efforts more with the team’s goals. You’ll also start to see his growth as a developer more start to resemble Alyssa’s and the other newer devs on your team.