The top 4 best practices for managing engineering teams remotely, according to managers from productivity companies like Asana, GitHub, and Atlassian (TEAM, MSFT)

The top 4 best practices for managing engineering teams remotely, according to managers from productivity companies like Asana, GitHub, and Atlassian (TEAM, MSFT)

  • The coronavirus crisis has disrupted nearly every part of corporate life, including how software teams conduct — and communicate about — their work. 
  • The change has spurred engineering managers from Asana, Atlassian, GitHub, Jellyfish, and DigitalOcean to craft a set of best practices that work for their teams, especially as remote work becomes a longer term trend.
  • Engineering managers say it’s important to find ways to measure projects against business goals, write down everything, have one-on-one meetings with employees, and set a culture of work-life balance.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

When the productivity software company Asana moved to remote work in March, one of the first things managers talked about was how to remotely hold stand-up meetings, where engineers update their teams about the progress of their work.

"It’s important to make sure our work is aligned," one of the engineering managers involved in those meetings, Kate Reading, told Business Insider. "Ultimately, as a manager, one of my most important jobs is keeping my team supported."

The coronavirus crisis has disrupted nearly every part of corporate life, including how software teams conduct — and communicate about — their work. The change has forced engineering managers to craft a set of best practices that work for their teams, especially as remote work becomes a longer term trend.

We asked managers from five different productivity companies for their advice on how to help their remote reports flourish. Here’s what they told us: 

Find ways to measure projects against business goals 

As the coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc on the economy and company financials (even for enterprise tech), it’s more important than ever for engineers to prioritize projects that are helping their company meet its business goals. 

The first step is to find ways to measure what the team is doing and how productive it’s being, says Andrew Lau, CEO and cofounder of engineering management software startup Jellyfish.

Engineering leaders tend to overestimate the amount of time their teams can dedicate to building new products: A report from Jellyfish found that while leaders estimate that 59% of a team’s time can be devoted to building, the average team can only dedicate 36% of their day, with customer support and maintenance take up large quantities of time. 

The pandemic only makes that more difficult because visibility into people’s work is even more limited.

"You can’t walk around and ask what people are working on," Evan Klein, director of product marketing at Jellyfish, told Business Insider. "When [managers] can’t do that in a remote setting, there’s a big disconnect. It’s very hard to understand what’s actually going on, which is why that gap in knowledge exists."

Lau recommends using digital tools like Atlassian’s Jira and Microsoft’s GitHub to track what people are working on and prioritize projects if resources are scarce

Read more: Startup Jellyfish just raised $12 million in funding to help managers solve the ‘last black box’ of understanding how their engineering teams are working

"[Managers] historically didn’t measure their teams to understand how we’re aligned with the business," Lau told Business Insider. "In a remote environment we have to. Folks that are doing so are learning quickly why that’s important."

Adopt a ‘written culture’ for your team

It’s important to make sure teammates keep everyone updated on their working on, which can be done via online collaboration tools like Asana, GitHub, and Atlassian’s Jira, Trello, and Confluence.

Asana’s Reading, for example, tracks what her reports are doing by meeting with her entire team as a group once a week, creating an agenda in Asana that will track action items and having employees provide status updates. 

"The little details — writing down what you discuss and making it accessible to everyone on the team — has been helpful for alignment," Reading said. While managers can use whatever tools they want, Reading recommends researching the boundaries and capabilities of a tool before committing.

"You can end up in situations where you can’t solve a problem because of a problem with tools," Reading said.

Like Atlassian, GitHub also tends to use its own tools for various tasks. Even before the pandemic, GitHub was already remote-first, which led to its "written culture," where employees write down everything, says Dana Lawson, vice president of engineering at GitHub. That makes managing a team remotely much easier, she says. Workers communicate with their colleagues using GitHub’s platform, noting what they’re working on and how.

"When you’re working remotely, you’re challenged with time zones, information flow, and trying to keep people aligned, especially in these unprecedented times," Lawson told Business Insider.

Managers say it’s important to keep having one-on-one meetings with employees

Engineering managers say they stay in contact with remote employees through chat and video conferencing tools like Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet.

Alexis Bruemmer, a senior engineering manager at DigitalOcean who has been managing remotely for almost a decade, said that she frequently uses videoconferencing to talk through problems with her employees. It’s important to ensure that the team has a safe place to communicate, she said. 

Alexis Bruemmer, DigitalOcean (1500x1794)DigitalOcean

"Some things require special attention given that you don’t have day-to-day interactions," Bruemmer told Business Insider. "Things that are critical for me are making sure we have active time for the team to talk about blockers, problems that they’re facing, channels for folks to get help. We leverage a lot of dynamic chat for that."

Likewise, Reading started doing more video calls to discuss problems face-to-face during the pandemic. It’s been especially important to continue having one-on-one meetings, she said, especially because employees may have to balance other parts of their personal lives, like parenting. To lock in time for this, she uses a smart calendar assistant called Clockwise. 

Atlassian has actually dialed up its number of internal all-hands meetings as well during the pandemic, and there has been a large uptick in participation, too, says Stephen Deasy, head of cloud engineering at Atlassian. For interaction-starved employees, it can be a nice way to feel part of a larger team. 

He also recommends specifying certain time windows during the day when everyone is expected to be online together to perform a task like review code. 

"The biggest thing is setting expectations and making that clear and well understood, caring for the team so they know what to expect as individuals," Deasy told Business Insider. "As you manage your team, be more intentional on the communication stuff."

Setting a culture of work-life balance

When teams went remote, managers had to make sure employees’ safety concerns were addressed and that they had the right equipment. 

Managers say it’s important to remember that it’s an unusual time that can be stressful to employees, whether because they’re taking care of children or older family members, or because the news cycle can be overwhelming or distressing. While some workers may like remote work, others may be missing going into an office. 

"By now everyone has a rhythm," Atlassian’s Deasy said. "But now they’re feeling the long term effect of more isolation."

Atlassian rolled out internal training for managers on how to keep their team, and it has team building events for employees, like meditation or bingo. Deasy also suggests conducting internal surveys to find out what employees are concerned about, even months into the pandemic.

"Managers need to realize everyone’s affected differently right now," Lawson said. "We shouldn’t take it for granted how people are feeling."

Managers should set a culture of work life balance, like by taking lunch breaks and setting boundaries, as they encourage their workers to do the same. 

"People need support right now," Lawson added. "Be authentic, be vulnerable, don’t overthink it."

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