Remote work: Sharing tips for leading in a remote world

Image of Laura Heisman

The tech industry was among the first to embrace the switch to remote working–even before COVID-19. More and more companies are extending remote work guidance until the beginning of 2021 and some companies have moved to a work from home program permanently. When you’re remote-first as GitHub has been since the start, and continually promoting a remote-friendly culture, helping teams be productive regardless of where anyone works is key to a successful business and reflects the global GitHub community.

For this last post in the remote work series, Jason Warner, GitHub CTO, and I share steps for how managers and senior leaders can approach working with remote teams. Jason has been a remote executive for more than 10 years, and is familiar with the challenges and opportunities that distributed workforces generally present. I’ve been working a hybrid model for many years, splitting time between an office and working from home, and managing an international program across all time zones.

Here are our recommendations for taking remote team management to the next level as we think about our future work environment: 

Step 1: Ensure trust is a central part of your remote culture

Successfully managing remote teams and building remote cultures is no easy task. We always equate the importance of collaboration and trust to open source development, which is deeply collaborative with developers contributing and working together from around the world. Building a productive remote team while supporting individual wellbeing are some of the key leadership principles in today’s environment. So, it’s imperative to build trust as a remote leader. 

First, be overly communicative on a regular basis and in multiple forums. Second, empathetically communicate with team members in a two-way direction, meaning don’t just broadcast, and don’t just talk to small groups to engage and solicit feedback. In a remote work environment, engaging with a broader group helps get more input and support from across the company or teams for any program or initiative. And it’s important to follow up and act on feedback in order to solidify trust and great teamwork.

And third, it’s crucial to be transparent. Talk about the “life” things you have in common—you may find that people are just like you, squeezing in dog walks, making family lunches, drowning out noises from in or around the house, and taking care of loved ones of all ages. These life moments help all of us get to know each other and better understand what’s happening outside our screens.

Step 2: Clear up your lines of communication

As seasoned remote leaders, we’ve seen some of the best and most challenging human behaviors amplified when team members are distributed. Working remotely is becoming more of a norm for all of us at this point, and communication is key to working together. 

One of the most common challenges is that people come to conclusions of fear and doubt in their work because of lack of responses, short notes, or mid-read jokes or sarcasm that work well in-person but not so well in writing. On the flip side, others tend to micromanage and try to over-communicate because they can’t see each other physically doing their job. 

The solution? As you drill into the behavior mechanisms of uncertainty or micromanagement, it’s often a lack of transparency or trust at the core. So, figure out which one it is and work with your team to fix it – typically, it’s finding better channels to communicate. Ask yourself: Are you communicating clearly with your teams? Many of the recommendations from Hubbers in our remote work series share that documenting communication is key (be sure to check out the blog series). This includes how decisions are being made and how the team can track progress. As a leader, help set a great example with your communication, and others will increase their engagement as well. 

Step 3: Use the right tools

Working remotely or in the office requires the same set of tools to be successful: institutional memory, video, email and chat. These tools help to establish strong connections with your team. 

Institutional memory is key and something that we do really well at GitHub, especially with our platform serving as a quintessential institutional memory tool. You write something down in an issue, others make comments, you ratify the decision, and have a link to share with others. That’s the beauty of asynchronous communication—your decisions happen in text and threads. Once they’re locked down, they stay there. Email can also serve this need, but we’ve all experienced email overload. So use email for communicating out, but not conversations. 

Video is another important tool. It’s the highest fidelity communication channel we have right now to see and convey emotional context, which you cannot always get from written communication. 

Finally, there are Slack and open source alternatives such as IRC. These tools are great for real-time, quick communication between a handful of folks. But when decisions are made, they should be memorialized in a different system. Backscrolling and searching channels are likely something we’ve all spent too much time doing to look back on conversations and decisions. 

Step 4: Set global teams up for success

Think global if your business is global. We both have team members based all over the world, so typically we try to find times that overlap for various projects. A good rule of thumb is to create teams with four hours of time zone overlap, with the bare minimum being two hours. This lessens the need for individuals to work outside of normal working hours, and is optimal for program workflow. If that’s simply not possible, give teams with no time zone overlap work that can be done in a hand-off style–when one team signs off for the day, they record their work in your institutional memory tool, so that the next team can pick up when they sign on.

Step 5: Lead by example

We are both passionate about what we do, and it’s too easy to be connected all the time. We recommend putting some measures in place to create space for mental wellbeing. As a leader, the best advice is to model behavior that you want and what you think is acceptable. This includes helping people understand that they do not need to be connected 24/7. For example, during the school year, I (Laura) am my daughter’s lunch buddy, and take an hour to eat and play outside–things that my daughter would typically do during lunch at school. For me (Jason), health and family are two things I prioritize, so I set time aside every day to workout and have family dinner with the kids. We hope by sharing our personal experiences, others will know it’s okay to prioritize family, health, and life in general. Because when we’re all remote, communicating helps everyone work better together. 

It has been a pleasure to share our remote work best practices from so many of the teams at GitHub–engineering, talent acquisition, IT, workplace experience, and more. Everything we share here we write to help our community. Whether you’re an executive at a Fortune 50, a maintainer of an open source project, or a hobbyist volunteering to build PPE during these times, we hope our tips from across the company have helped you while we all work remotely from around the world. Stay safe and healthy. 

Want to learn more about best practices for working remotely? Share these tips with others who may be new to remote work.

Explore the remote work series