How Emotionally Intelligent Managers Lead Distributed Teams

Earlier this year IBM followed other big companies like Aetna in turning back to more traditional work arrangements. The tech giant drew criticismfor telling thousands of remote employees to re-acclimate to office life or else find work elsewhere. According to Gallup, the remote workforce is actually growing despite moves like these, with 43% of U.S. employees working remotely at least some of the time over the past year, up from 39% in 2012. Gallup researchers found not only that this trend is progressing across virtually all industries, but also that employees who spend three to four days a week working offsite tend to report higher “engagement” in their jobs.

But for remote work to pay off–both for employees and their employers–one crucial factor needs to hold true, and it’s a familiar one: teams need to have great working relationships with their direct supervisors. No amount of technological wizardry or personal autonomy negates the fact–which has long been true for office-bound workers as well–that job satisfaction is still closely tied to having an effective, emotionally intelligent boss. With that in mind, here are a few ways managers can continue to be the same thoughtful, compassionate leaders of remote teams as they’ve learned to be in the office.

DON’T CREATE TWO CLASSES OF EMPLOYEES

Perhaps the biggest challenge managers face is a “mixed mode” team, with some in the office and others located remotely. That’s a really common circumstance, and it takes extra vigilance for managers to avoid playing favorites or accidentally making their remote folks feel like second-class citizens.

There are simple things you can do as a manager to avoid this trap, says John Wulff, SVP Software Development at CUSO Financial Services. “If there’s a meeting and even one person is remote, have everyone attend as if they’re remote using the same tool, so there’s no inequity in how people are participating.” This not only normalizes the remote experience, it also forces you to find an approach (technological as much as methodological) to remote meetings that isn’t disproportionately painful to the people offsite.

While staying informed is a day-to-day concern for remote employees, so is the fear of that their careers won’t progress. In one recent survey remote workers reported having 25% fewer conversations with their managers about career growth than their colleagues in the office. All it takes is a little empathy for managers to rectify that. Anticipate your remote team members’ anxieties about not being recognized and schedule a quarterly career-development meeting to check in and talk about their progress and professional goals.

LEAD WITH TRUST, NOT CONTROL

Micromanaging your team is dangerously easy when you work in an office: You can simply walk around and look at their screens. But when you can’t physically see what your employees are doing at every moment, nervous managers may resort to other ways to look over their remote employees’ shoulders–none of which are likely to be terribly productive.

“Micromanagement comes from trust issues,” says David Haney, an engineering manager at Stack Overflow. “The biggest thing you can do is create trust. You can’t buy trust, you have to build it,” he points out. “If you don’t trust the people you’re working with, you have a much bigger issue than just people working remotely.”

This may sound obvious enough, but too many managers mistake delegating for trust. Just handing your direct report an assignment and saying, “hop to it” isn’t the same thing as entrusting them with a task they feel sufficiently supported to tackle on their own, and this mistake is one reason remote workers can sometimes feel adrift. On the flip side, moving from control to building trust can feel tricky for bosses who are used to playing an active role in their employees’ day-to-day work. Fortunately, a dose of emotional intelligence helps solve both problems.

The best starting point is simply to empathize with your team members. There's no videoconferencing platform more powerful than a dose of empathy. According to Guillermo Rauch, CEO of the mobile computing company Zeit, empathy means understanding “the context” of others’ work experience.

Rather than focusing on what your team is doing at every moment, ask yourself how they’re likely to feel about accomplishing the goals you’ve set for them: Will they be challenged? Empowered? Stressed out? Confused? Then self-reflect on your role in bringing about those reactions, Rauch suggests: “In a remote environment, as a leader, you have to be a lot more introspective.”

Rauch has found that by working to become more empathetic and introspective himself, his remote team has learned not only to trust him more but also one another–making everybody more productive. And since trust often starts with a personal connection, which virtual teams lack, it’s important for managers to set aside work and spend time just getting to know each other–including remotely.

A few years ago, tech founder Randy Rayess and his team “started holding personal check-ins rather than just discussing work on our usual calls,” he told Fast Company in 2015. “We made sure to talk about hobbies, interests, and family at least once a week” and quickly found that the habit built trust and led to stronger collaboration.

LEARN TO LISTEN BETTER, AND ASK MORE QUESTIONS

In a traditional office environment, it’s easy to rely on physical cues to sense when a team member is getting ready to quit. But when you lose that casual, in-person contact you can miss important clues. “You have to spend a lot of time drawing people’s feelings out of them. Otherwise you run the risk of someone getting detached, getting frustrated, and leaving,” explains Nickolas Means, VP of Engineering at Muve Health.

Listening is a skill that’s at the core of emotional intelligence, and great listeners are also effective questioners. As a manager of remote team members, that’s your ticket to filling in any missing information you’d otherwise get in person. Rather than just constrain your one-on-one meetings to being quick status reports, use those interactions as a time to connect and dig deeper with your remote employees. Ask your team members questions about what’s most important to them and the challenges they face–don’t just wait for them to bring up those issues themselves. You’ll not only better understand what motivates them, you’ll make them feel more valued, too.

TALK ABOUT THE TOUGH STUFF

Communication is harder when team aren’t co-located, especially when it comes to giving direct feedback and heading off conflict. Lack of daily, physical presence can make it easier to sidestep uncomfortable conversations, but that’s not exactly the most emotionally intelligent approach. According to Katie Womersley, director of Engineering at Buffer, the most successful leaders of remote teams embrace conflict. When managers “don’t want to hurt feelings or step on toes, artificial harmony can creep in,” she says.

Womersley prevents emotional gridlock by taking preventive measures. If there’s a new team or a new phase in a project, for instance, she calls a meeting whose sole purpose is to focus on conflict. Womersley asks her team members to take turns talking about their conflict styles, and designates one person in the meeting to look for potential areas where team members are likely to clash. This helps get everything out in the open, where people can discuss potential points of friction, before they encounter it unexpectedly later on, once everyone has hit the ground running.

As these four tips suggest, your own emotional intelligence as a manager is critical when you’re leading a team of remote workers. But that’s the key to developing those same skills attributes–empathy, trust, listening, and comfort unearthing disagreement–in every one of your team members, no matter how far-flung.

A version of this article originally appeared on Fast Company.

What Makes Your Best Developers Want to Leave

Everyone from college students to mid-career professionals looking for a job change have been told they need to learn how to code. And despite outright detractors and calls for moderation from inside the tech sector, a glut of coding schools has flooded the job market with junior developers.

You’d think that would be good news for tech companies, which now have their pick of newly minted talent. But in many cases it can actually make it harder to develop and maintain a deep bench of tech talent at the senior level–folks who actually stick around, mentor newcomers, and solve the really hairy technical problems more inexperienced coders often can’t.

Too often, the tech industry’s usual slate of perks doesn’t have as much impact when it comes to retaining the most top-shelf, experienced talent. As Stack Overflow COO Jeff Szczepanski wrote for Fast Company recently, “developers care about learning and growing,” but training and professional development aren’t exactly the first things hot new startups rush to talk about when asked about their cultures. In order to stick around, great developers need real career paths; in other words, not just a “hot” job. Here’s a look at a few reasons why your best tech talent might be contemplating an exit, and what it takes to prevent that.

YOU WAITED UNTIL THE EXIT INTERVIEW TO ASK WHAT’S WRONG

The fun of solving problems and the joy of seeing something they’ve built come to life is what drives many software developers. Companies need to leave room for the best of them to keep conceiving of–and then executing–new ideas. “If someone who’s been coming to you with their ideas suddenly stops, it’s a huge sign they’re on the way out the door,” says technology consultant Jason Cole, who advises small businesses on their engineering teams. “If you have someone saying, ‘I’m bored’ and you don’t do something about it, expect them to leave for a place where they won’t be bored.”

These issues don’t usually crop up until somebody’s given their notice and you’re holding an exit interview. But that always means the information you could’ve used to get ahead of the problem arrives too late. That’s why tech leaders should consider holding “stay interviews” with their most valued developers. When the ideas stop flowing or productivity sinks, it’s usually a sign you need to have this type of proactive sit-down.

Diane Scarborough, most recently the interim VP for People and Culture at Sprint Connect, says she’s learned to spot these changes in behavior, however subtle, and unearth unspoken complaints before it’s too late. When talking with team members, she probes for a longing to work on newer technologies and listens for any mentions of friends at other companies working on different projects. Even if these remarks are only made off-handedly, she knows they can be red flags. “Don’t be afraid to ask people questions,” she advises: “Are you happy? What’s making you stay? What would make you leave?”

She adds, “Asking ‘Are you okay?’ isn’t illegal.”

YOU’RE CONFUSING TEACHING WITH MANAGING

The traditional career path is linear, which often means pushing top talent down a management track, supervising others. Leaders may notice that one of their people enjoys teaching others, and then assume that they’d enjoy managing others.

Mentoring and managing might seem similar, but they’re entirely different skills. Management is really about getting work done through others, which makes it highly people-focused. Mentoring or instructing–especially when it comes to software development–is more about a knowledge-transfer of technical skills.

Be careful not to mistake a technical expert who enjoys teaching for one who enjoys managing. Instead, offer your best senior engineers more than just one kind of leadership opportunity; carve out a separate path for technical experts to advance up the ranks based on how well they help their junior colleagues “skill up”–even if that doesn’t involve managing their work.

YOUR ORG CHART ISN’T A LIVING DOCUMENT

Be careful not allow your org chart to become a rigid, set-and-forget artifact–an especially acute risk when it comes to technical roles. Review and adjust your structure to match the expertise of your current team. In Cole’s experience, “the number-one reason technical people quit is because they don’t have the option to advance without going into management.” Szczepanski would likely agree; in his view, developers often get frustrated having to report to leaders who don’t have tech backgrounds themselves.

It’s a perennial problem, but circumventing it can be as simple as reviewing your reporting structure on a regular basis. No matter who leaves and who joins, you always have to make sure there are tech experts in the managerial ranks, and clear paths for other engineers to rise into them.

YOU AREN’T OFFERING ENOUGH SUPPORT

In an attempt to provide flexibility and empower employees, some companies are actually too hands-off–they wind up not giving enough career support. “It’s easy to tell people you’re in charge of your own career,” Scarborough points out, “but it doesn’t work if you don’t support them. Nobody wins if you don’t help them.”

That’s just as true for developers as it is for anyone else, but the risk may be higher when it comes to tech teams, whose expertise can automatically cordon them off from leaders who may not know exactly what they do–or what professional development they might need. On top of that, your engineering team might be so in the weeds with their work they may not be looking at their skills or figure out how they might be applied better.

So rather than making succession planning a once-a-year, check-the-box formality, it’s important to find career development opportunities on a regular basis. Your HR leaders don’t need to have all the answers themselves, either; one of the best ways to offer support is simply to get everyone in a room for an hour and brainstorm ideas for how they can get more of what they want from their work.

Ultimately, building a culture of continuous learning and improvement is what will keep your most valuable senior tech talent on board. And it all starts with having more conversations than you might be, more often. When people can use their talents to do what they love while expanding their skills, they won’t just stay put–they’ll tell their smartest friends to come join them.

A version of this article, this is Why Your Best Developers Keep Quitting originally appear on Fast Company.