Building remote teams: The engineer’s guide


Working with people in different offices can be challenging. It is compounded when they are in a different country and you have different cultures, customs and timezones to think of. Here in yieldHUB we also work remotely. Our head office is in Limerick and we have members of the team working in the US, the UK and the Philippines. In this article, we will give you our top tips for building functional teams overseas. Our CEO John O’Donnell will also share his advice. This article will help engineers like you to develop effective teams in different locations.

Values and mission

There is a saying “if you don’t know where you are going, how will you know when you get there?”. The same is true in business. You need to figure out what your company’s values and goals are, then communicate them to the team. When everyone is working to the same end-goals, communicating across teams becomes easier.

For example, if one of your values is to always deliver on time, then everyone on your team will work to get projects finished on time, every time. If a problem arises it is easier to get people on board to solve it.

John O Donnell, CEO, yieldHUB “Everyone working in an organisation needs to know the company’s values and mission. It is the responsibility of leaders and managers to ensure that everyone really understands them. Don’t assume they are common knowledge. They may not be and can change over the years”.

Hire for fit

When hiring engineers it is easy to get carried away with skills and qualifications. These days everyone has a bachelor’s degree, many people have several. Some even have PhD’s in their field of engineering. But is the most skilled person the best person for your team? They may not be. When adding to your team try to find out their values, goals and integrity in business. If all of the candidates meet the minimum criteria for skills, you can base your decision on hiring the candidate whose values align best with the company. This helps to foster and grow the culture.

Often times it is better to have a good engineer, whose attitude and style fits the company, rather than an expert engineer who is out of sync with the company.

“I always hire people I can trust.” John says “Honesty and openness is important to me and my business. I find that when I focus on hiring people with these values they settle in very quickly. When you focus on hiring people for fit, the lines of communication are freer, even when people work in different offices.”

Strong management at local sites

It is always a good strategy to have strong management at local sites. These sites can report into the head office but should have their own leadership on the ground. By having strong management there you can keep in touch with the daily goings on, learn what is working well and anticipate challenges. Equally, you can share messages with the teams through their managers. A key part of this is to have a strong manager, not a yes man or woman. A confident manager will be more honest about timelines, resources and challenges rather than telling you what you want to hear. This gives you the chance to have real oversight on remote teams and therefore communicate in a more open and authentic way.

John says “Whenever I plan to create a new team in a new location, I find a skilled person with strong management and communication skills to build the team there. I know I can trust them to run the office independently and let me know when they need something.”

Set clear expectations with everyone

Everyone has to have clear expectations in their role. Colleagues working remotely are no different. Each company decides their employees’ goals differently. But however you create the goals, you need to make sure they are communicated clearly and effectively and that each individual understands what their requirements are. This type of conversation is best in person. So it may be a good time to organise an in-person meeting and discuss monthly, quarterly and annual goals with each member of the team. You may organise an online meeting on Skype or Webex. If all else fails you could call them. The bottom line is you need to have a conversation with them about the goals and give them a chance to ask questions.

John says “When I first founded yieldHUB I knew where I wanted the company to develop each year. I made the mistake of assuming that everyone else did too. This proved to be frustrating for all involved. Now I set goals each year, in conjunction with each team member. We talk about what I want to achieve in the coming year, what they think is possible. Then we meet somewhere in the middle. These conversations usually take a couple of weeks, but it results in a happy team with us hitting our goals year on year”

Insulate team from aggressive stakeholders

This point goes back to strong management. Oftentimes in deadline-driven environments, key people get stressed. This could affect the team. Being stressed rarely leads to breakthroughs so it is essential to deflect when possible. By having remote teams, you can filter what you need to and ensure that management in the local offices get the information they need to make key decisions.

For example, if you have an important meeting where stakeholders insist that a product launch should be two months earlier, you could have a chat with the local managers to see if anything can be done to speed up production. If not you can filter that back to the team. Either way, the people on the ground don’t need to hear those top-level conversations. John says “Any heat or intensity from stakeholders or customers, can be magnified as they are so far away. It is important to filter the information that reaches your team. They only need to hear information that pertains to them.”

So there you have our guide to developing strong teams that work remotely. The most important parts are to define the mission and goals of the company, then hire people who match the company. Once you do that, locations, cultures and even timezones may blur into insignificance.