Lessons on Leading a Fully Remote Engineering Team with Joan Deitchman at Buffer

Joan Deitchman, a remote Engineering Manager at Buffer, shares her biggest lessons on leading remote engineering teams, how to lead in times of crisis, and rituals to stay productive.

Managing Remote Teams Buffer

Five years ago, the social media management startup Buffer announced that it was ditching its office and going fully remote. Today, the company has over 85 people spread across 10 different time zones.

We sat down with Buffer’s Joan Deitchman, an Engineering Manager who has been with the company for two years, to talk about leading remote engineering teams, how to lead in times of crisis, and some of the tools and rituals that Joan uses to create collaboration, diversity, transparency and trust.

1 Tell us a little bit more about you and your experience working remotely

I live in Boulder, Colorado with my husband. I have two young sons, a one and a half-year-old and a three-year-old and another on the way, and we have two dogs, so lots of chaos. 

I was a software engineer for about 13 years, but just over four years ago, I moved into engineering management, and that’s where my experience with remote work started. 

My first management position wasn’t remote, but I had two remote employees and then five co-located employees, which was an interesting combination. 

In my next management position, all my direct reports were co-located but there were two locations. So the other engineering teams were in another distributed location and another timezone, luckily only an hour away. So those were kind of mixed experiences. 

For the last two years, I’ve been at Buffer, which is a fully remote globally distributed company. 

I currently manage seven engineers across three teams and my teammates span Europe, North America, South America. So like a really distributed group.

It was definitely something I worried about. It’s like  – whoa, how will the transition to remote work feel like? Is it going to be really isolating? But I actually found that when everyone’s remote, it actually removed some of those problems. 

I love that I feel more connected to my teammates at Buffer than I did when I worked with people in an office before, which is pretty cool. 

Now I’m in a position where I have trouble seeing myself ever going back to working in an office. I really like the flexibility of remote and especially being in a strong culture that really supports it and is conducive to positive remote work. Being at home and seeing the boys throughout the day, even now as they’re getting older… it’s just wonderful to be able to have that flexibility.

2 Recently, Joel Gascoigne (CEO at Buffer) announced that the company was moving to a 4-day work week for the month of May. What are some of the benefits that you’re seeing?

I think this is our first week of that experiment. It’s been a dream of mine to get to a point where we could just work four days a week or even three, like not having that typical five-day workweek. So it’s something I already was dreaming would be a reality. 

I think the key though, is this isn’t a normal situation of trying a four-day work week. This is really to address the unusual times we’re in where people are under a lot of stress and just managing caregiving responsibilities. If you have two parent households where both parents are working and now trying to take care of kids, just the added anxiety that people are feeling around the situation. 

When COVID started escalating, Buffer created Task Force teams to address the different aspects of it. One was focused on our customers and how we respond and support our customers. Another was focused on the business and more the financial aspects, and how are we as a company going to get through this? And then there was another team focusing on helping teammates get through this. And Joel sits in on each of those Task Force teams. 

So, one of the things that the team Task Force came up with was recognizing that they were hearing a lot of feedback from folks across the company, but especially parents, that there was a lot of difficulty in trying to feel productive when you’re trying to manage caregiving and all kinds of things.

Very early on, Joel shared an internal thread tool we’ve used to replace email communication. And basically just talked about how we were as a company approaching it and that we wanted to put people first over profits and wanted people to care for themselves and their families. But it’s one thing to say that and it’s another thing to do it. I think we were hearing this feedback that people were feeling a bit of a disconnect there because it’s not a normal thing.

Like, we’re not used to being told it’s okay to do that. To just go and do it.

I think the four-day work-week was an attempt to put a little bit more structure and intentionality around it, to allow people to feel more empowered and enabled. Obviously, it’s not a one size fits all solution. 

We did talk about it as an experiment, so we don’t have to get it perfect from the start and we’re going to track it, see how it goes and gather feedback. In a normal situation, Wednesday would not be a day I would choose as a day off, I’d want a Friday or Monday so you can have a long weekend. But given the current environment it seemed like it would fit both people who are maybe isolated. So then they’re not left with three days of not any work contact or contact with folks. 

For caregivers or people with kids that helps to break up the week. One of my teammates said they’re worried there’s going to be like two Mondays now, of trying to get your head back into things, so that’s definitely one of the trade offs that we recognize that might be a bit problematic.

In engineering one of our principles now is “work small test small”, so maybe we can try to build off of that and try to work smaller so that there’s less context switching. 

3 What are some mistakes you made in the early days that other remote managers can learn from?

I think one of the most important pieces of remote work and being effective with remote work is all tied up in communication. There’s just so many ways that that can go wrong, especially in a remote environment. 

I’ve definitely made some mistakes along the way. One of the most important things I think is just being more clear and concise. 

In a remote environment, a lot of communication moves to being written and async by default, so you don’t have that real-time feedback loop when you’re sharing information with someone face-to-face to gauge if you’re being understood or need to clarify your message. And then that loop to get feedback if people are confused or need more details, especially if you’re distributed, is much bigger. 

I just tend to be someone who’s very verbose and my natural communication style is to include all of those details and talk about all the things… but that can just be a lot of cognitive mental overload on people sometimes. 

So I think for me, it was just learning how to use more written communication. 

Simple things like including TL;DRs in your communication to highlight what is the summary. Use bold and italics. Use bullet points and tables to make content more visual, so that it’s not like you’re faced with a wall of text, especially when you’re remote and reading text all day. 

Make it clear what the action items are, who are those assigned to. Just make sure you over communicate.

4 What advice would you share with people who are managing a remote team for the first time?

So much about being remote is, you have to be more intentional about everything. Whether it’s communication, or whether it’s about the culture.

It’s about really over-emphasizing things. For instance, at Buffer, we’re huge on using GIFs and emojis in written communication and keeping video on during meetings and syncs so that you still have that connection with people.

I know in my past positions, a lot of the times everyone defaulted to video off. That makes it harder to feel that there’s a human on the other side.  

On the other hand, one-on-one meetings are definitely important. 

I do weekly one-on-ones with all my direct reports for about an hour. Just because again, you’re not seeing people in an office, and there’s often a lot of things going on. 

A framework that we’ve used that my manager introduced me to, that is helpful with that, is the BICEPS core needs model. It’s an acronym, and it basically stands for the six core needs that everyone has at work:

Identifying everyone’s most important needs can really help make sure that people are feeling seen and heard and feeling that connection.

Another huge thing is lots of praise and recognition because again, people can feel invisible when working remotely. And so you just really want to make sure people feel seen and feel heard and that their work is seen and recognized.

5 Finally, what rituals or habits have helped you stay productive while working remotely?

I think it varies from person to person. I know employers often think remote employees are less productive, but research shows people are often more productive. But that means that we’re also at more risk of burnout and overworking. 

One struggle I see people having, and even I sometimes have is, learning to disconnect. So, really having a boundary in your day and also just through your location. Try to set up a home office space separate so that it’s a distinct area. 

I think for distributed teams especially it’s harder. For example, my European teammates will notice a lot that they’re trying to end their day, as North America is just coming online, so they get sucked in the conversations and before you know it, it’s seven or eight o’clock their time.

I try to be really intentional about telling people to sign off if it’s not critical or urgent.

I remember before working at Buffer, I had one remote teammate who made it a habit to go outside and walk around the house before and after work. Like a commute. Because commutes can provide kind of that like decompression time between work and home or vice versa. So if you can set up routines like that, that helps you distinguish what’s work time and what’s life time. 

And being intentional about breaks too, because like in an office, you see people getting up and going to the water cooler and going to the kitchen and you have these casual chats.

When you’re remote, it’s easy to think everyone’s working all the time. And before you know, you’ve just sat at your computer all day. So I encourage people to both be intentional about scheduling those breaks and then also to leave loudly, sharing when they’re stepping away.

So, if I step away for a workout or for one of my son’s therapies or something, I’ll let my team know. It just helps to normalize it and encourages other folks to do the same. 

We have lives, we want to take breaks, and do these other things. Not everyone’s working all the time. I think it’s easy to get that false impression that you should be or that everyone is doing that and then it’s like this vicious cycle.

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