When You Go Distributed, How Do You Manage the Managers?

Managing project managers is a challenge. Neither person is ever on a project together, so how do you peek into their world? Originally we shared an office but when we announced we were closing our office space, I had to have a hard think about how to pivot my methods to manage from afar.

How it worked in a physical office

In the past, most of the people I was interacting with as a manager were in the office. Coming into the office provided all the opportunity I needed to see how the Project Managers were doing, even if we were in meetings all day. Five minutes around the coffee machine was enough to take the temperature of my team, and more in-depth meetings were scheduled if there was a need.

Even more helpfully, I had a very large office which I was not interested in having all to myself. It probably began out of necessity for space, but I was quite in favor of sharing my office with the two project managers I was managing at the time.

By sharing a space with the project managers, I had the wonderful opportunity to overhear their meetings with clients and team members. I liked to eavesdrop on their scrums and client calls, and then when they got off, I would offer to help if it sounded like it went badly or give praise if it went well. This gave me the information I needed to give constructive feedback in formal reviews.

You can’t listen-in from 500 miles away

Our business processes started to change as we welcomed the first remote employees into our company and started to shift everyone to a “remote first” way of thinking.

The most impactful change was our move to “one screen, one face” on video conferencing. That meant that regardless of available conference rooms, if one person was remote, then everyone took up a single line on the call. This did away with most people in a room together while one person on a big tv screen felt left out. But what it also did was make everyone a remote employee even if they came into the office. (It had the added bonus of making our clients feel much more engaged with their team too!)

Additionally, with this remote-first thinking in place, it meant that we were free to hire the best person for the job regardless of their location. Two of the next three PM hires we made were to people outside of the local Austin area.

All of these changes meant my methods for passive knowledge gathering were starting to break down. Obviously the remote PM’s were engaging with me differently, but even the in-town PM’s weren’t around for me to eavesdrop on any more. On days when we were all in the office, the noise factor of having multiple meetings at once in a small room meant that someone had to leave and I couldn’t hear what was happening any more.

Remote-first managing

Rather than the passive engagement that I was able to rely upon by sharing an office, managing remote people requires active engagement — new methods of knowledge-gathering for a new way of working.

Now that I don’t share an office with everyone I manage, I have had to change up my bag of tricks. I have to schedule a meeting with everyone on my team at least once a week. Currently I meet privately with each person every other week and then meet with the entire team the opposite weeks. I like to have some concrete things to go over in both meetings, and leave time for questions or problems. This last week I asked everyone if they were successfully scheduling Retros. It was interesting to hear the variety of responses from “sometimes” to “yes, every sprint!”. In our most recent team meeting, we reviewed our budget reporting tool and talked about how to talk about it with clients.

I am also watching my Slack more actively. I want to know if people talking with each other in rooms, but I’m also watching for people who will reach out for help in one-on-one chats with problems that need attention. On occasion I drop in on a team meeting, scrum, retro (or whatever), on projects where I am not directly involved. While it feels a little like the principal coming into your classroom to watch you teach, it’s very helpful in gauging how things are going. After a little watchful attendance I was able to pass on the advice “let the team talk first, you might be surprised — they will ask questions you would, but it doesn’t make it all sound like it’s coming from the PM.”

I have also asked the team to participate in a Risk identification exercise, starting with a list of “things that went wrong” — signaling how to identify risks and tricks for to avoid them. While this will eventually be opened up to the whole company for other identified risks, I am asking the PM team to help describe the first set. These risks will then give us a better vocabulary for discussing red flags on projects.

There’s always room to improve

There are many improvements which remain.

First, we need a clear way for documenting processes so that everyone has the same “pattern of success” in mind. While we are not prescriptive in a single process here at Four Kitchens, it is clear that people who are new may have different ideas of roles, tasks, and successes.

Touching base more regularly about project specifics will also be on my list of improvements for this year. I feel like our system is pretty good at identifying personal issues, but project issues sometime languish in obscurity and a project review could help find these issues earlier.

And I still need to figure out how to make the PMs outside of Austin feel the same individual connection with me as the local PMs do. I will likely make some trips as the year progresses to make sure each PM feels a personal connection as well as a digital one. I’d also really like to have an internal PM Summit to continue to work already started to understand how we want things done here at Four Kitchens.

As an “on the border” introvert/extrovert, I will have to reach over the line to actively engage with my team and the rest of Four Kitchens; what I used to take for granted in my shared physical office now has to be accomplished as I sit in my own personal “shedquarters”, with only myself to keep me company, as we make the final moves into becoming a fully distributed team.


When You Go Distributed, How Do You Manage the Managers? was written by Suzy Bates and was originally published on the the Four Kitchens blog, 19-May-2016.

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