I’ve talked about fostering remote work and how during my time at SAP Concur, we succeeded in building a remote-friendly culture for our UI Engineering group. Over time, I identified several indicators that helped me measure that success. If you are trying to assess your group’s progress, or if you are evaluating a potential employer as a remote engineer, these traits might help you identify if a culture is truly remote-friendly.
Traits to Assess
With each of these topics, there are questions you can ask to get a feel for the group’s ability to host remote team members. Comprehensive success doesn’t happen overnight, so you should expect to find strengths and weaknesses with these areas, regardless of how long a company has fostered remote work.
What local folks do when they need to work from home
I believe the most informative indicator of a remote-friendly culture is actually based on the experience local employees have. When someone who typically works from an office needs to work from home, what does that look like?
In my group at SAP Concur, if I was feeling a little under the weather (but not sick enough to take the day off work), or if I had a midday appointment, or my day started with meetings at 6:00am, or there was any other reason why working from home would be beneficial, I just worked from home.
There was no fanfare–I wouldn’t send a Slack message to announce that I was working from home, let alone an email! I wouldn’t reschedule any of my meetings. I wouldn’t change my day’s to-do list. I just worked from home.
There was no disturbance for how I joined meetings–I joined every single meeting through Zoom because every single meeting had a Zoom link and every meeting organizer knew to connect to Zoom before the meeting started. I didn’t need to ask folks for special treatment. I just worked from home.
What do local folks do if they need to work from home some days?
If the answer includes, “send a message to the team,” or anything else to that effect, then the culture still has room to grow. If the answer is along the lines of, “Uh, they just work from home,” then the group is likely very mature in their remote-friendly culture. Be sure to drill in for specifics though to make sure that any day’s responsibilities can be completed from home just as easily as from the office.
If there are geo-distributed engineering offices (not just sales offices)
Most medium and large companies have multiple offices, sometimes spanning the globe. But be careful about assuming that there are engineers outside of the headquarters. A lot of companies tout their global presence despite centralized engineering. It’s common to find only sales or support teams are spread around.
Which of your offices have engineering teams?
If a company does have engineers based out of multiple offices, then they could be well on their way to having a remote-friendly culture. There’s not much difference between working with engineers in a remote office and engineers working from home.
How many time zones do your engineering offices span?
The more time zones the engineering offices span, the better. If all of the engineering offices are on the west coast of the US, then it’s unlikely they’ve learned how to collaborate with someone 3, 4, or 8 time zones ahead of them.
If there are remote engineers at all levels
As I explained in Remote for the ‘Right’ Candidate, companies can’t just jump into hiring remote engineers and expect to be successful with it. It takes time and investment to reach the point of being able to have engineers of all levels succeed remotely.
Many companies will start out with only allowing senior-level (or above) candidates with special skillsets and experiences to work remotely. Often, employees will need to have worked from home at a previous employer, or have worked from a local office at the company before becoming remote.
Have there been remote engineers succeeding at all levels?
If a company has successfully integrated a remote junior engineer into a team, and there are also successful senior-level engineers who work remotely, that’s a good indicator that the group has learned what it takes to support remote engineers.
Only having junior engineers who are remote is not enough; nor is only having senior engineers. Junior engineers might be able to get their job done but not excel and earn promotions. Exclusively having senior engineers who are remote leaves out the experience of helping junior engineers grow while working remotely.
Have you been able to promote remote engineers?
Hiring engineers at all levels is one thing, but promoting them is another. Perhaps the company can support an engineer at their current level, but they haven’t yet learned how to help those engineers take on challenges beyond their level. It’s hard to earn a promotion if folks beyond your immediate team don’t know who you are or what your contributions have been. When remote folks earn promotions, that indicates a great level of remote-friendly maturity and a company’s ability to integrate remote team members into broader collaborations.
What pro-tips they have for using their teleconferencing tools
Any company that is serious about supporting remote engineers better be masters of their teleconferencing tools! There are many great tools out there: Microsoft Teams, Slack, Zoom, BlueJeans, and more. There are also some terrible tools: WebEx (and probably others).
Folks in the group should be able to talk about the tools they’ve tried, which ones have worked better than others, and how they get the most out of the tools they’re using.
What pro-tips do you have for your teleconferencing tools?
Hope the answer includes that everyone in the office needs to turn the camera on. Hope the answer includes a list of features the tools offer that make a big difference. Hope the answer includes stories of frustrations experienced while honing the skills of using these tools. The more specific these battle stories are, the better. Watch out for superficial answers and look for ways employees talk with one another to continuously refine their practices.
If there are any remote managers
Managers have responsibilities that can be difficult to accomplish remotely. They have lots of meetings to attend with many different audiences. They need to have strategy conversations with their team members, their leaders, and their partners. They need to have several 1:1 meetings each week. They need to coach and mentor others. They need to represent their team. They need to be tapped into the business.
Fulfilling these responsibilities can be challenging even while working in the office. Succeeding on these duties while remote is proof that the company’s culture supports remote leaders–not just remote engineers.
Are there any engineering managers that work from home?
At SAP Concur, we broke the seal of remote management by promoting remote senior engineers into management. These folks had been at the company a long time, had started in non-headquarters offices before starting to work from home, and were prepared to endure our growing pains. They paved the way for us to support promoting other remote engineers into management and retaining managers who relocated away from our offices and began working from home.
Hiring new remote employees directly into management roles is one of the tallest orders, even for a remote-friendly culture–I wouldn’t expect it of any company. Even without that, promoting folks into management and having those managers earn further promotions is a great sign of a culture with few remote barriers.
How necessary it is for remote engineers to visit offices
One of the trickiest aspects of having a geo-distributed team is arranging for remote employees to visit the office. There are many reasons why these visits seem important, and this is one of the most obvious topics to discuss with a company who has remote employees.
Let’s not beat around the bush–bringing remote employees into the office is a huge drain on travel budgets and the more remote employees there are, the bigger of a drain it is. This budget hit is relevant at even the most profitable companies in the world.
It’s common for folks to ask, “How often would I be able to visit the office?” The spirit of this inquiry makes sense on the surface, but in a strong remote-friendly culture, the question should really be turned back on itself.
How often would I need to visit the office?
The better a company is at fostering remote work, the less often remote engineers should need to visit the office. Team morale events are important and occassionally planning/strategy meetings are best conducted in-person, that’s for sure. However, day-to-day or even month-to-month job responsibilities should not necessitate office visits.
If a company is growing into being remote-friendly, they will likely want remote engineers to visit monthly or quarterly. Companies that are very mature in their remote-friendly culture might grant a budget for one visit per year per remote employee.
It’s a Journey
Becoming remote-friendly is a journey. Companies may embark upon this by first hiring remote for the right candidate before reaching the point of allowing engineers in any role to work remotely. Whether you are a leader aiming to grow the remote culture or you are an engineer looking to work remotely, the topics and questions above can be a guide to assess where a company or group is along this journey.