How to manage a distributed engineering team

More and more companies are hiring team members for remote work or have the challenge of working with offices in other locations. We explain the challenges you'll face with a distributed engineering team and how to build a stronger team, despite the distance.


Challenges for distributed engineering teams

  • Communication. Different time zones and barriers to communication block collaboration.
  • Trust. Remote team members say it is tough to build trust without in-person team building.
  • Culture.Different cultures between locales and departments leads to miscommunication.
  • Management. It's difficult to manage tasks, performance, and team goals for everyone.

Don't worry if these challenges seem like too much to overcome. There are also big upsides to collaborating outside of a traditional environment - a single team in a single office! Most companies with distributed teams claim they save time and money because of lower production costs and accelerated development time. Here are some tips to make it work for your team, too.

Benefits of distributed engineering teams

  • Productivity. Different locations give longer office hours and quiet work time for engineers.
  • Efficiency. Your production costs are lower thanks to faster development and iterations.
  • Faster development. Distributed teams are faster due to better productivity and efficiency.

Make sure that your team gets product development benefits with the right training, travel plans, tools, goals and rewards. We have 5 resources and tips for each of these areas, below.

Choose the best and train everyone

Before you even consider training your engineers, make sure you pick the right people to join your team. Know that remote engineers will need to be especially self-motivated and good at communication. Once you handpick the right team members, make sure you train them with the overall company vision. This is a step that a lot of technical teams miss. The more someone understands your vision and goals, the smarter the decisions they can make on their own. Training is also a great way to build leadership in locations where you can't be present all the time. You'll need engineers ready to step up and help with evaluations, which we'll discuss later.

Training resources: Managing a Geographically Dispersed Team

Plan face-to-face meetups

Small teams should try to get together, face-to-face, every few months. Building trust and cohesion will always be a struggle. A full team quarterly meetup may cost too much for larger teams. However, managers can still plan travel schedules that get them in front of their distributed offices every few months or when you're nearby visiting clients. It is well worth the extra trouble because of how much it boosts communication. You should also consider rewarding your top performing engineers with a rotation for a few weeks in a different office to encourage team building outside of management.

Team building resources: 4 things you need to know about managing a remote team

Tailor your tools for your team

Make sure you choose something that fits your team. For example, CAD file management is a real issue for teams spread across multiple offices. Be sure to look for cloud-based PDM tools, which scale easily with your team no matter where you are and allow you to avoid IT costs. You can learn a lot from the tech team at HelpScout, which recommend a hierarchy of communication tools. It's important to keep tools to a minimum and set a guidelines for what information is shared through what channel. Engineering teams have the added challenge of needing to communicate in 3D, so don't forget an easy CAD-sharing tool.

Communication tools: What's wrong with sharing CAD files with Dropbox?

Get out of your engineers' way

No micromanaging. It's tempting to want to monitor everything your team does if you can't be there to manage them in person. However, that will not be effective and it will end up annoying your engineers. It's better to create a clear set of goals, both short and long term, and then mark your team's progress based on those metrics and deliverables instead of activities. It will help you set expectations and make it easy to check-in and communicate. Another big benefit of this style is that it sets up your team to make decisions when you can't be there for advice. When your team makes smart decisions and focuses on delivering on product milestones, everyone wins.

Goal setting resources: Manage by deliverables, not by activities 

Ease evaluations and reward results

Now that you have a clear set of goals for your engineers, create a system for evaluation and rewards. When teams don't share a location or haven't met face to face, they have a harder time commenting on the performance of their fellow team members. This means someone could be under or over performing without you knowing about it. If you schedule check-ins at product milestones and ask for individual progress, you'll gain better visibility into each team members contributions. CAD collaboration tools can also offer insight into who is pushing improvements and fixing file conflicts. High-level rewards will reinforce the efforts of top performers. It's best to make them surprises or change the system up frequently to keep things effective and worthwhile.

Evaluation and reward resources:  The Myth of the Bell Curve, Look for Hyper Performers

It's worth the effort to make your distributed engineering teams work well. Otherwise, you'll be missing out on a wealth of talent and an opportunity to streamline your product development. What are your biggest collaboration challenges? Let us know in the comments.

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