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A day in the life of Robert Ward, Senior Engineering Manager: How to manage a team remotely?

The pandemic that is shaking the world since the beginning of 2020 has had many impacts on all of us, both personally and professionally. With this situation comes a new way of working. Many managers around the world are now facing a huge challenge they may have never experienced before: managing a team remotely.

In today’s “A day in the life of…”, we are meeting with Robert Ward, Senior Engineering Manager. Robert has a ‘hands-on’ approach to team management and has had the experience of working in large multinational organizations including managing geographically dispersed teams. Knowing that, we were curious about how he manages his team while working remotely and what advice he could give us on how to have the most engaged remote team possible.

A global team: the Time Zone challenge

“The scope of my team and our responsibilities are to implement the one IS billing and quoting, which is part of the One-IS strategy […] while maintaining and providing support in the BlueSky IS system.” To manage that, Robert Ward’s team must work closely with the Business and the Product teams to understand all the requirements. It is a work of co-ordination and problem solving on the full end-to-end process, from software consumption through testing and production delivery. To do so, teamwork is vital.

Robert’s team is mainly based in Montpellier (France) but he also has one developer remote working in Texas (United States) and two developers based in New Delhi’s office (India). “I have had the challenge for a couple of years now of having to manage a remote team and having to manage that onsite/offsite liaison.”  It is quite a challenge when you know the Time Zone differences between all the team members: Texas is four hours behind the European Time Zone and New Delhi is four and a half hours ahead!

Communication is the manager’s best friend

Robert Ward

Despite this temporal difficulty, we can see that Robert is proud of his team’s diversity. “I enjoy the different cultures, different backgrounds, and the way the team works together. The team is open to discuss problems and challenges. Everybody on the team is equal and I like the way that the whole team has embraced being one team.”

“I think – and I hope – I have a good relationship with most of my team members. They tell me if they are not happy about something, if there is something that maybe I have not spotted that I need to resolve. I think a nurturing and open feeling within the team is really important.” For Robert, the biggest challenge of managing his team, physically or remotely, has always been communication. He makes sure that no one is left behind, that everyone understands what the team’s goal is, what the strategy and priorities are. “Because I rely on my team to define their priorities. I rely on them to be predominantly self-sufficient in their day-to-day work.”

Onsite to offsite: same team, different ways of working

While he was in the office, Robert would at least once a day walk around and have a 2-minute chat with his team to “get the energy”. The one-to-one meetings were done monthly or as required with each team member. “By sitting where I do in the office, I can see the way the team is working, the dynamics, if someone’s getting frustrated or having some challenges. You know when you need to step in.”

With his remote team, it was a little bit different. “It was important to have that weekly one-to-one session with them so we could just talk through “what are your challenges?”, “how can I help?”.” Managing a remote team has always been a challenge for Robert who relies a lot on his ability to immediately being able to “test the water”. According to him, there will always be a difference between the onsite and offsite workers, but it’s the manager’s job to try to level the balance as much as possible.

“With the COVID situation, suddenly everybody is remote. In some ways, my life is a little easier because I don’t have the worry of treating people differently because they’re not working in the same office as me. The main change, I think, is relying much more on the weekly one-to-one meeting which takes a lot more of my time, but it’s a really valuable job.” Robert also had to adapt his way of working. As a visual learner, he likes having whiteboards to get his thought process in a straight line. “This is something I found really hard during COVID. Microsoft Whiteboard is a tool I’m using a lot to help with that.”

Top-3 tips for a successful remote management

Relying more on digital tools isn’t the only adaptation a manager has to do when working remotely. Robert shared with us his top-3 recommendations to perfect remote management.

  • Be responsive to the team: “I don’t have all the answers, not all managers do, not all team members do. But my role is to make sure that I provide the support where I can and help find the source of the answer when a question or a problem is raised.”
  • Have open communication: “Building the relationship with the team so that they feel they can ask for help. It’s something maybe the team gets bored of me saying but if you’re stuck, let me know or let somebody on the team know and ask for help.”
  • Be flexible with the team: “I do my best to adjust my schedule to fit with their needs and their deadlines. Which means that I don’t always respect my working day as well as I should!”

Never underestimate team socializing

However, building a team isn’t just about work. Team socializing is important – and even essential – to create trust and engagement within the team and lead to a successful virtual workplace. Robert values highly socializing and it was a key element for him back when he was in the office. His team organized a few times an annual “pétanque” evening just outside the office. “The team has always been good at organizing get together social events. It’s something which we’ve not done for a while and we need to go back to doing once we discover what the new normal is.”

“Building the team together and having the team socializing was something really important to me as soon as we went into lockdown. For the psychological wellbeing of the team, myself included, it was important to do things.” They started by having virtual happy hours with some ex-colleagues. Soon, they realized it wasn’t working for the team members that were in India and Unites States: one o’clock in the morning and the afternoon aren’t the best times for a drink. Robert then organized several activities that could include everybody. They did a pub quiz, a virtual escape game and some coffee mornings.

“I think all those activities had an impact on our work. We laughed a lot.” During meetings, they kept joking about what happened during the games. Team socializing is important to build a strong team and to keep a good energy in the work. Even though the team isn’t physically together, they are still a team and they need to feel like it.  

Communicate, adapt, and socialize. Those are the three main points Robert Ward highlighted through this interview to manage and engage with his team, remotely and physically. Now it’s your turn to try it.

About the author

Margot Legars joined the Cloud Communications division of NTT Ltd. at the end of 2019 as Junior Internal & Employer Community Manager. After finishing a degree in communications and product management at Paul Valéry University (Montpellier, France) she spent six months in Dublin (Ireland) to expand her professional experience beyond France. She currently works in the Internal Communications team, led by Magali Dos Santos, which creates, organizes and runs international programs and communications, and develops the employer brand.

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