Articles
How to Keep Remote Engineers Productive? Fulfill These Three Basic Desires
May 26, 2020

As an engineering leader suddenly faced with a remote team to lead, how do you keep your remote engineers engaged and productive while maintaining your sanity?

Engineers are knowledge workers. In Daniel Pink’s seminal work on motivation, his 2011 book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, he identified the three things that knowledge workers and creative people desire most:

Autonomy – the desire to be self-directed

Mastery – the desire to keep getting better

Purpose – the desire to do meaningful work

You can keep your remote engineers engaged by providing them with opportunities to fulfill these desires. Read below for practical tips on what you can do in each of the three areas.

Autonomy

Here’s the good news: autonomy is an inherent trait of remote teams. Remote engineers do not have anyone physically watching over their shoulder, so they have more freedom, or autonomy, to choose how to direct their day-to-day actions.

Constraints still exist, such as sprint milestones, project dependencies, and team meetings. These constraints help create freedom. Done correctly, they give the engineer clear expectations that they can work with to self-direct their efforts when working on their own. Imagine trying to drive without road signs or traffic lanes. The absence of these constraints leads to chaos, not freedom!

When I was COO of Demonware, the online studio for Activision, we used Lohika as an extension of our engineering team. We had constraints in place like the ones above. Outside of those constraints, we had to trust that the Lohika engineers on our extended team were self-directing effectively.

We ensured the team was productive by inspecting and verifying work during sprint meetings or other review points and provided feedback or additional guidance. We did not need to watch over their shoulders as they completed tasks.

Key points:

  • Have autonomy in your remote engineering team by setting clear constraints and then getting out of the way.
  • Inspect and verify work at set review points where you give feedback and direction as needed.
  • Judge performance based on results, not physical presence.

Mastery

Remote engineers need more than autonomy to keep them engaged. They need you to challenge them to keep getting better.

What I’ve observed about many top engineers is that money is a hygiene factor. The feeling is that I need to be compensated fairly; otherwise, I am demotivated. However, being paid more than what is fair actually doesn’t drive extra motivation.

I hear time and time again from engineers that what motivates them is working on challenging problems with other top engineers.

Carve Systems is a cybersecurity consulting firm with a near 100% remote workforce. One way they provide a route to mastery is pairing a junior engineer with a senior engineer and sending them into a “cave” for 1-2 weeks to work together on a challenging problem, without interruption.

The junior engineer learns from both the experience and the mentorship of the senior engineer, while the senior engineer deepens their knowledge by mentoring the junior engineer.

When I was leading an engineering team at Rackspace, one senior engineer on my team rarely needed any support. His work was always precise and rapid. He was self-directed.

During a regular one-on-one check-in, he shared with me his desire to get better in one specific area. He asked if I could introduce him to the team lead for that particular team, which was in another country. I made the introduction, and the senior engineer was able to pursue mastery by working remotely with mentors on that team.

Key points:

  • Help your engineers pursue mastery by providing opportunities to tackle challenging problems with their remote teammates.
  • As the manager, you do not need to be the one providing mentoring. Be a matchmaker by pairing people up who can challenge and help each other grow.

Purpose

Many engineers I know despise corporate-speak: mission statements, purpose statements, vision, values. I believe that these are despised with good reason: senior leadership often creates and communicates them terribly. It matters to remote engineers to know that their work is meaningful, so how do you connect them to purpose in a way that avoids corporate-speak?

When you communicate purpose, keep it clear and concise. People often trust your message less the longer you ramble on. I like to summarize the overall message in ~20 words at the start, then share ~20 words of the next level of detail.

I treat everything else as an appendix or detailed information that I can respond to questions with or provide additional information on later. This approach helps keep your message clear and concise.

Carve Systems shares their clear and concise purpose with new employees when they start at the company. Then they reinforce it by providing lots of recognition, like “call-outs for awesomeness” tied to their purpose during their remote all-staff weekly meeting.

Here’s a relevant quote:

Sometimes I think our role is to take really smart people, cut all the red tape and crap, and point them in the right direction and watch them succeed. Everyone has suffered under micromanagement and unnecessary bureaucracy, and it takes away so much motivation.” – Max Sobell, COO, Carve Systems

Key points:

  • It matters to remote engineers to know that they are doing meaningful work.
  • Connect remote engineers to why their work matters by sharing a clear and concise vision of the project or the organization and how their work matters.
  • Reinforce the connection to purpose by acknowledging the great work of team members during remote team meetings.

Summary

Remote engineers desire autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Fulfill these desires by:

Autonomy:

  • Have autonomy in your remote engineering team by setting clear constraints and then getting out of the way.
  • Inspect and verify work at set review points where you give feedback and direction as needed.
  • Judge performance based on results, not physical presence.

Mastery:

  • Help your engineers pursue mastery by providing opportunities to tackle challenging problems with their remote teammates.
  • As the manager, you do not need to be the one providing mentoring. Be a matchmaker by pairing people up who can challenge and help each other grow.

Purpose:

  • It matters to remote engineers to know that they are doing meaningful work.
  • Connect remote engineers to why their work matters by sharing a clear and concise vision of the project or the organization and how their work matters.
  • Reinforce the connection to purpose by acknowledging the great work of team members during remote team meetings.

About the Author

Colin Cox, Founder, Cox Consulting

Colin Cox, Founder of Cox Consulting, is an expert in helping organizations be highly productive. Colin has 26 years of experience leading global organizations.

Prior to launching his consulting company, Colin held leadership roles at Demonware and Rackspace Hosting.