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At the beginning of February I began a new job as full team manager (a role with aspects of project management, team management, technical leader, client management, etc.) in a new company (EU based, with 200-220 employees). It’s the first time for me in this role (previously I was a team leader/senior developer). Now I am the manager of a team of about 20 people. The team consists of 3 sub-teams and communications usually take place via mailing lists or group chats.

My company apply flexible working hours at an extreme extent: our contract says that everyone must work for 40 hours per week and the company has no interest on how and when an employee does his/her hours. The contract also says that nobody can be forced to be in the office in any particular time, even if there is a meeting with a customer (this last part is not very important for my team because the customer is in a different city and last time someone of my company met in person someone from the customer was more than 2 years ago). For example an employee could work 4 hours from 2am to 6am from home, then come at the office 2 hours in the morning, then go home and finally work from home in the late evening for 2 hours. Or an employee could work a total of 24 hours on Saturday and Sunday and do nothing for 3 random days.

This way of work caused me a weird situation. Of the 20 people I manage:

  • 3 I’ve never met or directly interact with (including 1 that is a team leader that is supposed to report directly to me)
  • 4 or 5 I’ve never met and I’ve interact with only via e-mail or chat
  • A dozen more or less I’ve met a few times
  • 3 or 4 I met regularly (not every day and/or for the entire day)

Deadlines are always met and the customer is very happy but I feel I don’t know who works for me, who works on which feature/bug/task and which are the roles and expertise of the member of the team. Practically I send mail to groups, call customer for new specifications and organize demos: I see work done but I don’t feel part of it.

How can I improve this situation and feel part of the team? How can I increase my knowledge on team members and their abilities and improve my knowledge on the project itself?

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    How do you not know who works on what feature/bug/task, do you guys not have a tracker at least? Is there no documentation other than the mail list? – lucasgcb Jun 5 at 7:17
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    @MrLost - for your direct report who you've never spoken to - are you supposed to provide performance evaluations for him? If so, the advice to not fix what isn't broken is inappropriate - you can't evaluate someone you've never met nor have any understanding of what he personally is working on. If only team evaluations are needed, then perhaps it's more ok. – thursdaysgeek Jun 5 at 17:40
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    So they are self-organizing? Isn't this the agile unicorn? – zero298 Jun 5 at 22:06
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    So I have to ask: how aware were you of all this before you accepted your new role? – Radu Murzea Jun 6 at 14:33
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    @MrLost: The one you've never met might live in a different state, or even on a different continent, so scheduling physical meetings could be somewhat problematic :-) – jamesqf Jun 6 at 16:53
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Deadlines are always met and the customer is very happy

This is what matters. I know you want to feel like you know your teams strengths and weaknesses as a manager since that's your job, to manage the resources at your disposal however if everything is working out and your team is getting the job done, I would just leave it the way it is.

The only proposal I would potentially say is you could have a once a week stand up meeting in which people can dial in through phone, skype, or in person and just discuss things that may be issues. However if the majority of the team disagrees with this idea then the best thing is to leave it since your contract states they cannot be forced.

If it's sense of belonging and responsibility you're looking for then you may want to look for another role as the company you're at seems to be distant and focuses on keeping staff flexible in the way they want to be. The culture of the company is leaning towards, get the work done when and where you want as long as you meet the deadlines.

Your team and company has a specific culture and it seems you are not used to it or do not like it. This is how they work and probably how to prefer to work hence why it is the way it is. The best thing to do is to leave that alone, atleast until your team aren't making deadlines. But as of now they are, so try to adapt if you can.

  • 2
    Also, it may not entirely be a matter of voluntary flexibility. What if you acquire staff/clients in radically different time zones? Both might be desirable for specific reasons. You may as well be used to coordinating a flexible workforce before you are forced to adapt to it – George M Jun 5 at 17:07
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    I would suggest that instead of a voice meeting, you use a group discussion list. The problem with voice meetings is that (in my experience, at least) all too often a few loudmouths will drown out everyone else, even though the quiet ones often could contribute more actual value. At least on a discussion list, people would be able to finish their sentences without interruption. – jamesqf Jun 5 at 17:11
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    On the calls where there are a few loudmouths, in my experience it's always a good idea to have a "moderator" specifically try to include the quieter individuals and/or ask the louder ones to make room. This person could be the manager, but it may come best from a trusted peer in the team who has authority. – BobTuckerman Jun 5 at 20:32
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    Also, an asynchronous option like Slack might be helpful. Sure, not everyone's there at the same time, but the history of what's been talked about is. – Joe McMahon Jun 5 at 21:15
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    20 people is too large for any kind of discussion in a meeting. It would work for each team to present a quick summary of what they'd done. However, people in team A might not really care what team B have been doing, so keep it short. – Robin Bennett Jun 6 at 10:15
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I feel I don’t know who works for me, who works on which feature/bug/task and which are the roles and expertise of the member of the team

Here are two things. One is that you don't know your team. This can be solved by simply asking them to meet. In Corpo linguo we call that "team building". Don't force, ask them to participate.

Second things is that you don't know who is responsible for what and what are the statuses of given tasks. This is a knowledge about tools. Maybe your team have a task manager already in place and you don't know about it.

The team is not broken. Only thing you could do is to improve it but to do that you need to get to know how the team works and what tools they use AND would like to use.

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    The second paragraph is important, seriously doubt a 200people almost-remote working company has no tooling to organize and moderate the workflow. – Leon Jun 5 at 7:43
  • @Leon see my comment under my initial question. Sub-teams are so self organised that every sub-team uses its own system and tool – MrLost Jun 5 at 17:21
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    The only real way to "team build" is to do the work. Games and parties and meetings are no where near as effective at bringing co-workers together as the daily challenges of work. – Rob Crawford Jun 5 at 18:32
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    @RobCrawford I completely disagree with this. "Team Building" is about getting to know people themselves, not what/how they work, which is a tiny subset of what makes a person. I do agree that "games" are not the way to do this. – freedomn-m Jun 6 at 8:38
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    @RobCrawford Games aren't as effective at making people a good team at work, but they are more effective at getting people to be friends, which is incredibly helpful if you're trying to make sure everyone is able to effectively cooperate. That doesn't seem necessary in OP's situation because everything is working fine, but it is useful elsewhere. – Nic Hartley Jun 6 at 15:12
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Are you having weekly one-on-ones with your direct reports? If not, you should be doing that. Even though it might be done via phone or skype, it is still a meeting, and you'll still start to get to know them better. My boss is in another state, and while I do visit at least once a year, I've found that having a one-on-one has helped me get to know him a lot better. I'm much more comfortable with him, now that I've been able to just talk to him. The meetings don't need to be long, 1/2 hour at the most. Just checking in, see what they are working on, any concerns they have.

For the people under them, asking to meet for coffee, or again, just a short skype meeting, at least once a year, perhaps as often as a quarter, should help you get to know them a bit better. For them, you're not as much checking in on their work, but rather just checking to see if they have any concerns that are not being addressed, and spending just a bit of time getting to know them. It will make you more approachable if they do have problems. Essentially, you are opening your office door for them to visit, in a remote sort of way.

In both cases, let them know up front that this is not because you think there are any problems! Tell them you're just checking in, trying to get to know people a bit better, and the meeting will be short and scheduled at their convenience, so you don't interrupt their work.

To avoid the awkward silences or inappropriate questions, ask them what tools they use, and what they like and dislike about them. Ask them what projects they are working on, what they like about it, and what projects they like to work on. In other words, make the questions about work, but open ended, non-threatening, curious. Tell them a bit about what you like about the company, things you've seen in their team that appear to you to be working well. At the end, let them know about how often you plan on these meetings, let them know they can contact you whenever they need to, and wrap up the meeting quickly as soon as it seems to be winding down.

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    I love 1-on-1s and agree that they'd be a great way to get to know the team and weekly meetings are ideal but with 20 people to manage, that's 10 hours to meet with everyone, which is probably too much for a single week. Monthly might be more appropriate for a team this size. – aleppke Jun 5 at 16:13
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    @aleppke I suggested weekly one-on-ones only for the 3 supervisors. For the rest of the team, I said quarterly or yearly was enough. Although, if the OP did have 20 direct reports, then they still should make time for very regular one-on-ones. Although, re-reading, a team-lead isn't the same as a supervisor. In which case, 20 is too many direct reports, and the OP will need to find some way to have one-on-ones more often than quarterly. So yeah, monthly might be a good compromise. – thursdaysgeek Jun 5 at 16:41
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    @thursdaysgeek Officially my direct reports are the 3 team leaders of each sub-team but I should manage the entire team of 20 people. – MrLost Jun 5 at 17:25
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    @MrLost If you are doing weekly meetings with the three team leads, and they are each doing weeklies with their team as well, then that can help you manage all 20 by proxy. – David K Jun 5 at 18:38
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    @aleppke indeed, it is time consuming. Indeed, Kim Scott writes that a manager's work capacity is (and should be) limited by the number of reports they have, due to the time taken up by 1-on-1s. And she has quite a bit of management experience. – rumtscho Jun 7 at 9:59
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Whatever you do, DON'T ROCK THE BOAT!

In my current workplace there's flex time and working from home. I've found these two perks to be the best perks to have ever received...

It's too late for your employer to change the rules to something that's more normal as it is in my situation: Core hours between 10 and 16, Flex time only allowed between 7:30 and 18:30, almost mandatory presence on Tuesday and Thursday.

If you introduce any changes now you'll lose your entire team's morale and respect. I know I'd hate my boss and everyone up the chain if they take this away!

Instead talk to the guys you directly manage and arrange for a regular meeting every X or every two weeks for them to come in at whenever you're in and meet you and brief you. Over here people regularly meet managers/subordinates only once a month.

As long as deadlines are meat and client is happy there really isn't that big of a problem, is there.

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1) 20 reports is too many. That's the first place to start. There is a concept popularized by Jeff Bezos of a Two-Pizza Team. 20 people is way bigger than two pizzas. So let's start there, you probably need some sort of hierarchy in your team to reduce the load on yourself.

2) The fact that you, the manager, have never spoken to your team lead, who is your most important subordinate, is somewhat worrying. It speaks to me that you have no idea what anyone under you is doing or working on, and all you seem to know is that whatever is happening, it's the right thing. That's fine, as long as nothing is going wrong, but if something goes wrong you have no idea what happened or why. That makes you a relatively impotent manager, as you would have to investigate any issues after the fact, which is the worst time to investigate anything. So your first priority should be to meet and talk to your team leader.

3) Just because your employees have a free schedule does not mean they cannot schedule meetings. Let them know you'd like to chat, by phone or Skype, or something else. They should be able to schedule a meeting with you during whatever they consider to be "work hours" for them. It might require you moving your work schedule as well for a period of time.

4) You should probably schedule a team meeting at some point, on a schedule that's amenable to your team, where you can all gather for 20-30 mins to chat about your work status. Failing that, ask your team to send you reports of what they're working on and their progress. Your team might push back that this is too much micromanagement, but without this level of insight you really don't have a team at all.

  • 1
    1) As I just said in an onther comment my direct reports are the 3 team leaders of each sub-team but I should manage the entire team of 20 people 2) You got the point 3) I tried and failed with one of the 3 team leaders 4) The part of the reports is very interesting and usefull – MrLost Jun 5 at 17:29
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    @MrLost My answer changes somewhat based on this information. Your "team", per se, are the 3 team leaders. They have teams under them of other people who they are responsible for. You are not responsible for those people, your team leaders are. Don't confuse your 2-steps-removed reports by making them think they have 2 bosses; you are not their boss, their team lead is their boss and you are the team lead's boss. You should take reports from the team leads on what their team is doing; you shouldn't engage directly with the team except in rare cases. – Ertai87 Jun 5 at 17:54
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    To take an extreme example, Jeff Bezos never talks directly with his developers on a one-to-one basis (source: I worked at Amazon). There are roughly 10 levels of hierarchy between Jeff and any given developer at Amazon. At each point, each developer has a boss, and those bosses have bosses, and so on, and eventually all the news gets to Jeff in a digestible form, where Jeff doesn't have to worry about the day-to-day transactions of each and every one of Amazon's 4-figure employees (might be 5 figures by now). You are in the same boat, on a smaller scale. – Ertai87 Jun 5 at 17:58
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    Re: 4) If you are asking for a regular report where the only benefit is that you now understand what's going on, then probably you're just adding overhead without adding value. Don't do that. (As an example, I had a scrum master once ask for a daily pre-Scrum status email for a team that only had two developers and one tester.........) – user3067860 Jun 5 at 20:46
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    @MrLost you are saying you have 1 team leader that you are not able to schedule a weekly 1:1 with? That is pretty strange. – hojusaram Jun 6 at 11:40
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The team consists of 3 sub-teams and communications usually take place via mailing lists or group chats.

This is your starting point; you have an existing workflow and hierarchy.

The suggestion of standup meetings by another poster is reasonable for most environments, but it may not yield results if your company isn't willing or able to enforce it.

You can and should lean on your sub-team leaders to give you the visibility you require. Ideally, you phrase your requests in a fashion that provides or implies a benefit to them.

E.g., Ask them to provide a summary of their team skill sets. You could bill it as an opportunity for professional development or contingency planning.

Basic questions: Which skills are important? Who has them? What areas might need more coverage/development?

Deeper questions: Can they foresee any circumstance/emergency where they might need additional skills? Which skills would they need? In a pinch, which workers/skills could be loaned to another team? Are there any gaps?

The benefit of this approach is that this is something that a good manager should be doing in the first place. You should have a plan on how to address foreseeable problems, and you should understand the professional goals of your subordinates. Helping them reach their goals is among the best retention methods.

In addition, you should ask to be included on all lists if you are not already. Be careful though: Don't jump in until you understand the work dynamic. Observe and learn. If your employees and customers are both happy, you should expect to remain hands-off---"if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

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Depending on which industry you're in, you can directly see the output of their work.

If it's a software company, simply look at everyone's git commits. You see what everyone has done clearly and immediately. If it's a construction site, you get down there and look at the actual building yourself with your own eyes. No matter what line of work you're in, there has to be some kind of tangible product, things you can see and touch.

What I don't like about daily standups and weekly meetings etc. is that a lot of it is just talk -- the manager talking, the employee talking -- in my opinion, that's not actual work. You want to know what everyone is working on, you must see and touch the real thing.

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    You'd look at the git commits of 20 different people? Isn't that a bit.. much? Using version control instead of the correct tools to manage a team seems like a terrible idea to me. – Rick van Osta Jun 6 at 9:45
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    I would be spending time using those tools anyway. Spending the same amount of time reading their git commits is very possibly more helpful and informational. – Double Vision Stout Fat Heavy Jun 6 at 10:04
  • Often the talk is the most important part of the software engineer's job. I don't care how much code a developer writes if they're solving the wrong problem, and only through talking with the clients and users will they learn what the right problem to solve is. – Erik Jun 6 at 13:54
  • I say this is partially relevant. Reviewing all code on a continual basis is not just time consuming but might not come across well. In a team of 20, you need to learn to trust the team and that they already review their code as a team. However, it is a way to get a initial gauge on the team and who is doing what. Further, if you ever have someone with a performance problem, nothing cuts to the chase better than reading their code. – Keith Jun 7 at 3:18
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It's awesome that the culture and the team are so smooth-running that stuff gets done, on-spec, on-time, without formal management. (Below are some 'best practices'.)

  • However now you've become their manager, you'll personally need to develop a minimal understanding of who does what/roles/competences/achievements, if only to manage them (with a light hand), do performance assessments, predict future hiring/training needs. One-on-ones and group meetings are useful - keep them brief and constructive, also don't do more than 50% of the talking, have them present or drive the discussion, otherwise they'll hate you :)
  • To your general question, you want to do some sort of "team-building" activities. Here are some best practices, especially if your people are remote, have unpredictable schedules and some are possibly introverted and don't get away from the keyboard much.
    • Team-building is (or should be) optional and there shouldn't be any penalty or ostracism for not participating. Having said that, you should be able to eventually brainstorm something that 50+% of them want to do.
    • Ask them to make a poll of which different activities/dates/times. Do they want a 30-min thing, watch a movie, play bocce, go kayaking or karting, an escape room, team problem-solving or treasure hunt, a one-day offsite picnic at a beach campsite, some volunteering activity, juggling lessons (or nothing at all)? Intentionally ask them to come up with the suggestions, not you - this is a great ice-breaker to reveal their personalities or interests, which is part of the process, and to get them engaged. Recommend when they have a poll, make it ranked-choice, so the voting cutoff is not 'harsh'. Find out from your management what a reasonable budget is and tell them, so if they decide to do something expensive, they may need to self-fund the difference.
    • Ask them to make it something everyone can participate in, keep in mind people's different interests and schedules (childcare). Remove yourself from that discussion.
    • There are plenty of corporate 'team-building'/training orgs that will make a custom activity, but IMO they're $$$ expensive and unnecessary. In fact, if your team come up with something creative, say three of them want to design a treasure hunt for the others to solve, then that in itself can be a useful ice-breaking mini-activity (set them a limit on time and budget).
    • Another option (and this works well if they're distributed and can't do something in same time or timezone, or schedules with family and kids) is a hackathon or visualization competition (over say an 8-72hr period). To gently motivate participation, have some prizes, invite a 'judge' from another dept or some external speaker/expert/academic/journalist/personality, whatever they will like. Or they can participate as several teams in some external hackathon/ competition; get funding to have a prize for the highest-placed teams from your org.
    • Finally have your boss/director/CXO send them a couple of emails weeks in advance "Dept X is having group activity on date for team-building and we strongly encourage you each to participate!", and so they can work it into their schedule.
    • And as follow-up, encourage them to take pictures and post them, and mention it in your weekly meeting and to other depts. Make it a friendly annual competition to be more cool than the other dept, put a photo-wall up in the break room or online.
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I can imagine it'd be uncomfortable to manage people you've never met. Especially when you're responsible for their performance.

Things are going great now, what happens when you have an employee that's underperforming? What happens there's a conflict between your employees? You need to rapport to correct that and it would be very difficult to do so without it.

I completely disagree with the let it be approach. You don't have to change the way they are working, but you are the manager, so you need to be working on improving their conditions and be ready when to intercept when needed.

You can't force people to be in the office at a certain hour, but can you take them out? Do all of you live in the same city? If so, you can make a team event (covered by the company), with food and some activity and invite all to come. People love free stuff and fun, and it will be a great time to get to know each other. If you don't live in the same city, you can still do a multi-day offsite, stay in an AirBnb/hotel, and do a weekly project (come up with something) of sorts so you'll also work together for the time being. I've done this and it's a great way to build rapport amongst the team, we were all willing to work together a lot of more after these events.

The other thing you can do is to create other sorts of channels to share stuff in an async manner. Like a channel to share something interesting you've found on the net, something funny, or photos of your pets. Things that you'd share on DMs with your friends. Slack is great at this because it's discoverable and the people can create their own channels with their interests. When everyone is working remotely with no personal contact, it is easy to forget that you're dealing with an actual person. These kinds of small things kinda act as a reminder, IMO.

For the rest, you should try to schedule 1:1s with your direct reports, if they can't come to the office, you can just do a video chat.

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