Forget the 'future' of work — that future's already here. That doesn't mean we still don't have a lot to learn about working collectively and supporting each other in a hybrid world, though. Take it from HubSpot Engineering Lead Jakub Derda, who has years of experience leading distributed teams.
What is your role, what team are you on and how long have you been at HubSpot?
I’m an Engineering Lead for Privacy and Compliance teams in InfraSec and I joined HubSpot in January, 2017.
You've been working fully remote from Berlin for two years now. What best practices have you picked up to help you work efficiently across time zones?
First and foremost, it’s a team effort and needs some adjustments from everyone, not just yourself. The key to success has been getting as much done ‘asynchronously’ as possible.
- The team needs to get used to moving from direct discussion to an offline chat — either using Slack threads, GitHub issues, JIRA comments or just Google docs. That alone was the most important change we made to keep getting things done.
- Remove yourself from as much of the process as possible — make sure that your peers know where to find all the information they need without relying on you.
- Structure your day and have a ‘work time’, where you can focus and not jump between meetings.
Ultimately, we’re just humans, and everyone is different — try to first identify what decreases your productivity, and then work with your partner, team, and manager to solve it in a way that works for everyone involved.
Some people are struggling with jam-packed meetings during overlapping time zone periods, making it harder to get work done. What’s your advice for freeing up time?
Avoid meetings as much as possible. ;) Meetings are not that effective at reaching an agreement or getting actual work done. Engineers tend to be more introverted and prefer the written form with time to think over a discussion (Note — this is a generalization and does not apply to everyone! Make sure to ask your peers for their preferences and adjust accordingly).
Before you schedule a Zoom chat, think about whether you can achieve the same outcome by sending a public Slack message or asking people to comment on a shared document.
If a meeting is what you need/want to do, run it efficiently — there are many books that have been written on the subject, but a few of the basics are:
- Always include an agenda / list of topics you want to cover.
- Always set a goal for the meeting (eg. define when we can end the meeting).
- Be aggressive with cutting the meeting short — if you reach a conclusion after 15 minutes of scheduled 1 hour talk, finish the meeting sooner and give people back their time!
Also keep in mind that meetings are sometimes better than offline chat — just use good judgment and always think about alternatives.
What would you encourage folks to do so that they minimize the frustration felt by time zone response delays?
- Plan your work in a way that you are not blocked by someone taking their time to respond. For example, for technical tasks, lean toward multiple small PRs over one large one and split them in a way that you can work on other things while waiting for PRs.
- Also be explicit in your requests — if something is blocking you, explain it in the PR/issue so that whoever needs to reply knows how to prioritize the items to work on.
- On the other side of the situation, make it easier for others to rely on you — this mainly involves being predictable in what you do and delivering on what you promise in a timely manner.
- Always ask for feedback — people might be shy or not very direct in telling you if things do not work, and asking directly might tell you about something that would become a problem in future and allow you to fix it before it actually happens. Win-win!
When the pressure is on, how do you make sure you maintain good work/life balance while working with people across time zones?
I’m pretty strict about my working time — there is always something that I could ‘just finish’ today by staying the additional hour or two, but that's not sustainable in the long term.
With that in mind I've learned to be very assertive about having late meetings or staying late — there are of course emergencies and situations that require immediate attention, but the majority of them can wait another day and will benefit from me being rested and able to focus on the issue at hand. This of course requires that the ‘meetings-light’ communication in the team already works, and if it doesn’t, fixing it should be a priority.
What tools do you use to effectively collaborate? How do you ensure consensus and alignment is reached effectively?
There is no silver bullet here — just lean more into the tools that your team already uses. The key to success is that the tools should make your life easier, not harder — so instead of searching for the best tool out there, put this effort into making sure that people can utilize the full potential of the tool they are already using and are comfortable with.
As an EL you manage a distributed team, over multiple time zones. What resources would you recommend a EL/manager who's trying to reduce time zone friction look into?
Since your overlap time in such a situation is limited, effective communication and delegation are the key for any sort of progress to be made. Focus on being a gardener instead of a gatekeeper, and delegate more direct mentoring and oversight to others in the same location/time zone.
Working across time zones is, like many things, a learned skill — it’s ok to make mistakes and find your own way. Asking your team, peers, and managers for feedback is a great way to make sure you’re on the right track in every scenario, including this one.
There are hundreds of books and articles worth looking at, and they might appeal to different audiences. Personally, a few I would recommend are:
- Leading Snowflakes: A book on building and scaling engineering teams that applies to other types of roles as well.
- One Minute Manager series by Ken Blanchard: A nice handbook on empowering others that does not bloat the single paragraph message to 500+ pages ;)
- Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking: It’s not directly about work or GSD but (among other things) it talks about how everyone working individually can be just as effective as having a 'discussion,' and can lead to great results overall. The book also gives some hints on how to make the environment welcoming for such interactions (take it with a pinch of salt of course, as it focuses on the introverted side of people’s nature — if you work with 120% extraverts, it might be less relevant).
- Blog post from HubSpot VP of Engineering Kerry Munz about asking for feedback; a great resource for anyone in any position.
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