With the rise of remote working, many businesses are navigating entirely new opportunities and challenges. Commit’s Sarah Marion sat down with Katie Wilde, VP of Engineering at Buffer (both organizations are remote-first) to talk about how to have hard conversations, build resilient teams, and promote positivity as a remote-first organization. This is the third post in a series about their conversation. See the first post here, the second post here, and the fourth post here.
On encouraging the social side of working relationships
Sarah: Something that can be challenging, especially for introverts in a remote environment, is building relationships. It can feel forced to put a biweekly coffee chat on someone’s calendar. How do you encourage your team to build the social side of working relationships?
Katie: It’s true that for some people coffee chats can feel forced, while for others they don’t. What’s the difference? It could all come down to culture and how people establish trust.
For example, in the UK and the United States they have task-based trust cultures, which basically means: ‘I respect your work, we collaborate together, I think you do a good job. Therefore, I trust you as a human.’ In other places like India and China they have relationship-based trust cultures, which depend more on whether we know each other as people, whether we’ve chit-chatted and so on.
Some of your coworkers are task-based trust people: they’ll trust you if you show up and do your job, and that’s really all they want you to do. Other people are relationship-based and those people will want coffee chats. That’s one way to think about it: how does someone build trust, and are casual social situations like coffee chats something they actually do (or don’t) care about?
We have found that video game sessions are great for this. Our Slack will light up when people play Among Us, a multiplayer party game that has gotten popular in recent years. We also try to start every meeting with a bit of chit-chat, usually by getting everyone to do a colour check in. ‘Green’ if you’re feeling great, ‘yellow’ in the middle, and ‘red’ means really terrible. It’s optional, but it gives you an opportunity to briefly express how you feel and why.
I might say I’m feeling red today because my stupid cat walked over me all night and I couldn’t sleep, then there’ll be a bit of chatting about cats. This morning I led a stand up for a team, and it’s the super flower blood moon, so we talked about moon facts for a few minutes. Google has done research showing that chatting in this way can increase feelings of psychological safety and belonging.
So you don’t have to schedule a whole thirty minute coffee chat to get the benefits. Even just a few minutes of casual chatting can go a long way.
Sarah: Speaking of building relationships and trust—Commit engineers often end up becoming one of the first technical hires at a startup. Do you have any advice about how to build trust when you’re in that situation and no one quite understands the specifics of what you do?
Katie: I do think that’s a difficult situation, especially if, like many engineers, you’re already overwhelmed by the tasks involved in the role. As in, ‘Here’s everything you need to do, there’s a massive backlog, and we’ve never had an engineer before—good luck.’ It’s a tricky position to be in, for sure. But it’s also important to acknowledge that you have a huge amount of influence when you’re in that kind of role.
So without knowing too much about the specific situation, the advice I’d give would be to try to leverage that knowledge to get yourself on the problem-solving side of the equation, perhaps by suggesting solutions or features your team might not have considered before.
This can be especially effective if you find something that’s not particularly difficult or time consuming to execute, maybe a solution or a feature you can hack together with a no-code solution. Making yourself immediately valuable to the team in this way and proactively offering solutions can be a great way to quickly build trust with them. Plus it helps you avoid falling into a ‘glorified contractor’ role, where you’re constantly executing someone else’s ideas.
I’d also suggest that you give yourself a bit of time to shape your team’s perceptions about what exactly the role of a technical employee is. Sometimes with primarily technical roles, there’s a lot of pressure to be head down and coding literally all the time. But if that’s the case, when are you supposed to contribute to the important discussions the rest of the team is having?
I’ve found that teams tend to appreciate it when technical employees show curiosity in the business side and make an effort to learn more about the user, perhaps by joining a user call or asking insightful questions about strategy. Give yourself permission and time to do those things.
Finally, I think the most important thing is to put effort into building a community, which is something that everyone at Commit is already doing. Put time and energy into building a peer support network for yourself, because tackling challenges alone is objectively difficult. Find yourself some like-minded people who understand your work, are familiar with the challenges you’re up against, and can serve as a sounding board for specific challenges.
Katie Wilde is the VP of engineering at Buffer. She’s the co-author of “Atomic Migration Strategy for Web Teams,” and her writing has also appeared in The Next Web, Inc Magazine and Fast Company.
Sarah Marion leads Startup Partnerships at Commit. She’s spent her career collaborating with early stage founders as they solve valuable problems.