One of the hardest things I do as a manager is to oversee remote offices and employees. In addition to our headquarters in Bellevue, Washington, Zango has development offices in Montreal and Tel Aviv. We hadn't intended to open offices there, but took them on (and are glad we did) as a result of various acquisitions and mergers.
When we first acquired CDT in Montreal, I'll confess, I don't think I did a very good job managing the office. The only people I had been managing for the previous five years had been sitting outside my door, and I had developed some bad habits. I took for granted the trust we had built up over years of working together, and I was used to communicating in a sort of short-hand. Most of the developers here could complete my sentences, and we thought about (or at least argued about) architecture in very similar ways. We had the same philosophy about where to invest extra architectural efforts, and where to take short-cuts, and if we had different perspectives on a given issue, we trusted each other enough to not take the debate personally.
But those same techniques didn't transfer well to a newly acquired company in a remote office. Because they weren't right outside my door, I didn't talk to the folks in Montreal regularly, and it took longer to develop a sense of trust than it should have. I didn't pay close attention to what they were doing. I didn't make much of an effort to visit the office or establish strong relationships. Not surprisingly, we have had more turnover there than I wanted. Even so, the team there has worked very hard, they've done a great job, and have accomplished a great deal – but at least originally, it was probably more in spite of my management than because of it.
The good news is that I've got very good managers working for me. As it turns out, some of them are very experienced with remote management, and I've learned a lot by watching them. So when the time came for our merger with Hotbar a little over a year ago, I managed to avoid most of the same mistakes I made after the CDT acquisition. There's still been turnover: you can't avoid it in any sort of M&A situation. But we did things differently this time, and our Tel Aviv office got off to a smoother start than our Montreal office.
Still, there's no getting around it: managing remote teams takes a great deal of effort, and an abundance of patience. In my next post, I'll try to cover some of the specific things I've been doing lately to help our remote offices be a success.