Remote Working for Product Teams

The building, nurturing and scaling of distributed teams

Photo by Filip Gielda on Unsplash

Today it’s rare to find a company that doesn’t have some part of the team that isn’t distributed. Smaller teams may still choose to have a permanent office, but the larger an organization gets the harder it is to recruit and support all their teams in a single location.

Whatever the reason for working remote, distributed teams can be both a blessing and a curse.

In my research of high-performance teams, I’ve observed that almost all design and product teams often have a combination of co-located and remote workers. Some teams sometimes forgo this option completely and ditch the office completely. And, more frequently companies are created from inception with the intention to remain distributed for the life of the business.

Why Distributed Teams Is An Essential Conversation

Why should this distribution of work matter to designers? For one, creative work is a team sport. The lone designer or engineer is as much a work of fiction as it is impractical. Furthermore, the science of interpersonal communications suggests that when teams aren’t working face to face, communication changes. Facial expressions, emotions and subtle body language communicates a significant amount of information. These cues are not just important to the internal team communications but can be essential to any team that cares deeply about these subtle cues in understanding their users.

That’s not to say only in-person communication can produce positive communication, but it does suggest that in distributed teams, face-to-face communication can’t be relied on to provide the necessary feedback loops.

According to a 2017 Gallup study, 43% of Americans report spending at least some time working remotely.

That’s a 4% increase since 2012. As remote working numbers increase, the demand for coworking spaces has skyrocketed. In February 2018, WeWork welcomed its 200,000th member, compared to 130,000 members in May 2017, representing 54% membership growth in just 9 months. What’s more, is that 24% of WeWork’s clients are enterprises. This is up from 14% from early 2017. Distributed workforces are now the big thing with big business. These trends run counter to the stereotypical distributed worker being a lonely freelancer in a coffee shop or a startup crew in the basement.

The increase in working from home might also be connected to workers pushing back against the modern open-plan office.

The British Psychological Society reports that it’s now well-established that most workers don’t like open-plan offices in spite of the claim that they increase interactions between co-workers. In the Gallup survey mentioned earlier, workers who spent 60 percent to 80 percent of their time away from the office had the highest rates of engagement. Time in an open-plan office doesn’t seem to improve relationships between team members. “In spite of the additional time away from managers and co-workers, they are the most likely of all employees to strongly agree that someone at work cares about them as a person, encourages their development and has talked to them about their progress,” Gallup reported.

Remote Product Creation is Unavoidable

While companies like Invision, Automattic, and Atlassian were founded with distributed teams in mind, many companies are forced to adopt remote working. Recently Liberty Mutual announced it is asking 640 of its workers to find alternatives to coming into their offices. The insurance company is closing down 300,000 sq ft of office space in Boston and telling hundreds of workers to work from home. John Hancock and PricewaterhouseCoopers have shrunk their office footprint in recent years, in some cases taking away employees’ permanent desks and putting greater emphasis on common working areas.

InVision has 800 employees and no office (Source: Business Insider)

Cost savings may be part of the appeal but with human capital being a core competency of the modern company, acquisition of this talent is now the primary driver of remote working. Companies find that acquiring or retaining design talent requires them to search further afield than the geography served by their office location(s). It might seem that this would be mostly true of organizations located in smaller metro cities with small talent pools but surprisingly, many of the larger companies with locations in large cities had a similar challenge.

Talent acquisition is a two-sided coin. As the companies search for ideal talent, the talent simultaneously searches for the ideal job.

Those ideal jobs are increasingly not in large metro areas. High rents, mind-numbing traffic, and competition for positions are driving workers to ex-urban and smaller cities. This migration is most prevalent in the already overcrowded cities of San Francisco, Austin, Boston, and New York, but is being felt everywhere. 44% of all job seekers located in San Francisco or San Jose are looking outside those metro areas for jobs. A massive 67% jump since 2012.

When I visited the Farfetch offices in Lisbon this year, Luis Trinidade, the Principal Product Lead at the company, noted that it’s been easier to recruit and hire talent in secondary cities like Braga and Porto than in Portugal’s capital Lisbon. This sentiment is shared by other design leaders. “About a year ago, I made peace with my business partner’s decision to hire a new team member without having ever met the candidate in person” Says Craig Bryant, co-founder of We Are Mammoth, a Chicago based design firm, “[my partner’s] reasoning was that ninety-nine percent of our work interactions are done remotely so, for some positions, it was more important to hire based on the remote version of the person than the in-person version.”

Bryant admits that as the CEO of a distributed company, he has taken a very long time to get used to working remotely. “It’s still a strange notion for me. I’m one of five team members who still live in Chicago and I never moved away from our headquarters, so I’m one of the last people to have fully transitioned to our distributed work culture.”

The Talent War Is Now More Of A Talent Discovery Expedition

In the last year, I’ve interviewed design leaders from a wide range of companies such as Deloitte Digital, Pivotal Labs, USAA, AARP and IBM. All of these companies point to the acquisition and retention of design talent as a critical consideration in choosing distributed models of working.

The New York Times reports that 60% of Americans working remotely do so for less than half of their working hours. This implys the other half is done somewhere else. So where are remote workers working?

These days it’s difficult to say where that somewhere else might be — the library, a coffee shop, or a coworking space? While Oldenburg’s “third place” is undeniably the space occupied by the modern coffee house, the fast growth in coworking spaces suggests workers are looking for something a little more formal than a coffee shop. My experience running several distributed businesses is that the location choices for each remote worker are both highly personal and transitory.

One of my designers might find a coffee shop to be a satisfactory place to work, while another team member doing the same work will find the ambient activity distracting. Similarly, for heads-down pixel pushing or code writing almost any quiet location will suffice. In contrast, meetings with co-workers, clients, or users require a variety of environments that can accommodate in-person interaction.

Practical Ways To Make Remote Working Work

Product design teams deliver value by collaborating to solve problems. This problem solving is generally limited by the communication culture and the communication channels adopted by the team or their organization. Culture and channels are intertwined with each other and can influence the ability of a team to collaborate effectively. Innovative company culture cannot exist in an organization where channels are bureaucratic or even non-existent. For the remote team, these considerations are the bedrock for collaborative communication.

Remote Culture As Strategy

Culture is the foundation for any team success so it’s important for design leaders to craft the psychological space inside which work happens. Distributed teams require a strong culture to align their activities with. In the absence of the subtle in-office cues, remote teams rely on these cultural guidelines. This guideline crafting does not translate to rulemaking.

Remote teams do better when they have a clear vision but the autonomy to implement it in their own way. Leaders would do best to set value-based boundaries and let the culture blossom inside that space. Linking executive vision with practical work is essential. A high-level mission aligns the company with a purpose, but individual product teams do better when they decide their team-level vision and values. Because the teams are curating them, there is a greater sense of ownership and accountability. This accountability, which lives at the team level, also gets enforced and encouraged at this level.

Remote teams with routines and rituals generate consistently positive outcomes. All team leaders need to constantly be nurturing old or opening new channels for remote teams to share and collaborate. As discussed, part of this will be the culture that is either encouraged or discouraged. The other part is the logistics and scheduling of interactions. I’ve observed it can be helpful to commit to daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and even an annual schedule of communication activities. This schedule can take the form of daily standups, weekly demo sessions, monthly town hall meetings, annual in-person retreats or all-hands summits. These standing meetings signal to team members that communication is a priority.

Leaving communication to chance sends the opposite signal. However, you choose to build channels, make it a part of the organization’s calendar.

Ritualizing these gatherings and meetings are essential. By letting the teams name the meetings (instead of universal decrees of nomenclature), adding fun elements, and personalizing the elements of the meetings, a team will have greater personal ownership and more authority over their calendars.

Remote Teams Require Different Tools and Techniques

Going remote will require the adoption of new tools and new behaviors. Channels for communications are also a function of available technology. Fortunately, the tech tools to share, talk and collaborate keep getting better.

Remote working means adopting remote tech tools. Synchronizing design conversations has previously required expensive hardware and bandwidth, but that’s changing very fast. Email is an inherently poor channel for anything other than general announcements. Notably, the ability to sketch fluidly while remote is of high value for collaborative product teams. “The feeling of working on the same whiteboard screen brings back 90% the effectiveness and makes you feel like you’re in the same room.” Says Geordie Kaytes, veteran UX strategist and UI designer, “Pen tablet, iPad, or otherwise. Keep communication visual!” Depending on the fidelity of the work being shared, InVision’s Freehand and Google Drawings are great for this purpose too.

The more visual the tool, the more likely it is going to be appreciated and engaged with. I personally use Google Slides when sharing high-level ideas. I’ve noticed that a very short (1 or 2 page) presentation of diagrams and visual explanations will be a good what to start a conversation and get the team’s curiosity peaked. It’s worth noting here is that it’s significantly more likely to get engagement if you gather the team for a quick video conference where you can present your ideas than if you just email over the link to your work and hope they drop everything to read it.

Remote teams still need to see each other regularly. Video can be a useful substitute for in-person exchanges. Not just video conferencing, which is two-way and ubiquitous, but also videos combining visual explanations, drawings, and live flows. These can be generated quickly and inexpensively using screen capture tech like Chrome plugin — Viewedit. My partner and Head of Experience at Fresh Tilled Soil, Alex Fedorov, make it a habit to send a short video when sharing new designs. “I record a walk-through of the design work, explaining my thinking and pointing out things I’d like the recipient to provide feedback on,” says Fedorov. “My goal is to capture the dynamic elements of the UI design, thereby adding a UX quality to what the other person is looking at.”

One of my personal favorites is to record my video and voice meetings. Using either the plugins in Zoom or an app like Rev, I’ll capture the call and then send it to Rev’s transcription service. By sharing the audio, video, and transcription of the call with the other participants I can be sure we’re all on the same page. I almost always record client interviews, with their permission of course. This added clarity and attention to detail also signals a professional attitude, which becomes the standard for the team or client interactions.

Making Remote Work A Positive Part Of Work

Remote or distributed work can feel like an obstacle to successful communication, and in some cases it is. But there is also an opportunity to use remote work as the impetus behind improving culture and opening new channels.

When everyone is in the office together the assumption is that everyone is communicating. That’s a dangerous assumption.

As the aforementioned British Psychological Society paper points out, sharing an office doesn’t mean people are taking advantage of those in-person environments. In fact, some office layouts reduce communication between team members. Designing a culture that supports distributed workers isn’t simple, but attention to these things highlights potential weaknesses and invites innovation to solve these problems. For the product leader and their team, the shifting landscape of work means new problems to solve. I’m particularly excited by these opportunities. After all, designing improved user experiences is what we do.