13 tips for product leaders on distributed teams

With modern web technologies, it’s easier than ever to collaborate with others from all around the world. This offers some great advantages. You can find the best people for the job, no matter where they live. You can reduce the cost of hiring talent by hiring in places with a lower cost of living. You can open offices closer to your customers, and provide support around the clock. In many cases, companies that wouldn’t even have been able to get off the ground in years past can now thrive, thanks to globally distributed teams.

But there is one big disadvantage: organizations thrive on good communication. With distributed teams, communication becomes much harder. If you hire a contractor for a temporary project, you might encounter minor issues like misunderstandings about specs, but if your core team is distributed, there is much more at stake. It’s hard enough to build a company with great culture. It’s doubly hard on a distributed team. Fail to bridge the inevitable gaps of a distributed organization and you might ruin your prospects for building a truly great company.

I’ve spent the past six years working on distributed teams between San Francisco and Central Europe — first as a product leader working with remote UX, engineering and technical product management at GoodData, and now working with a (great!) remote team in Prague, Czech Republic, while founding productboard. Over the years, I’ve often been asked for tips on running a company that relies on distributed teams. Even Silicon Valley VCs agree this is an important area for startups to master as competition for local talent stiffens. I write this post in hopes of sharing some tips from my experience. But first, it’s important to understand the challenges distributed teams are up against.

Top challenges

Challenge 1: No in-person interaction

With remote colleagues, you can’t just stop by someone’s desk, have a water cooler conversation, or judge by body language that it might be not the best time to interrupt someone. Likewise, during meetings you might not be able to read emotions, feel the energy in the room, or pick up on clues from beyond the scope of your colleague’s webcam. Communicating effectively and developing authentic relationships with other humans becomes far harder.

Challenge 2: Time zone mismatch

When your team is distributed across multiple time zones things are further complicated. It can be difficult to find time overlaps for productive meetings, especially if your team is many time zones away. There’s a psychological aspect here as well. Our attitude and mood change throughout the day. We tend to be more alert and vigilant in the morning and more mellow, thoughtful and emotional in the evening. (Those of you who have had long-distance relationships will know how weird it feels to have pillow talk with your better half when your clock shows 7am, you are late for work, and they see 10pm.)

Challenge 3: Different roles, different mindsets

People think differently. Remember the oft-cited differences between left brain vs. right brain thinkers? Some people are more analytical and data oriented, while others are more artistic and driven by feelings and emotions. Engineers are often on the analytical side of the spectrum, while designers, marketers, and salespeople are often more on the creative side. I mention this difference here because the lines between distributed teams are rarely drawn arbitrarily. The most common setup is for R&D to be remote from the business team. In such situations, the geographical gap gets multiplied by this “specialization gap” due to separated team members’ distinct ways of thinking.

Challenge 4: People come from different cultures

This gap might be the most difficult one to bridge. Cultures can differ dramatically. Different values, different communication styles, different work ethics, and different context can all impact collaboration in subtle ways but with substantial repercussions. Topics completely natural from an American’s perspective, like professional sports, pop culture, or an implicit bias towards individualism over collectivism might fall on completely deaf ears elsewhere. Different norms also apply for communication between people of different age, sexual orientation, and professional seniority. For example, some asian cultures are much less individualistic and much more respectful to formal authority figures. If you’re the boss, it could be nearly impossible to get such a colleague to disagree with you, even if your ideas are completely nuts. Another great example of differences can be found in post-communist countries. Given some unfortunate elements of their history, there’s a strong aversion to any kind of “propaganda”, even the kinds you’d consider completely positive, like internally marketing your company’s values. In these cases, it’s important to be extra careful in the way you communicate ideas and spend extra effort seeking bottom-up support for your initiatives.

Challenge 5: Not everyone is a native speaker

If a part of your team consists of non-native english speakers, chances are people will be shy to speak up. It’s said that Americans vastly overestimate their foreign language abilities whereas others vastly underestimate them. If someone’s English is not perfect, they may hold back unless there is a culture of trust where everyone can speak up freely, without feeling embarrassed over making mistakes. Grammar mistakes don’t cost anything but lack of communication over a set of designs might cost you your pants.

Even if your native tongue is English, that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook when it comes to carefully considering the language you use. Some common English expressions are perfectly correct, but still make non-Americans cringe. For example, Americans seem to use the word “great” in every other sentence, but you can’t translate “great” into any other language without sounding excessively hyped and somewhat derailed. To avoid miscommunication, Americans would benefit by taking everything down a notch on the emotional scale. (Start by converting every instance of ‘great’ to ‘good’.)

Now that we understand the greatest challenges of working with distributed teams, let me share a few tips I’ve learned over the years — sometimes the hard way.

Tips

  1. Reject “us vs. them” — There’s a flipside to the positive human tendency of forming communities. They’re often easiest to define by specifying who’s not a part of them. Picking up an “us vs. them” mentality while bonding with peers may seem harmless enough. It might feel good to make generalizations like “yeah, you know how the engineers are…” or “those marketers are just from a different planet…”, but statements like this form deep divisions between teams that must cooperate to succeed. It is your role, especially if you are a senior leader, to align and unite people behind a common vision. Focus on creating an atmosphere of passion and excitement around solving the big problem you are all working on. This is the vision that justifies the very existence of your company. Walk the talk, be consistent, be genuine, and people will follow.
  2. If your engineers look down at business folks, it’s your fault — This might sound a bit extreme, but being a product manager means that you have one foot in both worlds: business and engineering. I’ve seen many engineering teams who think their work is the hard sh*t and marketing is just the bullsh*t. It is your role, especially if you are a senior leader, to communicate the importance and complexity of each function to the other. Create transparency around tasks and deliverables of each team. It might seem irrelevant to show your messaging and positioning documents to engineering or to show complex technology architecture to your sales people, but trust me, people learn to appreciate the challenges of the different roles when you surface the complexity. Animosity among colleagues usually stems from a general lack of understanding. Let members of each team shine and teams will show each other more support and respect.
  3. Have people meet in person as much as possible — Rotate people between your different locations as often as you can. Have all teams meet in one location for retreats, rallies, and quarterly/annual meetings. Let them get to know each other outside of work. Let them bond and create friendships. Just think of all the misunderstandings between PM, UX, and engineering caused by someone being too shy to reach out for clarification to someone they don’t know. If people have met in person, even once, this barrier begins to disappear.
  4. When remote, get people to actually see each other’s face — During conference calls, get people to use their camera so that everyone can see each other’s face. Some people might feel uneasy about this, but this can easily be overcome after just a few calls. Consider that when you communicate your attitudes and feelings, words account for 7% of how much your listener likes you; meanwhile tone of voice accounts for 38% and body language accounts for 55% (source). Being able to read facial expressions of your remote colleagues is invaluable for communication. So turn on the cameras! 😃 🎥
  5. Be creative in connecting people — Create opportunities for people to connect outside of typical business video conference calls. Get creative. Typically remote team members meet in business meetings. What about organizing a team breakfast in one location and connecting another office for an afternoon coffee? We did that at GoodData and people talked about weather, their lives, families, and what was in the news. It was just a fun, informal chat that broke the ice and lowered barriers to daily communication. Now at productboard I’m trying something new: I have an iPad on my desk in San Francisco and a permanent FaceTime video bridge to another iPad in our Prague office. Anyone in Prague can just walk to the iPad hanging on the wall and ask me anything, just like if they walked up to my desk in the same office. They can also take the iPad into a meeting room and a have a regular business meeting with me.
  6. Put everyone in front of your customers — Remote development teams tend to suffer from low exposure to the market and to customers. Put energy into inviting your engineers to participate on customer calls. They can start by just listening in. Later when they learn the ropes of conducting customer interviews, they can actively participate as well. Keep all your research easily accessible for everyone to tap into. We think productboard is the best solution for this job, but some have developed makeshift solutions using google docs or wikis. The biggest untapped innovation opportunity are our engineering teams. They are the problem solvers who, if they understand a problem well, can come up with amazing solutions. So give them a chance to really immerse themselves in customers’ problems!
  7. Have some people from each team in each location — Avoid building the whole engineering team remotely. By having at least a small number of engineers in the same location with business people you can significantly eliminate the specialization gap. Meanwhile, developers can talk to each other across geographies, with those closer to the frontlines of business helping their colleagues understand business developments and priorities. This is how Zendesk has done it, starting their engineering team in Denmark and then expanding to the US.
  8. Create multidisciplinary teams in one location — My point above assumes the prevalent organizational setup with siloed functions — engineering, design, product marketing, product management. However a better structure is to organize your teams around the key needs/goals/jobs-to-be-done of your customers and co-locate engineers, designers, product managers and marketers who work on the same team. You will still need to bridge the gaps among the teams, but you won’t need to bridge the gap between the different roles of people. Check out an amazing two part video on how Spotify is organized here.
  9. Communicate asynchronously — Use Slack (or your own favorite asynchronous communication tool). If there is one advantage to distributed teams it’s that they eliminate in-person interruptions. We now know that multitasking is a myth and that we lose up to 40% of our productivity when switching context. Slack is a great form of communication for ensuring neither side is interrupted in their work. Of course this assumes that you are disciplined and won’t respond to every Slack message right away, disturbing your flow… (But if something is really urgent, pick up the phone, or use your favorite escalation procedure.)
  10. Over-communicate — It can’t be said enough: you need to over-communicate. Share what people are working on, even if it is not directly linked to the tasks they own. At productboard I’m transparent with everyone about what’s going on in every part of our company, from legal, to accounting, to fundraising, to detailing prospect and customer conversations. Of course it helps that all our feedback is accessible to everyone in our internal productboard project, but it’s also important to single out key learnings. I do that on our regular weekly all-hands calls, or even during our more frequent sync calls if it is time sensitive. It fosters team spirit, it involves people, and it shows you care about and trust your team.
  11. Don’t assume people will speak up, ask them — A friend of mine who’s worked with distributed teams for over 30 years gave me this advice: some people naturally communicate well, some are more guarded; consider these differences when doing status check-ins. At the very least, make sure that everyone (including yourself) gets acquainted to answering three simple questions every day: 1) What have you accomplished today? 2) What is your priority for tomorrow? 3) Is there anything blocking you? That’s it.
  12. Set expectations upfront — If you need your remote team working late to have a bigger overlap, or different shifts due to continuity of devops support, be clear about that from the very beginning. This is especially important during the transition from a pre-customer/pre-revenue idea phase (where the team is just focused on customer discovery and validation) to a real business with paying customers (and accountability!). Once everything is in full swing, processes, contingency plans, and escalation procedures need to be put in place. All of this will likely impact working hours of your remote teams. Communicate this early so that it doesn’t come as a surprise.
  13. Have an insider on your leadership team — When working with remote teams from different cultures, make sure to have an insider on your leadership team who can help to bridge the cultural gap. This “cultural bridge” should be able to understand the context of both cultures and languages, and can mentor colleagues on both side when it comes to improving communication.

Great leadership is hard even with completely homogeneous, collocated teams, but it’s an order of magnitude harder on teams distributed across geographies, languages, time zones, and cultures. Once your organization’s culture sours, there’s no easy way to correct it. Some companies hire specialists to come in and roll out new culture-building initiatives across multiple offices in different locations, but unless such initiatives are highly sensitive to local differences, they are bound to fail.

Just as you need to customize go-to-market strategies for different markets, or design different features for different personas, you must carefully differentiate when it comes to devising company cultures and communication strategies for employees in different locations. By approaching distributed teams with care and considering the tips above along the way, you’re far more likely to reap the benefits that can come from teams divided across geographies and make something truly great.

What do you think? Any tips of your own you’d like to share?