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Leading Product Teams Remotely

Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

I was quite skeptical when I was asked whether a product manager can be efficient working remotely full time. However, COVID-19 meant most organizations had to adapt to working in an environment when offline interactions were no longer feasible (at least for some time). Having been working from home (WFH) for 1.5 months and with a minimum of a few months to go, I want to share some of my learnings as a product lead coordinating two distributed teams.

1. Lead the adaptation for a new routine by setting guidelines that help

One of my most important learnings during the transition to working from home was that processes and routines had to change. And it was my role to work out, together with the team, a set of new guidelines on everything from “office” hours, to new ways of holding regular meetings, to efficient communication channels.

Tips: Align your team’s processes with the company’s approach to remote working. Make sure team members agree on suggested guidelines, write them down, and share them across the team.

2. Provide your team members with necessary tools to sustain their productivity

From the early days of working from home, I made sure my team had all the instruments to continue to be happy and productive as much as possible in the new circumstances. I held one-to-one meetings with each team member to discuss how the company and I can help them accommodate.

Tips: If your colleague needs a better chair or a bigger screen, let them borrow from the office (via contactless delivery). If your team member struggles to keep track of tasks, advise on a project-tracker app. If the team suggests a video conferencing software is not working up to standards, offer to change it. Be as reasonable as possible; due to budget and other constraints, not all requests can be accommodated, but be open to help, and offer solutions when possible.

3. Introduce a communication strategy that works for your team

To develop our communication strategy, we first discussed what communication channels the team would rely on a day-to-day basis. In our case, we use Slack across the company, Telegram for one-to-one or urgent communication, Google Hangouts for team calls, and emails for external communication.

Second, I have introduced more frequent sharing updates on company strategy to increase the team’s alignment. Once a week, we hold an all-hands meeting for my team to communicate progress and news, and answer questions.

I also do my best to stay available for my team, whether they need to have a one-to-one call, have some urgent issues to discuss or just want to chat.

Tips: If your team is new to working from home, they might be overwhelmed with the increased amount of information flowing from various communication channels and the frequency of Zoom calls. In that case, it is crucial to set specific guidelines (see point 1) as to when, how and how often meetings are to be held, and stick to these rules as a team.

Be very transparent about literally everything happening in the company — new strategic initiatives, change-of-office routines or professional achievements of employees. It is better to over-communicate (in a non-intrusive way) than to leave your team in the dark and, consequently, more stressed.

Last but not least, and possibly the most tricky one, is to maintain balance and keep communication levels appropriate but not overwhelming. Try to introduce days with no meetings, and rely on written communication for non-urgent topics.

4. Set time for sustaining interpersonal relations

As the excitement of the first weeks of WFH faded, the most common feedback I heard from my team was that they missed personal interactions that brought some change in their daily routines prior to the quarantine. Mutual support and casual office chitchat became even more important to maintain motivation.

From my side, during our daily stand-ups, I introduced 5 minutes of small-talk time, when the team checks on how everybody is doing and shares personal stories of “survival” during the lockdown. We spent some time on Friday chatting about weekend plans and reflecting on the past week. Additionally, our HR team encouraged all employees to post on Slack about home routines, hobbies, families, etc. — all the topics we used to discuss in the office kitchen.

Tips: Find ways to keep your distributed team connected with each other. Book dedicated time for office banter, discussions and celebrations. Be flexible, as not everybody enjoys Zoom parties, while meaningful connections can also be sustained by sharing daily routines.

5. Balance flexibility with control

This one was very challenging for me, personally. Working in the office I spent less time tracking my team’s progress. On a day-to-day basis I kept up to speed with my team, and I could spot any stumbling blocks they had and offer my help when necessary.

However, while managing distributed teams from my home office at the very beginning I lost my own sense of control and ownership over my teams’ projects. First, that feeling made me think I needed more status meetings with my teams and more rigid control over their goals. Having tried to increase the control level, though, I realized it not only required a lot of my time that could be better spent on strategy and team alignment, but it also demotivated my team.

Hence, I adjusted my approach to balance between being constantly in touch with my team over its progress, and providing all the tools, information and vision for them to continue delivering their projects.

Tips: I am still finding ways to become a more efficient manager and a better leader for my team. Perhaps you can share some advice on how you balance tracking your team’s progress vs. giving it freedom to implement its roadmap.

As with many new things, novel routines might trigger a mix of stress and excitement. Working from home certainly can be stressful both for individuals struggling to accommodate their personal and professional lives in one house, and teams hoping to continue shipping new products and deliver expected outcomes while overcoming possible friction created by distance. While leading distributed teams, one of my first goals was to decrease anxiety and showcase that remote working can be efficient. Also, I tried to bring a bit more excitement to the situation and encouraged people to learn. What is most surprising I started to enjoy the new routine myself.

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