I’ve been working with distributed teams for nearly 15 years, but my most challenging setup was in 2012. At the time I was in NYC working for a local tabloid with a massive online audience. But the people I worked most closely with were based in France, Sweden, India, and the West Coast of the US. Each group had its own time zone, ways of working, platform nuances and limitations, collaboration tools and styles, and comfort with English. In spite of these challenges, we were able to build 4 great mobile products and create lasting professional relationships — remotely.
Everyone has a different view of what a product manager does. But as I see it, PMs have 3 core functions:
- Keep the team unblocked
- Support and facilitate the flow of information
- Promote a culture of continuous improvement
Conditions for distributed teams have drastically improved since 2012. Tools like Slack, JIRA, GDrive, and many more, have streamlined how technical and non-technical team members work together to build products. In addition, it’s become increasingly acceptable (perhaps even mainstream, -gasp-) for team members to work remotely. Even so, I’ve found employers have been less willing to allow PMs to work remotely.
In a context where co-location should no longer be a requirement, how can product managers demonstrate that remote product management works?
What employers don’t realize is that well-led remote product teams are more productive. These are the strategies I employ when all (or at least some) of my team is remote:
- Make a social contract
- Set ways of working
- Quick decisions are better than no decisions
- Don’t forget to celebrate
Make a social contract.
Having a team working agreement helps to set expectations and ensures the team members are committed to each other. It also (hopefully) prevents miscommunication, frustration, and bloodshed. During project kickoff I like to use a team canvas to run an interactive brainstorming session. Even without brightly colored post-its and markers, I promise you can run a lively and effective workshop online. My personal favorite is Confluence’s collaborative editing feature combined with Hangouts.
I’ve worked alongside a number of PMs who get it wrong with their teams. They attempt to motivate by pushing deadlines and doling out tasks — but this approach doesn’t work. Instead, help the team establish and live shared values. When they commit to each other (rather than to deadlines or features), they’re much more likely to hit their milestones and achieve their goals.
Set ways of working.
Start by agreeing on the basics:
- When you’re going to work (main time zone, working hours, ‘on call’ times)
- How you’re going to work (tools, frameworks, ceremonies)
- Process for escalation when something goes wrong
Don’t worry about rigidly adhering to scrum, kanban, agile, etc. Find a way of working that suits your team’s specific context. Lean on your tools as much as possible.
- Slack for chatting (make sure to install Giphy!)
- JIRA or Asana for ticketing
- Confluence for wiki / documentation
- Hangouts (now Meet) for voice and video calls
- Zeplin for design-dev collaboration
- InVision for prototyping
- Scatterspoke for retros
- GDrive for file sharing
The first sprint with a new team is like the first pancake (i.e. a bit of a throwaway). If your ways of working aren’t working, use the retro to call out what went well and what needs improvement. Continue to refine and add until everyone is smashing tickets and doing their best work. I’ve found that it takes 1–2 sprints to figure out how to best work together.
Over-communicate information. When in doubt, communicate more. Depending on the team, it may be helpful to include the same info via different tools, as team members may check one more than the others.
I have a channel in Slack specifically for #announcements. Once we’ve finished a particular discussion, I re-post a summary in the channel (as well as in Confluence or JIRA when appropriate). This (hopefully) ensures that everyone sees the info.
Communicate visually as well. Just because you’re not sitting next to a whiteboard doesn’t mean you can’t draw together. Draw stuff, snap a pic, and send to team members. Use tools like draw.io for digitizing sketches. Use tools for screen sharing, screen recording, and annotating screenshots. I like the Chrome plugin Awesome Screenshot.
Quick decisions are better than no decisions.
The best way to keep the team unblocked is to make speedy decisions. This may be controversial, but I believe that a decision is better than no decision. Use the information you have at the time to make the best decision you can. Sure, you’re going to get it wrong occasionally and have to refactor, but keeping the team moving forward is a PM’s top priority.
Once a decision is made, document it. (Remember that tip about over-communicating?!) Post the what and why of the decision in Slack, Confluence, relevant JIRA tickets, etc. Ensure the whole team is across what was decided both in the moment and as reference in the future.
Don’t forget to celebrate.
When you sit next to your team members, social interactions happen organically throughout the day, week, and project. It’s easy to remember to say ‘good morning’ to the team member sitting next to you or to organize team lunches or Friday beers. When your team is remote, it’s even more important to consciously create opportunities for personal, micro interactions and celebrate the small wins.
Here are some of the ways we celebrate on my current projects:
- Call out the first deployment of working code
- Ask about someone’s day while waiting for the others to join Hangouts
- Pause the discussion to call out the team’s 100th PR
- Send a GIPHY to the #general channel when it’s time for the weekend
- Ping team members individually on Slack to check in
- Give a shout out for help with a tough ticket
- Cheers when all of the tickets in the sprint are closed out
- Add emoji reactions to show you agree (or disagree) with what’s been said
One of my teams (working a few time zones ahead) used to Skype me in for Friday afternoon beers at their office. Sure, I still had a handful of hours to go before I quit for the weekend, but it was awesome to be included in a virtual ‘cheers’ after a hard week.
Is a remote product management role right for me?
I read an article early in my career where the author called product managers ‘janitors’, and in a remote context there’s even more cleanup that will fall in your lap. You’ll still have to juggle leading the team, championing culture, and promoting the product vision. Plus, you’ll also need to pick up any tasks that don’t obviously fall within someone’s remit. This is one of the biggest challenges of a remote PM. (Even so, don’t let this dissuade you, since we all know that co-located PMs are also janitors.)
For those who skimmed to the bottom, here’s the tl;dr:
- Repeat yourself until your team mocks you; assume info needs to be posted in at least 3 places before everyone’s seen it
- A happy team is a productive team; social contracts and swift decisions keep everyone working
- Don’t aim for perfect; instead, aim to do it better every single day (hashtag kaizen)
One final pro tip: Monthly health checks are a savior for teams that are struggling to find their rhythm. Atlassian even provides templates for download!
About the author: Merissa Silk is the Product Master and all-round guru at CodeControl. She previously launched new products and managed remote teams for companies such as NY Daily News, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Atlassian, and Finleap.
In her free time, you can find her hunting down gluten-free goodies, obsessively skimming Twitter, or jogging and hiking in and around Berlin.
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