Making the Dream Work: Leading Distributed Product Teams

Disclaimer: The image above does not depict a distributed team. Photo courtesy of Burst.

Remote teamwork is on the rise and isn’t going away any time soon. In 2017, 43% of US workers worked remotely at least occasionally, up from just 9% in 2007. What’s more, remote work has grown faster than any commute method.

At Shopify, our product teams have embraced distributed teamwork. Teams are often distributed across multiple offices, time zones and disciplines. Within teams, individuals often have different schedules, communication preferences, and ways of working.

We believe that distributed teamwork — rather than being an extra burden — actually makes the dream work. This has happened with our distributed teams because we have been motivated to introduce new habits, patterns, and behaviours that increase the health and effectiveness of our teams.

At Shopify, we use the idea of a trust battery to reinforce this core belief. In the words of our founder and CEO, Tobi Lütke…

“[Your trust battery] is charged at 50 percent when people are first hired. And then every time you work with someone at the company, the trust battery between the two of you is either charged or discharged, based on things like whether you deliver on what you promise.”

A successful distributed team should follow five principles that we’d like to break down for you in this post. These are the same principles that a co-located team would use too. So, whatever your team dynamic might be at the present moment, here are some strategies to build trust and make your team more effective:

1. Be Mission-Driven

Every team should have a mission statement. When a new team is born, it’s vital that you create a mission statement together. It’s a simple way of ensuring that the entire team is on the same page regarding collective purpose, goals and deliverables. It also helps the team focus on the problem you’re addressing together.

The team’s mission should be short, direct, and easily memorized. For example, Shopify’s collective mission is to “make commerce better for everyone.” You can often find a longer form of the mission statement within the very first section of the product brief — the vision.

There are three reasons why a clear mission statement is extra important if you’re leading a distributed team:

I. Decision guide: Distributed team members often work alone, or in sub-teams for longer stretches of time than they would if the team was co-located. Having a mission statement gives individuals a compass to guide them in their work towards meeting their intended goal.

II. Efficiency: When all members of the team are aligned with the same mission, less time is spent regrouping on goals, direction, and purpose.

III. Purpose: Your team mission aligns every member of the team and gives the collective shared reason of why they’re working together. Everyone must understand and agree on the mission, why it is important, and what effect it will have on your organization as a whole.

2. Invest in Communication

Effective communication can make or break any team; remote or otherwise. Here’s how we’ve invested in communication in order to build a strong and supportive distributed team:

I. Kill the grapevine

Team members should never have to find out about decisions, feedback, or important news through third parties. If you’re responsible for making something known, communicate it clearly in a way that will reach the entire team in a reasonable amount of time. Otherwise, it could quickly kill morale and drain your team’s trust battery.

We always make sure to have important conversations with whomever will be directly impacted before decisions are finalized or new information is officially announced.

II. Give contextual responses

No one wants to spend time analyzing the nuances of a poorly articulated message. Aim to be direct and provide as much information needed as possible to answer a question or request for information.

If your response requires a longer conversation, then set-up a quick video chat or call to explain yourself. Otherwise, you may end up creating more work for everyone in the long-run.

III. Be patient

While time zone differences are more obvious, we may not all be aware of the personal and cultural considerations that define your teammates’ daily schedules. It’s helpful to clearly state when responses are urgent — otherwise it should be assumed that responses can be asynchronous and can wait until someone gets back online.

IV. Choose your tools

Different conversations require different communication methods and different tools:

  • Discussion about written documents are best done in comments on that doc
  • Use Slack for faster responses and day-to-day planning
  • Save email for formal announcements and communications that require a written record
  • Team-wide forums are the best way to ensure the entire team has the right context

Not every team has the same communications style, so make sure your entire team will engage with the appropriate channel that you choose.

V. Document efficiently

The appropriate amount of documentation ensures your team members always have the right context on all project communications, without overwhelming newcomers with volumes and volumes to read on their first day.

Here are some of the approaches we’ve taken to documentation:

  • Keeping a weekly decision log with context and decision owners, for future reference
  • Writing a glossary containing definitions of core concepts that are unique to your team; while simultaneously minimizing the use of acronyms and team-specific nomenclature that others can’t quickly understand
  • Posting meeting summaries & pinning links to essential “living” docs in your team’s Slack channel
  • Hosting all written collateral in a shared team drive
  • Being mindful of volume; an ever-expanding plethora of documentation can be very difficult to maintain; if the body of team documentation becomes stale over time, it only serves to create additional work to update someone (and the doc). on the latest information.

3. Do People Things

Even if your team is miles and miles and time zones apart, it’s worth investing in meeting up in person at least once a year. While digital communication tools like Google Hangouts and Slack are vital for meeting and collaborating with distributed team members, there’s no denying that physical proximity makes building relationships a lot easier.

Just by being around when — say someone comes back to their desk from lunch, or overhearing a conversation about their weekend plans — you’ll quickly learn more about the people with whom you’re working, and they will all learn more about you.

For distributed teams, the same relationships will take a lot longer to develop. An annual or biannual in-person get together can pay huge dividends, especially when centred around a major project kickoff, design sprint, or strategy session. And while you’re at it, we’ve found that taking the time to do something fun, like a trip to the bowling alley or happy hour, can help everyone get to know each other outside of the office.

The goal is to create a web of relationships among team members, rather than a hub-and-spoke where one person is at the centre of everything. This eases the pressure on leadership and helps to remove bottlenecks — allowing the team to set the pace for collaboration, instead of relying on just one or two people.

Photo courtesy of Burst.

As team leads, we put a lot of effort in encouraging everyone to get to know and understand one another as early as possible. It helps everyone see each others’ points of view, tailor their communication to others’ preferences, and collaborate in ways that work well for teammates:

Close collaboration among distributed teams doesn’t necessarily take MORE effort, but it takes a different kind of effort — one in which any steps you can take to streamline communication and cross-team relationships are well worth the effort.

4. Plan Ahead

A distributed team without a plan can quickly dissolve into chaos. Planning is how we identify what needs to be worked on, at what time, and if there are any dependencies or blockers. It also offers a way to track your team’s progress.

When your distributed team is planning, you should:

I. Have a regular cadence

Without a proper cadence, it’s easy to drop the proverbial planning ball. Decide as a team on the preferred format and whether your planning should be daily, or weekly. For example, working in a distributed fashion makes daily videoconference standups difficult and time-consuming, so try doing Slack standups instead.

Weekly planning meetings can be effective for distributed teams, as long as the next two things also happen…

II. Be deliberate

Outline ahead of time what you’ll be collaborating on, how, when, and who should be involved. Impromptu whiteboarding and ideation is great, but try to do most of your collaborative work during a scheduled session to ensure key team members are not left out.

III. Be accountable

At each planning session, define:

  • What you’re working on
  • What progress has been made
  • Where you’ll be by the end of the week

Each member of the team should set clear expectations for their output; not only by sharing what they’re working on, but also what progress they’ve made since their last update.

IV. Plan your planning

A crucial part of regular planning is making sure everyone participates. So, pick a method with which everyone can engage, and set up trip wires to identify if your planning sessions are not as effective as they could be.

If done properly, regular planning meetings will accelerate the team and add clarity. If you start seeing diminishing returns on your planning sessions, consider revisiting the format.

5. Safety First

Trust among team members begins when every individual feels safe — especially in being able to voice concerns or gather feedback. We’ve found that these strategies can help nurture a healthy team dynamic:

I. Create a safe space to speak freely

It’s important to ensure everyone on the team feels comfortable to share their thoughts, feedback, and works in progress — without the fear of being judged. Part of this equation is the workspace itself. For a co-located team, this could be their physical pod. For a distributed team, it’s likely on Slack or via video chats.

The other part of the equation is the mindset of the team and team members. So, encourage everyone to be open, collaborative, and to provide constructive feedback.

II. Share early and often

While it can be hard to share works in progress, it helps to get early feedback that will inform your direction and next steps. By providing a safe space to do this, and nurturing trust among the team, you’ll create a more positive and supportive team dynamic.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Perhaps it takes an extra 20 minutes to write up and circulate next steps, or it’s 10% more effort to pay attention to people’s body language and tone of voice, or maybe you have to take an half day to travel for a team bonding activity or a milestone celebration. It can feel frustrating at times because this effort is on top of shipping the amazing products that your customers deserve.

Instead of approaching distributed teamwork with the mindset of “we’re making it work, in spite of…” staying up late, working more hours, and spending more effort to be on a distributed team; we like to look at it as an investment in strength-building for your organization. Over time, this investment will build up your team’s trust battery, and create new habits, patterns, and behaviours that make any team — distributed or not — successful.

— written by Helen Mou and Kevin Ochal