Practical Tips for Working in Distributed Product Teams

BY Tim Herbig ON DECEMBER 3, 2018

Ever since the shift towards agile practices, product teams have hung on to a set of core attributes, ranging from cross-functional, to customer-centric all the way up to iterative. But there’s one aspect which will soonish vanish from this list of must-haves: co-located.

The notion that successful product teams strictly need to operate from within one room is outdated. A shift in technology and a change of mindset amongst employees has laid the groundwork for a remote-first approach to setting up and operating product teams.

In my previous post, How do you Make Product Management Work Effectively in a Distributed team?, I examined how you can set a product management team up for successful remote team working and how this means you need to rethink existing processes beyond the simple introduction of tools like Slack. Now I’d like to share some hands-on advice on how to successfully translate the most common product management responsibilities into a remote-first setup.

User Research

Successful user research forms the foundation for every product manager. But how can this translate into a remote setup?

First, when it comes to scheduling, rely on a pull-based principle. By this I mean don’t try to manually suggest slots for interview partners and ping options back and forth. Instead, make use of tools like Calendly or schedule.me to let people pick a slot from your calendar which suits them (as a bonus, time zones are automatically converted).

For the interview itself, preparation is everything – make sure, for example, you send the video link out in time. I strongly recommend Zoom as even its 30-minute free tier is sufficient for most interview cases.

In addition, be prepared to take notes by hand. Often you want to have either the interviewee’s face or the prototype visible at all time, so you can’t easily switch to a note-taking app unless you’re running a dual-screen setup.

And be aware that although in-person interviews can hugely benefit from a moment of silence where you wait for the interviewee to figure an answer out by themselves, in a remote setup, this silence can lead to the assumption of a technical glitch or a broken connection.

One of my favorite user research techniques is the Post-It customer journey method. To run it remotely, I rely on the low-level tool stickies.io. To use it, I start to map out the journey while sharing my screen. The interviewee can then provide direct input on whether a sticky represents a positive or a negative part of the usage and provide more details about its order.

One aspect of user research which requires the least amount of change due to remote working is surveys. The only thing you need to pay attention to here is democratizing the results. Instead of collecting the data in your personal tool, you should look for ways to make the answers accessible to the whole team right away. One option would be to simply use Google Forms right from the start, or at least send your typeform results into a Google Sheet stored in a shared folder using Zapier.

While in a co-located team you would most likely contact a local recruiting agency to gather interview partners, remote teams often need quick access to a global user base for their research. Great resources for conducting a five-second test or a simple check of website copy, for example, are platforms like usertesting.com, usabilityhub.com or the Audience feature of surveymonkey.com. They make curating a test group easy. And while you may have to take some the results with a pinch of salt due to the anonymity of the audience, the low friction involved in getting started is a great argument for them.

Ideation and Workshops

Creating ideas as a group and iterating on them should be part of every healthy product creation process. And while some people associate remote work primarily with isolation, it only requires a couple of mindset adjustments to make even all-day workshops go smoothly across multiple locations.

First, make sure that you have the right set of tools for the job.

When it comes to collaborative ideation, a couple of steps need to be done over and over: Individual creation, presenting to the entire group, forming clusters, and prioritizing ideas. Next to your video conferencing tool of choice, (I recommend Zoom again) you need a flexible, yet lightweight online whiteboard. My go-to solution for remote workshops is Mural. It offers great features like hidden sticky creation, a “follow me” mode, an almost infinite canvas to work in, dot voting sessions, powerful templates and great integrations with Slack, JIRA, or GitHub.

Even though pretty much all team members spend the entire time of the workshop in one room, you have to think differently for a remote environment. First, don’t think of a remote workshop as an eight-hour video call. Instead, follow the principle of converging and diverging as a group.

Start with a joint kick-off call for an hour to align everybody on the goals, meeting rules, and agenda. Then, start to either form groups or let people start ideating on their own. When you use Slack, set a timer in a shared channel using the Slackbot so everyone knows when it’s time to dial back in.

Over the course of one workshop day, I estimate the net time spent on an actual video call should range between four and five hours. The rest of the time is typically spent creating solutions.

While collaborating using sticky notes might be an easy thing to imagine happening in a browser, the question remains how you deal with more visual parts of workshops like scribbling solutions. Even though some devices are already capable of allowing real-time drawing in one canvas, the average remote worker needs to fall back to pen and paper here. You can simply scribble down your ideas as you would in a co-located workshop and upload them to the online whiteboard using your smartphone (Mural even has a dedicated app to make the process even smoother).

(Sprint) Routines

Besides breakout events like workshops, product teams also hold a regular series of routines to organize their work. While some aspects like using digital ticket management to prioritize the backlog won’t change much from a co-located setup, others need to be rethought.

Let’s take a look at the daily stand-up: As I mentioned in my first post, a key factor for successful remote collaboration is putting everyone on eye level. And by that, I don’t mean hierarchy, by logistics. Avoid grouping people in a physical location while others have to join on their own from a separate webcam. Let everybody join from their own computer with an enabled webcam to avoid the forming of small sub-cultures through whispering and invisible gestures.

And while many aspects of teamwork benefit from synchronous communication, a difference in time zones can cause quite an unpleasant schedule. So, instead of forcing everyone into a video call to give an update on their current work, allow them to check in asynchronously. To formalize this process, I recommend tools like Standupbot or standups.io.

Another (agile) meeting artifact is the feedback and estimation meeting. Typically, the main scope of the meeting is to let the team members estimate the complexity of an issue through things like synchronous planning poker. A “normal” translation of this process would mean holding up physical numbers into a webcam.

Luckily, there are helpful tools to make remote planning poker a breeze, like the Planning Poker® plugin for JIRA or Trello. They especially pay attention to holding back the estimates until everybody  “checks in” and avoid the otherwise unavoidable bias through seeing your team members’ estimates.

Regularly reflecting on processes and work should be part of every (agile) team. The typical retrospective meeting can also be organized across multiple locations by using some of the tools I’ve mentioned above: Zoom for participating from everyone’s computer and stickies.io or Mural for collecting and voting on topics.

It can make sense to look at specialized tools like Agile Retrospectives for Jira for using even more sophisticated retrospective formats. What I like most about this tool is the easy integration of agreed action items into the task management of the team.

Create Your own Remote Team Culture

These tips aim to give you a head start for managing a successful remote product team. They’re by no means a step-by-step catalog to follow religiously. Instead, I suggest you use them as inspiration for creating your own remote product team culture.

And while they don’t cover all of the responsibilities of a remote product manager, I think they address the ones which feel the hardest to translate into a remote team setup. At the very least, I truly hope that they reduce the number and relevance of excuses that people have to discount working as a true distributed team.

About

Tim Herbig

Tim Herbig is a passionate Product Leader, Remote Work Enthusiast, Speaker and Author of the book 'Lateral Leadership: A Practical Guide for Agile Product Managers'. He looks back at more than eight years of product management ranging from start-ups to large-scale corporates in the publishing, social network, and b2b SaaS sector. He's also a co-organizer of Product Tank Hamburg.

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