How to Foster Healthy Communication When Your Team is Distributed

BY Cassidy Fein ON MARCH 12, 2019

Building and sustaining a healthy team culture and communication is a large part of being a successful product manager. Since product managers don’t directly manage other team members (except for other product managers), and your unit of delivery is your team, influence and inspiration are vital for ensuring your team is happy, healthy, and productive. Being co-located with your team already has several challenges, but when your team is distributed it can raise even more challenges.

As someone who works mostly from home with a globally distributed team, I know co-location is no longer a good measure of a successful or healthy team (Blair Reeves’ excellent post discusses why I’m reticent to call distributed working “remote”). We are technology people! We have the internet! We just need to understand what limitations it possesses and what we can do to thwart them. I’ve outlined a few of my learnings below.

Use the Right Tools

Using the right tools is a piece of advice which applies to any workplace, but when you’re distributed this becomes vital, as these are your sole methods of communication – Slack becomes the proverbial tap on the shoulder, a Zoom call becomes a quick meeting, an emoji is that high five across the conference table. You’ll want some collection of the following:

  • A real-time chat application – Slack, Hipchat, Gchat, etc. Polling tools especially can be huge time savers, from figuring out when to have a last-minute retrospective, to settling once and for all whether or not hot dogs are sandwiches (spoiler alert: they aren’t)
  • Video conference tools – Zoom, Google Hangouts, GoToMeeting, etc. These are vital for meetings where they tend to be more intimate (such as sprint ceremonies or 1:1s). Speaking of intimacy… turn your camera on, and encourage the rest of your team to do the same. Visual cues are incredibly important and can sometimes be the difference between a sympathetic and collaborative attitude, or a silent and snappy crew.
  • Shared knowledge bases – JIRA, Confluence, Roadmunk, Airtable, etc. Pooling knowledge and creating consistent communication points is vital. It’s also a great way to document knowledge held in one team and easily share it across teams as needed.

Online Time is Still Someone’s Valuable Time

Just because people aren’t physically there with you, doesn’t mean their time is less valuable. You should still follow the “does this need to be a meeting” exercise: Can this meeting be accomplished in an email? Can this email be accomplished in a chat?

If you’ve gone through the exercise and decided it still merits a meeting, always set an agenda in advance so everyone comes prepared and knows what success looks like.

Over Communicate, Then Over Communicate Again

There are distractions in any office, but when working in a distributed team it’s especially important to lay out outcomes of meetings and have regular ceremonies to make sure everyone is aware of the state of your team and the state of the company. You don’t get the same “water cooler” effect you would get in person, no matter how chatty and hilarious your various Slack groups are.

Whether co-located or distributed, a shared vision leads to shared values, which leads to shared knowledge, which leads to shared understanding. Make sure your team is familiar with your roadmap, with your customers and their use cases, and with your sales team and their wins and frustrations. Does your team know why they’re building what they’re building? Are you sure?

Safety First

Your team should be a safe and trusting space. There is no finger pointing or blame, only forward progress and learning. This can be especially tricky with a distributed team – errant emails or chat comments can be taken the wrong way, or someone being busy with something else can be construed as ignoring a colleague when they could use a hand.

Support radical transparency and help to maintain the trust that comes with that. This can come from things like regular blameless retrospectives, daily stand-ups, or any other ways you can think to regularly share knowledge and feelings (I include feelings because a healthy part of team camaraderie can also mean venting about those outside of your team – it’s healthy!).

With Great Responsibility… Comes Little Power

Remember, product managers don’t typically directly manage anyone except other product managers. Product managers primarily lead by influence, which means you’ll need to apply these ideas not just within your own team, but across your company. While typically the fewer meetings the better, it’s a great way to meet other team members outside of your team by joining weekly review calls or other types of calls to see what they’re working on, and gives them an easy way to get to know you. I regularly join sales, product marketing, and customer success meetings from the comfort of my home office. Not only will it help your exposure across the company, it’ll help broaden your inputs and feedback which you can put right back into prioritizing your roadmap and building new features.

On March 21, Cassidy will be teaching Product Management Foundations, a Mind the Product workshop, in New York. The one-day workshop is intended to help product managers develop a broader understanding of their role and (among other topics) includes a module on core team communication. Learn more and book now.

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Cassidy Fein

About

Cassidy Fein

Cassidy is a Senior Product Manager at Echo360, a lecture capture and behavioral analytics platform for higher learning institutions and continuing education. She cut her teeth growing into a product manager position as employee #7 of a future 250+ content marketing B2B platform. With over seven years in product management, she loves making things users love and shaming products that succumb to dark patterns. Cassidy is based in Wilmington, NC, but her second home is a plane. She regularly works out of Echo’s London, Perth, DC, and NYC offices.