As a product manager at Split, 5,000 miles away from the rest of her team, Sophie Harpur has learnt a thing or to about successful remote working.
As you’ve probably read in all those blog posts and books about product management, the ideal scenario is to have your product manager co-located with engineering, sitting no more than two feet away from the team designer, back-end and front-end. But at the same time the software industry is leading the way for more and more remote working, with, for example, companies like Zapier having a complete remote workforce – how do we find this balance?
For over a year I have been a product manager more than 5,000 miles away from the rest of my team. Here are the areas where we invested to build and deliver great products in a distributed team.
Due to different time zones, we’re in and the fact that not everyone on the team shares the same first language, we’ve found that keeping communication largely written can help to reduce the ambiguity of someone’s opinions.
To ensure more clarity still, we always put meeting agendas in place and provide follow-up meeting notes. This is an efficient way for any team to work, but even more so for distributed teams. Obviously, no team wants to be overloaded with process, but these notes and agendas don’t need to be formal. We’ve found creating a Slack channel per project (and posting notes in there) really helps with providing a quick reference point and ensuring everyone’s on the same page.
When it comes to the meeting itself, we work hard to ensure there’s enough space for everyone to give their opinion whether they’re in the room or not. Often, if a meeting has some people present in a room but one or two online, it can be hard for those online to feel like they’re being heard. We’ve found that having everyone join from their laptop, even if they’re in the same location, can help to give that feeling of equal space. We encourage everyone to turn on their video to make sure they are fully present – this also reminds people to include everyone in discussions.
Zoom is also used for quick check-ins or to ask a question – just like you would go over to someone’s desk for a quick chat.
On a distributed team, it can be easy miss out on signals from your team on how they feel about their work and their perspective on the team’s progress. To try combat this, we created a quarterly health check survey within the team, based on the model created by Spotify. This allows us to understand how the team is feeling in different areas, and where we can follow up if teammates feel disheartened about a certain area. It allows us to understand how we’re progressing from quarter to quarter too.
Working in an office, of course, you benefit from someone spontaneously bringing doughnuts, someones’ baking leftovers, a coffee run, or 4 o’clock drinks on a Friday! This is a big gap in work culture when you’re remote but I’ve tried to continue this with my team, remote style!
We put time in the calendar to chat about what we’re going to do over the weekend or to celebrate our recent achievements and we send things to each other to boost team spirit from time to time. For example, we get cookies delivered to someone’s house for a team bug bash session or send everyone a Starbucks voucher after we successfully delivered a project – these are small things, but they can help teammates to feel appreciated.
Undisturbed Work Time
The life of a product manager involves a lot of meetings; project planning, stakeholder alignment, customer support, customer interview and so on. I am eight hours ahead of my team, and with some adjusted time schedules I always have all my meetings once all my team is awake. This means I don’t have meetings dotted throughout my day, instead I have a few hours to myself to prepare for my day, then all my meetings in one go. This means I don’t have to keep switching from head-down work time to meetings – and it’s amazing!
This work schedule has highlighted the importance of undisturbed work time and reducing the amount of context switch as much as possible. We have tried to make space for undisturbed work time, for example, no meeting Wednesdays, blocking out times on our calendars, permission to reject meetings if the person believes they will not find them useful. We have also allowed for “ghosting” meetings – so if you’re in a meeting and realise you will not find it useful you send a ghost emoji in the meeting chat and slip off without disturbing anyone while not leaving people questioning where you have gone.
Self Discipline and Flexibility
I’ve been working remotely for the last year and a half, and I’ve found that working remotely definitely takes some self-discipline and mental adjustment. But I’ve also honestly found that I got accustomed to my new routine after a week or so. For me, there are some tangible benefits: you can use the silence to be more productive, you can be in the comfort of your own home when things get stressful, use your commuting time for other things, and you can be more creative with your work-from-home lunches! I believe that in an ideal world we would have the choice and the variety of being able to work from home and the ability to work the office. People thrive in different surroundings, and employers providing this flexibility would give people the opportunity to create these work routines that are most productive to them.
With some flexibility from your side and the use of some of the great online tools out there, being a product manager from 5,000 miles away is definitely possible. However, it may require some additional effort and some more discovery time on the best way to work with your team. If you are in a similar position, I would encourage you to leverage the product community for tips, tricks and learnings from other people’s experiences.