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Working with a distributed team
Working with a distributed team is hard. Interaction opportunities are highly constrained due to the limited overlapping times, and ensuring an alignment is a constant challenge. The pandemic has worsened this situation by almost eliminating the face to face interactions. So how do you successfully lead and deliver on your product commitments?
The good news is that product management's tenets remain the same whether you have a remote or a co-located team. A clear goal, a set of leading and lagging metrics, and a strong execution strategy will always be the vitals for your product success. What needs to be evolved is the communication strategy.
Let’s acknowledge the typical challenges of a distributed team:
Diverse team cultures entail tailoring your communication style with each team
Different timezones lead to scheduling challenges
Alignment on the short and medium-term outcomes is a continuous effort
It’s difficult to keep the team inspired toward the common mission
For the past two years, I have been working 100% remotely with a team of PMs, designers, researchers, and engineers spread across three geographies and distinct cultures. This has been both a challenge and a growth opportunity for us as a team. Here are a few strategies that have worked for us to alleviate some of these challenges:
Write it down
The good-old written communication is an excellent antidote for the recent ever-so-distracted working style. Verbal conversations are efficient but also prone to misinterpretations, especially for more detailed, persistent topics.
Be it your goals, the product memo, or the priorities, when you write it down, it forces you to think through different aspects and scenarios. This is the first step in creating clarity for you and your team.
Second, it enables asynchronous collaboration so you can evolve a draft into an artifact to become the source of truth for the team. And third, the stakeholders and audience have on-demand access and can process the information at their own pace. The third aspect is helpful, especially when English is not your teammates' first language.
Writing down doesn’t mean creating lengthy documents. A simple paragraph with relevant charts, diagrams, or visuals suffices to convey the message. Keeping it short and simple is the key.
Build a productive cadence of team syncs
Recurring, synchronous communications are vital to agile product development. The team needs a consistent time and (virtual) place to huddle. This is where the cross-functional team comes together to define goals, refine priorities, clarify use cases, and show progress on the work. Most teams have a weekly or at least a bi-weekly sync. But not all do it right.
To ensure productive team syncs, set a high meeting quality bar starting with you. Always share an agenda in advance. Always be on time. And keep this cadence consistent no matter what. On those rare occasions where you can’t make it to the meeting, ask your dev or design lead to facilitate the meeting.
During the meeting, make sure all voices are heard. Balance depth vs. breadth. There are times when you need to deep-dive and address the issue at hand. And there are times when you need to pin conversation for a later time with a smaller group. Use your judgment and trust the team.
Most importantly, I appreciate the work. The features you see are the tip of the iceberg of the efforts put in by your team. Make sure you vocally recognize that.
If done right, this slot becomes a sacred time for your team. Ideas, thoughts, questions, and concerns would bubble throughout the week, and the team knows they have a time and place to surface these.
Create a private space for asynchronous communications
A distributed team needs an easily accessible, private space where the core team can share, ask and discuss safely during their own working hours. Most collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams or Slack offer private channels, so you can limit the conversations to the core team. This is also inclusive of the introverts within the team who might prefer a smaller audience when sharing their thoughts. Organize the discussions by topic for ease of reference. Go back and close the loop on conversations and distill the conclusions into your knowledge base.
Pre-pandemic, we would plan regular in-person visits taking turns to balance the travel overhead for each geographic team. This would allow a focused synchronous time with the team, which is super valuable when planning the product or addressing a gnarly issue. The pandemic took away this opportunity. To overcome this gap, we started virtual trips. During the virtual trip week, we would partially work in the other team’s time zone. This proved effective in bringing the team together in time, if not in space, where we could celebrate accomplishments, plan the future and learn from the retrospectives. This remains the favorite work week for many of us.
Centralize knowledge base
“Where to find what” is a common struggle across teams, even if you are using the best-in-class collaborative tools. The sheer diversity of the tools often leads to scattered knowledge across intranet sites, office files including Word and PowerPoint decks, issue tracking systems, support tickets, UX mockups, chat histories, and email threads.
There’s no silver bullet to this problem - get a pulse of what works best for the team and leverage the tool based on the context. And then centralize the knowledge base through a landing page based on your team’s frequently visited spaces. For example, if your team collaborates over Teams, use the pinned tab to centralize each artifact's references. Make the content search-friendly by enriching it with the appropriate meta-data. And evolve this setup with the need and expertise of the team.
Vocalize the positives
Life happens. Comments get misinterpreted. Things get lost in translation. When this happens, pause and assume positive intent. Make sure you check in with the teammate and understand the concerning behavior or action. This would go a long way in building a lasting trustful relationship with your cross-functional team.
When you are remote, it’s hard to feel valued. So make sure that you praise the smallest accomplishments of your teammates. An authentic, genuine, and timely complement is one of the most effective ways to express gratitude and make your team feel valued.
In closing, working with a remote, distributed team is a blessing in disguise. The challenges offer unique opportunities to grow and build a powerful team that delivers powerful outcomes regardless of the timezone and cultural differences.