Working with remote teams – the non-remote Product Owner perspective.
When I joined Tooploox over a year ago I had little if any experience with remote work. Apparently, one could tell from the way I was writing on Slack. Obviously, it was hard to switch from working in the same space with my team day in day out to having a meeting with avatars on the screen (to my surprise, some people didn’t turn on their cameras while on a video call). My work as a Product Owner involves collaborating with stakeholders, team members and users. The approach I was used to while working in co-located office simply didn’t work. And I’ve learned it the hard way. Now the big part of it feels natural to me.
Inevitable change to remote
Today remote workers stand for, on average, 4,7% of the workforce in Europe and 37% Americans work from home at least part-time*. Seams small? Among Millennials that number could be bigger.
Although Marissa Mayer would disagree, it’s pretty naive to assume that work happens between 9-5. Saving time for commuting, managing your own schedule and deciding whether you want to be distracted or not can actually increase productivity. Changing work scenery also helps a lot. After all, Harry Potter was written in a coffee bar.
It is possible that the work life as we know it will become obsolete. Remote work is not a fad. It’s a fact and the future, especially if you want to grow in IT being able to both work and hire for the best. After all, how many companies can afford the luxury of building work campuses and offer a relocation package for employees and their families like Facebook or Google.
At Tooploox the real challenge occurs when we mix remote and co-located office work life in our culture. Some would argue that you either go all the way or better not at all. I like to think that we can prove them wrong.
Ease into the remote work
There are companies that offer work-from-home days. However, working remotely part-time and working remotely full time are entirely different things. Also working as a freelancer and working remotely as part of the team are not the same. When half of the team is in the office and the other half is not, a few team members work in different time zones, some teams speak English only, while others use a mix of English and their mother tongue, it seems complex enough. The key thing, though, is – if you want to manage complexity, first reduce it.
Having that in mind, we tried to put everyone who works within the same time zone together, if possible. Secondly, we tried to keep everyone involved. No important decision was made without everyone’s buy-in. Whether it’s a message on Slack, updating relevant documents in Dropbox Paper or now Confluence, recording important meetings, the knowledge sharing is crucial for us.
Hiring the right people
As my colleague pointed out in his article – There are two types of people: those who are able to work remotely and those who are not. Being able to stay focused and productive while working away from everyone is a skill but for sure not everyone will have it. A company can try to support individuals to build up to it. However, it is more the employee’s determination and character that is needed here. So, whether a person is a good fit for remote work or not could be verified only to some extent during the recruitment process.
From the employer’s perspective, it is important to trust people you hire. This is one of the foundations of Tooploox’s culture. Obviously, you might get disappointed from time to time, but overall it’s a good investment. The other key thing is a need to shift from ‘I pay you for your time’ mindset to ‘I pay you for ideas and results’. It’s not that people should work 2 hours a day in the morning because that’s the only time they can deliver anything. It’s more about your focus – results over time. This should be well understood by both sides.
Communicate or even overcommunicate.
As mentioned earlier, remote hires should be considered with their predisposition to work this way in mind. Outstanding communication skills are one of them. This means proactively communicating with your teammates instead of waiting for instructions or task coming to you or worse – working in complete isolation.
Here is how to ease everyone’s pains:
- If the thing you work on influences others, make sure you share it with them before you go all the way.
- If the discussion on Slack takes too long, use quick video sync. Naturally for humans, 93% of our communication is nonverbal. Remote or not, it is important.
- Wait for everyone has their say before you make any important decisions.
- Get used to asynchronous communication; Dropbox Paper works well to share longer thoughts and ask for people’s feedback. It is also great for collaboration.
Above all, accept the fact that probably more time will be eaten by communication with others. At least it was the case in my role. Without nonverbal and even little verbal part I felt like I was typing all day until I learned how to do it effectively.
Staying in touch
One thing I realised is that even though I work from the office most of the time I am still remote to someone else. Seems like a no-brainer but it is not that obvious. It is good to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to work remotely from time to time to feel what they deal with.
One thing you can do – even if one person in the team is remote, the whole team works as remote so there isn’t any loss in translation. For example, while in a standup call, people in the office don’t use conference rooms but connect from their desks.
What helped me a lot is that I met people I work with personally. We try to organise all-hands company retreats twice a year. Additionally, people working together meet more often for a dedicated purpose, e.g. to plan more complicated work or solve a specific problem.
Also, don’t forget that Slack and Slack video calls are not only for work and you can bond to some extend over those tools.
When you work remotely, it should be your habit to communicate your availability to the team. If your regular schedule changes, inform everyone in advance and set the appropriate status on Slack. And hey, if you are not around, don’t pretend that you are. Just set yourself to ‘away’.
No one likes to be disturbed in their most focused time. It’s literally like approaching someone at their desk when they were in the middle of something and they are losing their momentum. There are different methods to sort of go to your cave and do your thing in peace. For example, it’s a good practice to block your calendar for ‘do-not-disturb’ time or even schedule no-meeting day(s) or no-bullshit ones where no one can disturb anyone unless something urgent happens. If that doesn’t help, take down all IM apps, e.g. mail, Slack and put your phone into airplane mode. That should do the job.
We use everything from Google Hangouts through Apear.in to Slack video calls. It’s up to the individual team to decide. For client meetings, we use Google Hangouts or Hangouts On Air with YouTube Live. We record some of the sessions like town halls or team reviews, so everyone has a chance to be updated even if they are not around at a time.
For some teams, we are testing asynchronous stand-ups via dedicated Slack Bot. I don’t have any strong opinion about it yet but if it doesn’t work for the team, that’s their responsibility to notice it and improve, if necessary.
We also use Doodle to find the right time stamp for meetings. Timezones can be a hurdle, of course, but we try to find this overlap even if it means staying longer one day of the week. If I want to sync with San Francisco (9-hours difference), I am prepared to finish later that day.
This is the most challenging part for me personally when it comes to generating ideas and brainstorming remotely. Technology is advanced enough to allow remote collaboration but I miss this human touch.
We tried Realtime Board, before mentioned Dropbox paper. We use all kinds of great prototyping tools. But none of them has replaced the whiteboard or simple pen and paper for me so far. If anyone reading it has experienced the same issue, I would love to hear from you and exchange ideas how to address the issue.
Pro Tips for beginners:
- If possible, meet your team mates in the real world. You will be surprised they are also humans, no different than yourself 🙂
- Turn on the camera while on the scheduled meeting, it’s just a matter of respect
- Schedule some time for social video calls, e.g. once a week a casual session where you can talk about everything except work; it helps loosen up the atmosphere
- If you are green in the brave new remote world like I was before – remember use emojis in your communication. It makes you more real.
We are still in a transition from co-located only office to distributed culture, but realising our flaws is a good first step. To make distributed culture work, we currently review our processes to improve it. Expect an update in anytime soon.