Distributed: Team Building With a Remote Product Team

In a career longer than I care to admit, I’ve had the pleasure of working with people from quite literally all over the world. I’ve given 5 a.m. Skype training sessions to colleagues in southeast Asia and stayed up late at night hammering out issues with colleagues on the west coast of the US. I’ve sat between development teams in the US and India with what felt like a 0.27-hour overlap. Once, in halting Spanish, I got through a whole conversation with a team in Latin America and asked at the end how things were in Buenos Aires, only to be told “I don’t understand the question, we’re in Mexico.” I’ve had early morning sessions with a room full of non-English speaking colleagues putting everything through a translator.

What I’m trying to say is, I’ve been around the block a few times. And one thing is completely clear … working on distributed teams can be pretty darn hard.

It doesn’t take long on LinkedIn these days to find people, in some kind of inverse Yorkshireman sketch, trying to outdo each other with how much money they’ve saved working from home during the pandemic. How much more time they’ve had with their family. How they’ll never go back to an office because everything just seems higher-definition now.

I will say quite openly that I am not one of these people. Whilst I enjoy remote working as much as the next remote worker, I do enjoy being able to spitball solutions with people, whiteboard stuff, and bump into people at the coffee machine or WeWork beer tap. As the head of a growing product team, working with cross-functional squads of product managers, engineers, data scientists, and business stakeholders, communication is key and we need strategies to keep everyone aligned and engaged. It’s not impossible to do this remotely. And hey, we’re all remote now. Here are some of my thoughts and reflections on approaches that can work.

One remote = all remote

Now, I’m not going to lie and say that this has all been an epiphany that was kicked off by COVID. At my company, we already have a handful of offices in different locations and already had to contend with communication across sites. We’re all remote now, and the first thing you realize is how much better it is when all the attendees of a remote meeting are actually in the remote meeting.

I still have fond memories of historical (and some might say hysterical) stand-ups with a group of us in an open space, passing our one remote member around on a speakerphone, effectively an inverse talking stick. We could barely hear him and he could barely hear us. We’ve had similar issues in big workshops with one lonely microphone in the middle of a table, spotty WiFi, and half a dozen side conversations going on out of earshot. It’s counterproductive, let’s try not to do it. 

It might be culturally hard, but suck it up. If you are working with a mixture of remote and non-remote teams, get all of you on your own microphone and earphones. Remote workers are not second-class citizens or add-ons. They deserve the same respect that you expect from them.

Oh, and try to turn your webcam on so people can see you’re paying attention! There are times that this is harder than others, so this isn’t a rule, but there should at least be a general acceptance of this concept.

If you’re not bored of saying it, you haven’t said it enough

I quite often get bored with the sound of my own voice and am frequently unsure whether people care about what I’m saying (imposter syndrome writ large here). The fact is, of course, that the only person who has heard your voice as much as you and heard all the points you want to make is, well, you. A golden rule of communication with distributed teams is that if you aren’t bored of saying it, you haven’t said it enough. Advertising works on this principle. Political slogans work on this principle. You don’t have to simplify everything into a motivational phrase, but never assume that you’ve done enough to land your message.

There are many reasons for this. We’re all busy. We are all trying to multitask and do 150 things at once. When we’re remote, the network connection can get spotty, or someone could have rung the doorbell at a crucial moment, or a kid might have barged into the room. In a remote world, distractions happen. Record your sessions and send a summary afterward. But also make sure you keep hammering your key points whenever they’re relevant. You need people to be aligned and you should never assume you got the message across before.

Embrace asynchronous communication

This is probably not controversial these days in the era of Slack and all the other pretend Slacks out there. It’s really just an extension of the point above. People have different ebbs and flows in the working day and various reasons to be engaged or not engaged. The perils of remote working include the inability to switch off, the lack of a work/life barrier, and people working around the clock. This can be unpleasant and should be pushed against. But on the bright side, it also should mean that the daytime is more flexible.

Basically, you don’t need to make everything a meeting. Some things need to be meetings, but quite a lot don’t need to be. Get onto whatever you use, pretend you’re at school, and start passing notes to each other.

Lean into best-in-class collaboration tools

One of the things I originally missed as we moved to remote was the ability to just get in a room, hash something out, scribble on a whiteboard, and watch the magic happen.

Or rather, scribble some unintelligible nonsense on a board, end up with several photos with key points lost in JPEG compression, and a handful of 100 Post-its, including ones that fell off and you can’t remember where they go. To be honest, physical whiteboards kind of suck.

I’m not going to advertise a particular solution. However, I have found online whiteboard collaboration platforms absolutely transformative and 50 times better than the physical versions. It’s gotten to the point where, even when we’re all back in the office, I’m pretty sure I’ll want to keep using them. I barely even have handwriting these days. So why don’t I stop kidding myself?

Keep your stakeholders engaged

Working with remote stakeholders can be a challenge, again because you can’t sit in a room with them and have a constructive solutionizing session (aka “an argument”) face-to-face. And the cliché of being able to bump into people in the corridor or just go and sit on some plush sofas ad hoc is just not going to be there for a while. We can use some of the same approaches mentioned above to try to get around these issues.

One thing that I would suggest, remote or not, is trying to drive stakeholder alignment relentlessly. One approach we have bedded in at our company is a bi-weekly all hands, where all of our squad leads will take the business through what has been achieved in the last two weeks, and the things we’ll be working on in the next two weeks. I’ll also do a general product update and roadmap review. The sessions are recorded and shared for posterity. You need to drive transparency, and this is never more important than in these remote times.

Keep your squads engaged

When you have a number of squads working on different but related parts of your platform, it’s never as easy as you think it should be for everyone to know what everyone else is working on. This sounds easy to fix. Perhaps if you’re all in an office, it might be. But we’re not all in an office now.

Aside from the usual scrum ceremonies, retros, and the like, we also decided to shake it up a little bit and bring everyone together for a mega demo at the end of each sprint. It works much like any sprint demo but everyone gets to see the results of everyone else’s sprints. Again, these are recorded and saved for posterity. Feedback on this has been really good, and it’s definitely something I recommend as your product teams scale out and your platform diversifies.

Keep your product team engaged

As soon as you’re not the only product person at the company, you have a team. And as that team grows, it’s easy to get bogged down in the work you’re responsible for: working on the immediate future, turning the handle, and defining and optimizing your individual strategies to line up with the overall product strategy and corporate goals. It’s easy to start feeling disconnected from your team when you can’t just pop your head up.

To try to combat this, we always have and always will have a dedicated product team daily standup. It’s not really a stand up in a strict scrum sense. We’re not going through Jira and there are no sprints, but it shares some of the characteristics. More than anything, it allows for a temperature check across the team. What’s going well, what’s not going well, what do we need to talk about, what do we need to unblock? Sometimes it’s just a time to have a chat about a general issue. More than anything, it’s like a continual team meeting broken up across the week. I personally really enjoy them.

And, if you’re in a leadership position and have direct reports, make sure you keep up with your weekly 1:1 sessions. My current company is the first time I’ve ever seen such rigor with 1:1 meetings. However, there’s plenty of supporting literature to say that they can be transformative. Let’s put it this way: would you rather know about a problem weeks after it happened? Do you want to course-correct early or after you’ve hit the iceberg? As a line manager, you have a duty of care, so you need to maintain these valuable sessions and don’t skimp.

Be a true product professional

These are my reflections on surviving as a distributed product team. In most cases, the product team should consist of the people with “product” in their job titles, as well as the broader cross-functional teams that do the hard work. But one of the key things we should always bear in mind with product is that there are no hard and fast rules. What works for one does not necessarily work for all. I encourage you to try some of these approaches, and if they are new to you, take them for a spin. If they work, fantastic! If they don’t, we’re product people; we test and learn, we experiment and we improve, and we pivot if we need to.