Last month I was one of more than 200 product people who got together for this year’s ProductCamp London. To make the most out of my first time, I proposed and ran three sessions. They all provided a safe space to share insights among peers, but I’ll focus on just one of them – a group discussion on remote / distributed teams.
(The other two sessions were a talk about OKRs and a group discussion on internal-facing product management.)
Why remote/distributed teams? I am [was] a product manager at Onfido, where most of the technology function is spread across
- the London HQ,
- Lisbon (where I’m based), and
- offices across the world.
I deal regularly with stakeholders from San Francisco to Delhi, and my teams have included people working from home in the UK and Romania — so distributed teams are dear to me. Here are some of the ProductCamp group’s key conclusions and takeaways on working in remote and distributed teams from what was a lively and valuable discussion.
Time Zones and Coordination
The first challenge we discussed was time zones. We had some extreme examples among the group, like a team spread between the UK and New Zealand.
You can optimise coordination by having key communications happen asynchronously and in plain sight — for example, in public/team Slack channels instead of direct messages — while keeping everyone working within their home time zone.
The “in plain sight” aspect is true regardless of time zone differences. It’s important to keep key conversations in the open, rather than in silos by the watercooler.
We’ve discussed the idea of deciding in one time zone and clearly communicating to inform “remote teams”. However, the group mostly agreed that it is better to involve all distributed team members in decision making, to begin with. This is a big sign that communication in this context needs to serve a bigger (and more complex) purpose than just tactical coordination.
Collaboration and Trust
We agreed that the principle of being Remote First is paramount. If even just one team member is not co-located, everyone should adopt the same behaviours as a fully distributed team. For example, meetings with many people around a table in a meeting room plus one/two odd ones peering from afar create a natural tendency for the former to dominate the conversation. So each team member, whether remote or co-located, should be encouraged to join the call individually and have their webcam on. This not only breaks barriers and cliques but also allows everyone to see each others’ facial expressions.
If no other meetings, then at least team retrospectives should be held synchronously, and on video call. But how do they pull this off in our UK–New Zealand example above? The answer is not without affecting someone’s personal life. In this case, there were only two people in the UK (versus a dozen in New Zealand), so they would be the ones joining in the middle of the night. To ease the impact on the personal life of those in the UK, the team batches their UK–New Zealand synchronous communication (retrospectives, one-on-ones) in one single night.
In a cross-functional product team, there needs to be room for everyone to challenge and be challenged, and we agreed the key ingredient for this is mutual trust. But does this work the same for everyone?
Inclusion Across Personal and Cultural Differences
Different people approach and perceive communication differently. This comes in two main flavours: personal differences and cultural differences.
Personal differences in turn come in many flavours, such as preferences or personality traits. Some people are more outspoken than others. If we’re to reap the benefits of having a diverse team we need to ensure that the voice of the outspoken doesn’t muffle quieter voices. You need to give everyone the opportunity to feed in during a collaboration session.
As for cultural differences, nothing beats fostering ways for the team members to get to know each other better as individuals. However, being mindful of country-based insights from studies on cultural differences does help. Two useful references that came up were Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory, and the 2014 book by Erin Meyer, The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business. Every human is unique, and knowing how the society in which they were raised tends to approach and perceive things like:
- giving and receiving feedback, or
- establishing work relationships
may help understand why someone might think or act differently from us. When providing “culture training” on staff, companies with a distributed workforce should not treat this culture gap as taboo. It may even provide ideas on how to capitalise on these cultural differences.
Occasional Face Time
In a distributed team, you need to organise work in a way that doesn’t require someone to travel to the head office whenever a collaboration activity needs to happen—but you should get the whole team together periodically. The echo in the room was that these trips pay off. The returns you get from a thriving team of people who know and trust each other outweigh the cost of planes and hotels once or twice a year.
You can still run social activities without the financial (and environmental) cost of flying people round the world. One fun idea we heard in the room was that of a remote social where everyone is having the same meal together, catered to the cuisine of one the countries represented in the team. Running a lunch/coffee roulette on Slack with Donut is also fun!
Key Takeaways from Discussing Distributed Teams
- ProductCamp is awesome! A warm thank you to everyone I interacted with at ProductCamp London, particularly in the remote/distributed teams session this post describes. Coordination in a distributed team is crucial, but it’s also a problem we know how to solve — and it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
- A Remote-First approach (where, if one member is remote, all the team works as if remote) is key to level the playing field when collaborating in a distributed team and to foster trust and alignment.
- Companies need to admit cultural differences between countries exist and positively use them (along with caring personally about the individuals) to help diverse teams understand each other.
- The cost of getting distributed teams together periodically pays off, especially if you coupled it with regular social moments remotely.
(Crossposted at Mind the Product.)