Remote work enables us to optimize our product teams’ communication and productivity in new ways. Tools like Slack, Notion, Figma and Miro enable distributed teams to collaborate asynchronously. Synchronous interactions tend to only occur when a project requires verbal interaction, which puts downward pressure on the number of meetings and face time required to accomplish daily tasks. These new conventions force us to be more intentional in how we communicate, reducing meeting time and giving individuals more independence and flexibility.
However, remote work norms also create an environment where teams are communicating only about the required details and decisions. There is less room to interact with each other non-intentionally, or spontaneously, because every exchange in a remote environment needs to be initiated with a purpose and (often) a process. Collaboration, creativity, and engagement can decline, which is a challenging situation for teams that seek to innovate and solve customer problems at a rapid pace. And without rich interactions with our coworkers, work can feel less meaningful and less exciting, contributing to feelings of loneliness and isolation.
The advantage of small, agile product teams is predicated, in part, on the observation that teams move fast when co-located. The Agile Manifesto, for example, states that “the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation,” and encourages us to value “individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” How can remote teams be agile and innovative if they use tools to communicate and rely on processes to interact? Since the pandemic has changed work norms, and co-location is increasingly rare, I want to share some thoughts about how we can bring back some of the strengths of co-located working in a distributed, remote team environment.
Create opportunities to be in the same virtual space
Co-located teams can communicate fluidly, which provides the opportunity for unplanned but critical conversations, decisions, and insights to emerge. To create this fluidity in remote environments, we need to create opportunities for product teams to occupy the same virtual space. Some companies are creating products that tackle this problem. For example, Ronday and Teamflow offer virtual office platforms which map online meetings onto office floor plans, allowing teams to be in the same virtual rooms and encounter each other in the same virtual hallways. Likewise, open-ended Slack huddles, office hours-style meetings, and design reviews all provide a good environment for teams to communicate as if they are in the same space. The key here is to provide time for discussions that are important but that might not be readily scheduled in or structured. This allows teams to uncover undiscovered problems and unrealized solutions.
Memorialize discussion context
While increasing the frequency of synchronous communication can help boost collaboration, remote work discussions are only audible to the participants in remote meetings or spaces (unlike a physical space, where people are more naturally aware of inter- and intra-team discussions through proximity). This means that, in a remote environment, team members will naturally have a diminished sense of what’s happening around the team and the organization.
To solve this, regularly summarizing discussion points in a written format can be super effective in providing perspective to everyone on the team. In this case, it could be said that over-communication is key. For example, teams at CollegeVine keep a majority of Slack discussions in public channels that are visible to the team and company (outside of direct messages and closed groups). When conversations occur outside Slack, team members memorialize the key points of the discussion in the channel in real time. This enables everyone to follow the latest discussion, access updated context, and jump in to solve problems and provide perspectives.
Proactively create followup discussion
In a remote environment, teams tend to focus more on getting work done, and, in my experience, this constrains the amount of time the team spends engaging with the bigger picture of mission, vision, and strategy. Since remote work encourages more transactional communication, and affords less flexibility for open-ended discussions, we lose space to openly discuss the why of what we’re doing in favor of figuring out the what. To mitigate this, it’s imperative to set aside time for the team to step away from “heads-down” work and discuss the bigger picture on a regular cadence. (The key here is to create a real discussion, not a review of documentation or artifacts.) Even though this time comes at the expense of getting daily work done, it pays off in the form of better alignment and connection with the mission over time.
Stronger teams through better connectedness
Remote work will be with us for quite some time, if not forever. Distributed teams do have many advantages, and the shift to remote work, with its accompanying greater freedom and flexibility is, for many in the space, a welcome new format of work.
However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the advantages of a better-connected team. These advantages include the productivity boost resulting from stronger relationships, avoiding time lost through misalignment, and the greater levels of creativity and collaborative problem solving that flows from fluid communication. Product teams that are tasked with solving ambiguous problems — at speed and in a fast moving environment — become stronger by balancing efficient remote work conventions with non-transactional communication, actively sharing and memorializing context in real time. Stronger product teams invest time in meaningful discussions, not only about what needs to be done right now, but about a team’s mission, strategy, and vision.
About the speaker
David Prentice is a Product Manager who is happiest when actualizing ambitious visions, fine-tuning high-quality user experiences, streamlining complex interfaces into simple interfaces, learning by talking with customers, binge-building dashboards, collaborating with cross-functional teams, and shipping products that make a meaningful improvement in the lives of their users. He currently works at CollegeVine, an education startup dedicated to bringing high-quality college guidance to every family, and has led the creation of a new app to help students optimize their college choices. Prior to CollegeVine, he managed brand, platform, and research teams at two of the world’s largest online travel companies. PM-life aside, David is a music, art, and history nerd, who lives in Boston with his girlfriend and three cats.