Remote work and hybrid product teams existed before 2020, but the pandemic supercharged the transformation of many more into more distributed organizations. In some cases, the new normal doesn’t mean a return to the office for everyone, so remote product leaders can’t just “wait it out” until everyone’s back in their cubicles… including themselves.
Given this new reality, effective leaders must be strategically proactive to connect with their teams, colleagues, and other stakeholders to ensure everyone stays aligned and on task. This requires product leaders to distinguish between healthy communication and becoming an overbearing presence despite the distance.
It’s all about accountability
Remote work and hybrid teams cannot function without trust. The same holds even for co-located teams, but it’s even more pronounced when you can’t look over their shoulders now and then. However, accountability can only occur with a few things in place.
First, there must be clear roles and responsibilities. Everyone must be on the same page and understand who should be doing what since it’s far too easy for a distributed team to duplicate efforts unknowingly. Consequences must also be clear—people need the context for why things have to happen and how the task connects to its actual purpose. Not only does this sharpen focus, but it also usually improves the motivation of conscientious employees.
Frequent socialization of status and progress also improves accountability. Now, teammates will know who’s stepping up and slacking off, not to mention creating opportunities for peers to jump in and offer assistance.
But accountability must work both ways, as product leaders must be equally accountable to their teams. Share your deadlines and deliverables, hitting them on time or coming clean with your team when things don’t go according to plan.
Make communication a two-way street
Updates, staff meetings, and standups are excellent forums for broadcasting important information to your team, but people often need a more interactive exchange to address their questions and concerns. It also makes them feel like their input and feedback are more valued while expediting the resolution of time-sensitive issues, such as product launches.
When you’re working remotely, that means meeting team members and other stakeholders where they are by using the communication forums and methods those folks prefer. Don’t try to guess, either, come right out and ask everyone you should be checking in with regularly what format they like best.
Not only will this lead to more productive virtual coffees, Slack chats, conference calls, etc., but it also exhibits great humility on your part toward your colleagues. It shows them you’re listening, that you don’t have everything figured out in advance, and that you’re not so rigid in how you like to do things.
Aside from regularly scheduled check-ins, remote leaders also benefit from having an open-door policy, even when there’s no actual door involved. Keep your calendar updated—along with your status icons on your asynchronous messaging platform of choice—so your team can quickly see if you’re available for an impromptu interaction. Being available and welcoming for unscheduled meetings gives colleagues the freedom to treat you as they would if you were just down the hall.
Open office hours
Unlike agenda-driven meetings, these offer low-pressure opportunities for colleagues to pop in, ask questions, and then go about their business. This more casual format removes any pressure from people reticent to schedule an entire meeting for a quick exchange. As a bonus, the other people attending might learn a thing or two or have their ideas to offer.
These also offer a chance for more junior members of your team to practice their skills. You can rotate who moderates and takes point on these cross-functional sessions, giving those team members more visibility.
Encourage relatability and fun
When working remotely, interactions tend to be “all business” most of the time. Naturally, these interactions are more transactional because you’re not sharing the same physical space, and there’s little need for small talk. But those moments give people a glimpse into your life and personality, making you seem like a three-dimensional human… even if they only usually see you in 2-D on a screen.
Let those conversations ramble a little bit. Chat a bit about the big game or a shocking celebrity scandal. Don’t be afraid to mention a long weekend of kids’ soccer games or a concert you went to, or the annoying neighbor with three barking dogs. Offering windows into who you are beyond the corporate sphere further humanizes these relationships, which don’t get a lot of organic nurturing opportunities.
And, while “mandatory fun” isn’t always a fan favorite, it’s still worth it to build some purely social teambuilding activities into the schedule. While you may not all be able to go bowling together, video games, trivia contests, virtual happy hours, and other activities can work well online for small groups.
Be sure to schedule them during office hours or when you know everyone’s available, as respecting people’s personal lives and schedules makes these feel like fun breaks rather than something “extra” they have to do. And crowdsource ideas for future activities and let the team vote for their top picks via a poll to ensure that as many people as possible are excited about participating.
Don’t limit yourself to “live” events
While we all praise asynchronous messaging as a critical tool for collaboration, particularly for remote and hybrid teams, when tapping video internally, we tend to default to the Zoom or Teams meeting where everyone shows up simultaneously. The moderator spends five minutes reminding everyone to mute their microphones.
As discussed in our “Working Better Together” webinar, asynchronous video is an often overlooked yet versatile communication tool for remote leaders.
With busy schedules, time zone concerns, vacations, and other conflicts, many people can’t make a specific time slot. Of course, most platforms let you record the videos for those who missed them, but why not put everyone on the same level playing field and record the video in advance for everyone to watch at their earliest convenience?
A bonus is that you can stick to your narrative without interruptions and questions during a live meeting and ensure you’ve hit all the important points. The flip side, of course, is the lack of Q&A at the end of the video, so be sure to direct the audience to a different asynchronous channel specifically for feedback and questions, such as a dedicated Slack channel.
Not only are your audience taking in this information at a time and place where they can give it their full attention—pausing when they’re interrupted—but they can also refer back to it whenever they need to. These asynchronous video broadcasts are ideal for product roadmap presentations—which is easier than ever thanks to ProductPlan’s Vimeo integration—and new product release overviews, as well as for sharing insights from user research or customer visits.
Measuring internal engagement
The ability to track and report on the viewership of videos or the product roadmap also comes in handy when attempting to create more accountability. These assets only provide value when they get used, but it’s often hard to tell who’s diving into them.
By leveraging the metrics for how many people are watching those videos or viewing your real-time, cloud-based product roadmap, you can better assess if the current communication channels are working. This also plants the seeds for frank conversations with stakeholders to discover what other methods to utilize to maximize the utilization of these key resources.
But engagement is more than passive observation and consumption. The more internal folks viewing your roadmap, the better, and product leaders want evidence that stakeholders and colleagues are truly internalizing these important artifacts. Roadmap-level conversations can take things to a whole new level.
In ProductPlan roadmaps, people can now ask questions and add comments within the roadmap. This makes for a more interactive experience and provides another metric regarding roadmap engagement, how many people comment, and the total number of comments.
Channeling further engagement
Whether you’re a Slack shop or a Microsoft Teams organization, channels represent another opportunity for deeper engagement. By creating specific channels for each product launch, project, or initiative and inviting appropriate stakeholders and contributors from across the organization to join, you can create both community and clarity.
Because everyone on those channels is interested in that topic, it’s an excellent forum to build alignment, create transparency, and reinforce accountability. Given the cross-functional nature of these channels, everyone will also grow to understand the rationale and importance of including representatives from sales, support, finance, etc., in a particular initiative. You can convert a collection of individuals into a task force with shared goals and objectives.
Keep meetings short and focused
Zoom fatigue is real; remote product leaders should be wary of overdoing virtual meetings. At the same time, it’s often the most expedient way to reach consensus and build alignment.
Establishing the right balance begins by stating a clear goal for each meeting at its outset. Now everyone knows why they’re there and what needs to happen so they can leave.
Video meetings don’t need to be any longer than necessary, so if you can achieve your goal in 12 minutes, wrap it up and sign off. When people know video meetings are purposeful and brief, they’ll be far more engaged because that means they’ll be done that much faster.
Likewise, make sure you show up on time. Everyone’s time is valuable, so show them respect with your timely attendance habits.
Adapt and thrive
Managing a team remotely isn’t for everyone, but with some intentional actions and forethought, there’s no reason you and your team can’t be as productive as ever. Product leaders can embrace the strengths of independence and cherish flexibility while maintaining frequent contact and strengthening relationships from afar.
There’s no sign of the remote work movement slowing down, so use the guidance above to maintain a strong and integrated presence even if you’re still in your slippers.