Five Ways Product Managers Can Maintain a Strong Remote Team

25 October, 2017

Photo by Eduardo Sánchez.

As we’ve explained before, most of Postlight’s engineering staff is based outside our New York office. Because part of our mission is to “demo functioning software or interactive mockups as soon as possible,” product managers have to make sure the entire far-flung team (and the client!) are working toward the same goal.

Here are five things worth extra attention when your team can’t be in the same room:

1. Talk through the “obvious” stuff.

Be more explicit than you think is necessary, and you’ll nip misunderstandings in the bud. When everyone’s in the same room, it’s easier to notice an errant gesture that shows we’re not all on the same page. A remote team can only know what you say and type, so get everyone to agree that overexplaining won’t be taken as an insult. Don’t let it slip as the project goes on, either. “So what we’re saying is…” should be a common phrase throughout the life of the product.

2. Have a visual conversation as soon as possible.

Your brain is excellent at filling in gaps. It can leave you convinced that giant swaths of unresolved detail are already worked out. By forcing concepts out of your head and onto a page or screen, everyone can see what’s missing.

This could be a quick Sketch mock, or a series of index cards, or loose user flow diagrams, or an unstyled prototype app. When you’re discussing it as a group, remember that you’re missing out on a lot of the often-subtle physical language an in-person meeting affords. Pointing is useless, and even in screen-shared demos, your cursor might not be available.

Animated GIFs are indispensable tools when the product’s further along. We use Gifox and CloudApp, but there are many fine tools for creating focused UI screengrabs.

3. Give the team a space to think out loud.

We prefer small teams (a designer and two engineers is often perfect!), and at that scale a dedicated Slack channel won’t get noisy enough to be a distraction, but will stay lively if everyone “thinks out loud” and keeps a running commentary about the problems they’re running into.

When it’s going well, your teammates won’t just share which feature, bug, or design they’re working on, but also mention what’s going well, what’s not, and any novel solutions they encounter. They’ll ask lots of “what do you think about doing it this way?” questions.

Like we said above, oversharing is a important, but it’s a habit that takes practice. If the discussion seems stale or perfunctory, try prompts like “Is this going faster or slower than you expected?” and “Based on the problems you’re having now, should we adjust our priorities?”

A team of this size can stay aware of the most important work to be done, and who’s doing it, without the need for daily or weekly meetings. It works for larger teams, too, but might require judicious use of Slack threads and the occasional off-channel sidebar.

4. Give the team a space to see the tasks at hand.

Clients often have in-house tools to manage tasks and bugs, and those are a good way to keep the external team in the know. It’s also a good idea, though, to have a separate task tracker just for your coworkers.

You needn’t bother with “points” and “sprints” — just make a list of everything that’s expected, and have some way to indicate a rough order it should be completed, and maybe by whom. Trello has worked well for us, as has a shared spreadsheet.

5. Keep meetings short, but invite the whole team.

At this point, we shouldn’t have to share the gospel of the crisp, focused meeting, right? Get into as much detail as you need, but get in and out without the styrofoam-peanut procedural stuff.

Remote employees don’t get the benefit of overhearing project chat around the office, but a company culture of quick, easy video chats makes ad hoc conversations a powerful tool.

When everyone’s kept in the know, a team develops a sixth sense, a peripheral feeling of what’s going on with the whole product. It makes it easier to project out completion dates, and lets you quickly shift folks around without having to reorient each person.

Originally published on Track Changes.