Product teams should be co-located. This is an often-repeated “truth” in our industry.
Today, in response to COVID-19, many companies are instituting mandatory work-from-home policies. This is making co-location impossible for many teams. Thankfully, this “truth” was already on its way to being retired.
In fact, it was never true for many companies. We have dozens of examples of successful 100% remote companies—Automattic, InVision, and Zapier are a few that come to mind. We have hundreds of examples of global companies where teams work not just across locations but across time zones that span the globe.
So where did this “truth” come from?
The intent behind this truth was sound. Co-located teams spend more time together. They solve problems together. They make decisions together. Hand-offs are reduced, less time is wasted waiting for someone else to make a decision, and communication flows more easily within the team.
However, over the past five years, we’ve seen our digital tools evolve such that co-location is no longer required to get these benefits.
I’ve seen it firsthand with the teams that I coach. Every team I work with learns how to make trio-based decisions. They work together to define their desired outcome. They interview together to discover opportunities. They map out and prioritize the opportunity space. They generate and compare and contrast different solutions. They story map their best ideas. They iteratively test their ideas with customers week over week. And they do it while spanning the globe.
For those of you who are finding yourselves working from home for the first time, I’d like to share some practical tips to help ease your transition so that your continuous discovery habits don’t atrophy simply because you are working from home.
I’d like to share some practical tips to help ease your transition so that your continuous discovery habits don’t atrophy simply because you are working from home. – Tweet This
Agree on Working Norms
For those of us who are used to coming to an office every day, our behavior is influenced by the office norms. There are spoken or unspoken norms about when to start and stop the workday, when to take lunch and for how long, what to wear, what to do with your dirty dishes, when it’s okay to interrupt someone, when to erase a whiteboard, and so on. We learn these norms by participating in the shared office space.
When we suddenly all work from home, these norms disappear. Do you need to start your work day at a certain time? Can you work in your pajamas? How do you interrupt someone? Not knowing what to do when can cause work to grind to a halt while we try to figure it out. I’m going to suggest a shortcut.
When we suddenly all work from home, our regular office norms disappear. That’s why it’s important to establish ground rules with our teams. – Tweet This
Take some time right now as a team to discuss the following. Now that you are working from home:
- Are you all expected to work the same hours?
- What is appropriate business attire for video calls?
- How will you indicate that you are away for lunch or that you’ve ended your work day?
- How and when will you meet in real-time?
- How will you make the work that you are doing visible to others?
- How will you create shared working spaces?
- Who is responsible for keeping what current?
Taking the time to answer these questions now will save time and heartache down the road.
Set Rules for Your Different Communication Channels
Even while working in an office, we rely on virtual tools to communicate with each other. Most of us use email, Slack, a scrum or kanban board, Google Docs, etc. as we go about our work.
However, in an office, we also have the ability to walk up to someone’s desk. We run into each other in the hallways. We can look up from our monitors and turn to our teammate and ask them a question. When a question goes unanswered in Slack, we can verbally call someone’s attention to it. All of this goes away when everyone is working from home.
So take some time to define how you will use each channel. My entire team is a remote team and we’ve established some key norms. For example, Karen—my assistant—and I have outlined the following guidelines:
- We use Trello to track and make work visible.
- We use email when discussing something that started in email (e.g. a student emails us a question).
- We use Slack for real-time discussions equivalent to walking up to someone’s desk. This means we don’t expect an immediate response. You might walk up to someone’s desk and they aren’t there. Or they might be in the middle of another conversation. But we know we’ll get our chance when they are available.
- We text or call when something is urgent.
- We do weekly video calls to plan out our week.
I’m not suggesting these are the right norms. Rather, these are the norms that work for us. What matters is that you take the time as a team to align around the norms that will work for you.
Slack, email, video, or phone call? Take the time as a team to align around the communication norms that will work for you and your team. – Tweet This
Know When to Switch from Asynchronous to Synchronous Communication
Don’t over rely on one tool. Regardless of your norms, know when to switch mediums.
It can be easy for Karen and I to misunderstand each other over Slack. I can be a bear about precise language when we are communicating in written form. It can drive Karen nuts. We both know that long before we get frustrated, it’s time to pick up the phone or to hop on a video call.
Other times Karen will be describing an issue in a comment on a Trello card and I need more context, so I ask her to forward me the email thread she is referring to. In a single conversation we might bounce between email, Trello, and Slack. Or we might jump on a call to share our screens and work on something together.
The reverse can be true as well. We both have to be mindful that all of these communication channels mean we are always on. So we only text or call when it’s time sensitive. We don’t put things in Slack that could be added as a comment on a Trello card—it’s only needed at the time the work is being done. We are mindful of what should be an interruption and what should not.
When everyone is working from home, consider asynchronous vs. synchronous communication. Be mindful of what should be an interruption and what should not. – Tweet This
Take some time as a team to define your asynchronous/synchronous communication norms. And help each other remember when it’s time to switch from one to the other.
Use a Digital Whiteboard for Real-Time Mapping
Product teams use a lot of visuals—opportunity solution trees, impact maps, story maps, experience maps—not to mention the sketching and whiteboard sessions that are so critical to ideation and collaboration. It can be hard to replicate this type of work when we aren’t co-located.
Thankfully, our tools in this space are getting much better. I recommend every team use a digital whiteboard tool that allows you to collaborate in real-time. The two that I’m familiar with are Miro and Mural. But there are dozens out there. Find what works for you.
Make sure that everyone can edit at the same time. Having built-in objects and formats like stickies and flow charts can also be big time savers. If you’ve never used these tools, take advantage of the example documents these companies provide to help you get started.
Also, for those of you who love your physical whiteboard (I know I do) or prefer to draw with pen and paper, use your webcam to live draw or take photos of your drawings and upload them for use in your digital whiteboard.
Work Out Loud
Finally, learn to work out loud. This means regularly sharing what you are doing and making your work visible to your team members. You should be doing this anyway. Last summer, at Mind the Product SF, I gave this talk on the power of showing your work as a way to manage stakeholders throughout the discovery process. These same tactics will help you stay aligned with your team while you are working from home.
Showing your work helps you manage stakeholders throughout the discovery process. These same tactics will help you stay aligned with your team while you are working from home. – Tweet This
I also recommend you pick up a copy of Scott Berkun’s book, The Year Without Pants. Berkun spent a year working at Automattic—which is 100% remote. He explains how they work, including their strong culture of working out loud. It’s chock-full of great tips.
I’m hopeful that this round of mandatory working from home will help companies realize that we can and should have more flexibility in how, when, and where we work. Flexibility doesn’t have to mean we sacrifice quality. And we know flexibility leads to more diversity and inclusion in the workplace. So let’s all do our best to take advantage of this opportunity to make a giant step forward in the way that we work together while not co-located.
I’ve been working virtually since 2013 and have loved every minute of it.