How to Help Your Product Team Transition to Online-Only

Great Product
Russ Taff
Director, Product Management

Russ is the Director, Product Management at Rocket Wagon with half a decade of experience leading exceptional remote product teams.

There is a paradigm shift happening across product organizations worldwide as every individual or squad (tribe, chapter, guild etc.) is being forced to take their workstream one-hundred percent online. In week three, we lack a clear understanding of when this will “end”, so you’ll need tactics for how to maintain – and hopefully improve – your team’s product practice from your home offices.  

In my current role at Rocket Wagon, I have managed or led engineering and product teams in Argentina, Chicago, San Francisco and New York City – sometimes all at the same time – from my living room in Brooklyn. 

Working from home can be a difficult transition for anyone, and the level of difficulty varies greatly for each individual employee. The onus of leading that transition for an entire organization while maintaining delivery velocity is daunting. In this post, I’m going to provide some best practice tips for managing this transition, based on my years of experience building and leading product organizations from a remote position.

 

  1. Avoid the Slack Shoulder Tap

  2. Use Your Tools

  3. Be F2F (without the F)

  4. Take Breaks

Data flowing in and out of the connected chasm

Avoid the Slack Shoulder Tap

The biggest challenge I’ve heard from my coworkers and peers is that it feels like everybody is active on Slack all day long. That amounts to lots of little chats, pings, comments, side bars and hey-quick-questions adding up very quickly.

 

On the Product Management side, this may not have created a significant change, due to the naturally cross-functioning relationship to the other business units. As product leaders, we have all sorts of techniques to keep the workflow manageably prioritized. The same cannot — and should not — be said for the designers and engineers.

 

One of the most detrimental activities for an engineer or designer is context-switching. In an office environment, it’s easier to avoid fly-by distractions. But without an IRL view of the engineer sitting across from you in the office, it’s nearly impossible to see that they are headphones-on, heads-down, jamming on whatever’s at hand. 

 

 It’s easy to forget how (annoying and) difficult it is for your team to focus on getting shit done when you are inconsistently sending Slack pings for just one thing real quickAvoid it as much as possible – and make sure the rest of the Product org does, too.

In my opinion, Slack communications within your org should be reserved for the following:

Team
Shouts

  • Use your #dev and #prod equivalent channel to broadcast key updates to the team, making sure to follow up periodically

  • Avoid any conversation or message that would be better off Slack or in a smaller group

Small Group Discussion

  •  Purpose-driven questions that involve the exact right team members, all of whom need to know what’s going on or have a unique POV

  • Reserved for non-urgent issues or topics that wouldn’t be better handled over a call

New
Integrations

  • Utilize the out-of-box integrations to build a powerful tool that can connect your platforms 

  • Check in often to make sure they’re useful for your team
  • Calendar, Logging, Project Management (eg., Atlassian) hooks can all do wonders for visibility and productivity

Retraining and restraint are crucial. Avoid the urge to Slack Tap your team and everyone will be better for it.

Lean Connnected Solution Development

Use Your Tools

If the aim is to avoid an abundance of superfluous Slack-ing then we should create ecosystems that operate to optimize your output. Every org has done this in part and parcel, but I believe this situation presents and opportunity to invest more time in realizing the potential of your digital toolkit.

 

This is an opportunity to help your product org and engineers understand that these tools are more than an industry standard or a necessary evil. The tools can and should be used to make life easier and hopefully more efficient.  

 

In a study released in October 2018 by PWC, they found that 1/3 of employees surveyed expressed a desire to use a piece of internal tech if it helped them to “[…]solve problems and have more efficient ways to do their work and collaborate with their teams”.1

Thirty-four percent is a great starting point, and there’s a clear opportunity to push the figure up while we’re all forced into a fully digital environment. 

Here are some ways to help do that with your tea

Be
Authoritative

  • Keep Slack clean.
  •  Collaborate and build only within the appropriate project management platform. We love Atlassian.
  • “This could have been [an email]!” still holds true… Don’t abuse Hangouts / Skype / Zoom meeting.

Be
An Expert

  • Dive deeper into docs that  are constantly updating around best practices.
  •  Synthesize ideas and discuss recommendations with your team; any change in behavior should be collaborative, not dictated.
  • Consider an outside consultant who can be brought in to train the team.

Stay
Iterating

  • Don’t make a change and walk away; keep the feedback loop closed for iterative improvements.
    • Remember to try it out before you push it! Some solutions sound better than they perform, and vice versa.

 

Minimize white noise and keep the team focused and moving forward. Adhere strictly to our standards of communication, learn how to be more powerful, streamlined users, and grow our motivated team user base.

The Four Imperatives

Be F2F (without the F)

While I am not collocated with my team, I am cohabitating with my partner who is transitioning to 100% WFH. There are a number of small tweaks she’s had to make since being in the office, but none has been as frustrating as the meeting standard of leaving your f**cking camera on. When I showed her my outline for this post, she rolled her eyes and said “Really? Face to Face?”.

 

I simply don’t believe that the Zoom / Skype / Teams / Hangouts product and planning meetings require an awkward angle of your face from your kitchen table in order to be productive. I’m firmly in Camp “That’s-Super-Distracting” and we’d all be better off not expected to be visible. 

 

Our lives are confined to a much smaller box and filled with all our stuff (eg., pets, kids, spouses, needy houseplants), and staring directly at your screen for an hour is unreasonable. 

 

I’m not alone in this, either. In that same PWC study, the breakdown of workers who believe in true F2F is minority and shrinking:

To be clear, there is a tremendous and – at certain times – irreplaceable value to these F2F meetings, but it is not necessarily the value of looking at your face like we’re laying in your lap. If you enjoy F2F meetings and you want yourself face-front and center, more power to you. Just don’t hold others to an unnecessary standard.

Here are the ways I believe you should be using these virtual meeting places:

Team
Stand-Up

  • These (hopefully daily) meetings should serve as a conduit for your team to connect and highlight issues or blockers in a more conversational tone. 
  • The medium is inherently more personal, which should help maintain cohesion and comradery.

One:Few
Touch-Base

  • Jump into a quick chat. Text conversations can often be more time consuming than a quick chat. 
  • Make sure you’re not overscheduling or assuming anyone is immediately available.
  • Recording the sessions is a great way to avoid having to take copious notes, should you miss something.

Create An
"Open" Hangout

  • Keep a hangout room open at all times so devs and/or designers have a central location to pop in for a quick F2F throughout the day.
  • Simulate a type of water-cooler and hopefully a shoot-the-shit opportunity.

Be sensitive to the range of WFH environments.  Not everyone has time to look camera ready or feel comfortable inviting coworkers into their home, socially or otherwise.

Take Breaks!

You’ll have read this in every other “How to Work From Home” piece, but I think it’s important enough to include as it pertains to every product org: you need to take mental and physical breaks during the day.  

As someone who has been doing this for the last 5 years, the most important thing I’ve found is that you cannot allow every day to be an unending stream of work consciousness. Take a break. Not just for yourself, but for the health and wellness of your team. Burnout is real, every day is taxing and stressful in a new and confusing way.  

Now, more than ever, people need time to absorb and reflect on a rapidly changing world, and it’s important you allow them some time in the day to disconnect and recharge.   

Here are some ways to make breaks work for everyone:

Mandate
Time-Off

  • Talk to your team members about what their breaks look like, what they like to do for the 30-45 mins (more if you’re awesome.)
  • Ask “Have you taken your break today?”; it’s encouraging to know that your manager or leader did not extend a hollow offer.

Block
It Out

  • Use your calendar to block out the time you are AFK (away from keyboard).
  • Don’t allow it to be scheduled over for any reason.
  • Ask your team to do the same.

Plan
Ahead

  • As much as possible, put all the Product meetings on the calendar by Sunday Evening or Monday morning so people can schedule their key life obligations.
  • Be flexible; meetings may need to be started late or rescheduled. Don’t take it personally.

This will pass, and we can grow stronger and closer as an organization. Do what you can to be considerate, patient and diligent.

 

That’s all for now. If you have any questions or want to chat more about how to effectively run a product organization in this changing environment, reach out to me any time at russell.taff@rw.co .

I’m off to go take a break with my new puppy, Lady. 

(Good news! NYC is adopting lots of pets!)

1. https://www.pwc.com/us/en/services/consulting/library/consumer-intelligence-series/tech-at-work.html

 

Special thanks to Evan Besser, Director of Product Management at Haven Life, for his contributions to this piece.

 

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