Remote work is on the rise. An increasing number of companies have their employees spread all over the world. The benefits are many. You can hire from a much bigger pool of talent, don’t need to rent office space, and can serve your customers across a wider range of time zones. Being a remote team has benefits for your employees too. They’re more productive because they’re not interrupted as much, they don’t need to commute, and they have more autonomy over their schedules.
But building and managing a remote team has its challenges too. Swapna Malekar has seen both sides of the coin. From 2016 to 2017, she was the Head of Product at Klood, a fully remote tech startup across the UK and Canada. But currently, she’s a Product Lead at the Royal Bank of Canada, which has tens of thousands of employees in offices around the world.
Working for both companies has shown her the differences (and the similarities) between non-remote and remote product teams. It has given her a unique perspective on the challenges of managing a remote product team, and how you can overcome them too.
Make Everything Explicit
The office life of a non-remote employee inherently comes with boundaries. People commute to a specific place for work, where they need to be at a specific time, where they can leave at a specific time, where there’s a specific place for meetings, and so on. All these boundaries come naturally and are easily understood.
While these boundaries are vitally important, none of them exist in a remote team. You need to make them explicit. For example, Swapna emphasized the importance of the one-page document that defined Klood’s most important processes and rules. The document guided how they made decisions at the company. All employees read it once a week to make sure everyone was on the same page.
What’s important here isn’t that you need a one-page document for your processes and rules, but that you explicitly set boundaries that everyone in the company respects. Mind you, these boundaries aren’t set in stone either. When Klood started growing, they decided to use email for task-related messages, to reduce what was then an overwhelming number of messages on their Slack channels. This new process worked, but only because they made it explicit and because everyone followed it.
Making rules and processes explicit helps in particular when onboarding a remote employee. Without an explicit process, it can be a frustrating process to onboard someone new, both for the new employee and for the person doing the onboarding. Swapna said that they found it helpful for a new hire to physically meet at least one person from the team, preferably from the product team, to quickly get them up to speed with everything in the company.
Processes will vary drastically between remote companies, and they’ll change over time too, but you’ll find that the most successful remote companies have their rules, processes, and guidelines neatly documented in an easily accessible place.
Your Employees Shouldn’t Feel Disadvantaged
If you’re spread around the world, you need to be conscious of everyone’s time zones. First and foremost, there have to be at least a few hours of overlap between time zones. This is an important consideration when it comes to hiring new employees.
For example, hiring someone from Japan when the rest of your team is distributed across the Pacific Coast of the US isn’t a smart choice, as their time zones don’t overlap. Ideally, you’re looking for half a working day of overlap between everyone’s time zones. This will give enough time for everyone to communicate and hand off tasks, while also giving enough time for everyone to focus on their work without interruptions.
In addition, you want to make sure that every employee feels as if they’re being treated fairly. If you’re a company where most remote employees are located in the US, you don’t want your European employees to feel as if they’re always the ones who have to deal with client or product emergencies at difficult hours. Make it fair for everyone.
Know What Everyone’s Working On
As the Head of Product of a small, enthusiastic startup, Swapna found it a challenge to keep all heads looking in the same direction. Having a vision of the product helped Klood determine which ideas to go for and which to leave behind. If an idea didn’t walk the product closer toward the ultimate vision, it wasn’t implemented.
Another useful document was the product roadmap. Klood had two physical off-site meetings where they shared the roadmap of the product with everyone in the team. It was a great way to physically meet all your colleagues and get excited about the future of the product. The roadmap gave a clear idea about the product features that would be prioritized over the next few months.
Finally, Swapna used Trello, a particular JIRA software management app, and Notion to have deep insight into what everyone was working on at any specific point in time. The key takeaway here is that you need to decide, together with your team, what software you’ll use for task management and documentation. There are hundreds of tools available for this. Most likely, you only need two to four different types of software. Decide which ones you’ll use and stick with them.
Swapna also used Geekbot to make the daily Scrum standups of her team more efficient. Given that they were a remote team, they didn’t want to do a conference call every day to update everyone. Geekbot served as everyone’s useful daily reminder to write up what they were working on, so management was always up-to-date.
“We wanted to make our daily job more efficient. We did not want to have meetings; every day we had to have a con call just to hear updates from each other. That’s why Geekbot was very helpful because every person in the team could get an automated reminder to update their colleagues on what they were doing, what was happening, and what their challenges were.”
While remote work comes with many benefits, managing a remote team has its unique challenges too. Firstly, you need to make things explicit. Document your processes, rules, and guidelines in a place where they’re easy for everyone to find.
Secondly, make sure everyone in your remote team is treated fairly. Be mindful of everyone’s time zones and make sure the workload is fairly distributed. Finally, make sure you are always aware of what everyone is working on, particularly if you’re a Product Lead. Software such as Trello, Notion, and Geekbot help.