Remote Working for Product Teams

The building, nurturing and scaling of distributed teams

Whatever the reason for working remote, distributed teams can be both a blessing and a curse.

In my research of high-performance teams, I’ve observed that almost all design and product teams often have a combination of co-located and remote workers. Some teams sometimes forgo this option completely and ditch the office completely. And, more frequently companies are created from inception with the intention to remain distributed for the life of the business.

Why Distributed Teams Is An Essential Conversation

Why should this distribution of work matter to designers? For one, creative work is a team sport. The lone designer or engineer is as much a work of fiction as it is impractical. Furthermore, the science of interpersonal communications suggests that when teams aren’t working face to face, communication changes. Facial expressions, emotions and subtle body language communicates a significant amount of information. These cues are not just important to the internal team communications but can be essential to any team that cares deeply about these subtle cues in understanding their users.

Remote Product Creation is Unavoidable

While companies like Invision, Automattic, and Atlassian were founded with distributed teams in mind, many companies are forced to adopt remote working. Recently Liberty Mutual announced it is asking 640 of its workers to find alternatives to coming into their offices. The insurance company is closing down 300,000 sq ft of office space in Boston and telling hundreds of workers to work from home. John Hancock and PricewaterhouseCoopers have shrunk their office footprint in recent years, in some cases taking away employees’ permanent desks and putting greater emphasis on common working areas.

InVision has 800 employees and no office (Source: Business Insider)

Talent acquisition is a two-sided coin. As the companies search for ideal talent, the talent simultaneously searches for the ideal job.

Those ideal jobs are increasingly not in large metro areas. High rents, mind-numbing traffic, and competition for positions are driving workers to ex-urban and smaller cities. This migration is most prevalent in the already overcrowded cities of San Francisco, Austin, Boston, and New York, but is being felt everywhere. 44% of all job seekers located in San Francisco or San Jose are looking outside those metro areas for jobs. A massive 67% jump since 2012.

The Talent War Is Now More Of A Talent Discovery Expedition

In the last year, I’ve interviewed design leaders from a wide range of companies such as Deloitte Digital, Pivotal Labs, USAA, AARP and IBM. All of these companies point to the acquisition and retention of design talent as a critical consideration in choosing distributed models of working.

Practical Ways To Make Remote Working Work

Product design teams deliver value by collaborating to solve problems. This problem solving is generally limited by the communication culture and the communication channels adopted by the team or their organization. Culture and channels are intertwined with each other and can influence the ability of a team to collaborate effectively. Innovative company culture cannot exist in an organization where channels are bureaucratic or even non-existent. For the remote team, these considerations are the bedrock for collaborative communication.

Remote Culture As Strategy

Culture is the foundation for any team success so it’s important for design leaders to craft the psychological space inside which work happens. Distributed teams require a strong culture to align their activities with. In the absence of the subtle in-office cues, remote teams rely on these cultural guidelines. This guideline crafting does not translate to rulemaking.

Remote Teams Require Different Tools and Techniques

Going remote will require the adoption of new tools and new behaviors. Channels for communications are also a function of available technology. Fortunately, the tech tools to share, talk and collaborate keep getting better.

Making Remote Work A Positive Part Of Work

Remote or distributed work can feel like an obstacle to successful communication, and in some cases it is. But there is also an opportunity to use remote work as the impetus behind improving culture and opening new channels.

Dad, husband, cyclist, product and design transformation leader. I write books on design & product.

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