Coaching the Remote Product Team

Are you coaching a remote product or analyst team? As their manager, you’ll need to make sure they are ready for the challenges of working remotely. But some of the key skills they’ll need are the same skills they’ll need to be successful in the office. Here’s my list of the most important skills and capabilities that will make your team members successful while they are working remotely.

Facilitation

Because so much of the work remote teams do is by video conference or over the phone, having top notch facilitation skills is key. Good facilitation starts with having a meeting purpose and agenda. It’s knowing the right people to include and their roles. And finally, it’s being able to guide the group through the topics, achieving the intended purpose of the meeting. (See my post Five Principles to Make Your Meeting Planning Effective Every Time for more tips on planning effective meetings.)

Facilitation is more than knowing how to lead a meeting. It’s also about modeling behaviors that convey to the group that you are confident in what will be discussed, in getting the group to the goals stated in the agenda and more importantly, that you will create an environment that is psychologically safe and open so that the participants can contribute.

Active Listening

Active listening is listening with all your senses, not just hearing what someone is saying. Some of the ways to employ active listening is:

  • giving the speaker the floor or being silent as someone speaks
  • asking questions to not only clarify your understanding but also to show that you are engaged with what they are saying
  • paraphrasing or summarizing what’s been said to confirm your understanding

There are also physical ways that we can demonstrate active listening. These ways can be important to demonstrate when participating in video conference or phone call:

  • monitoring our posture and that of others to watch for signs of inattentiveness or defensiveness. Someone have their arms folded while they’re listening? Or looking at their phone? Are you slumped in your chair?
  • watching the body language of others on video calls. Just as you are monitoring your own physical state, it’s important to watch others for signs of disagreement, disinterest or discomfort. This can tell you a lot about how (or if) they are engaged.
  • knowing voices by name. I think this is a really special skill and one can that build trust and confidence especially in calls without video. You work with many of the same people. I’m sure you recognize their voice and can respond to them by name even when you can’t see them. Develop this skill and you will be a conference call hero!

Tools

Having the right tools at your fingertips make the job of being a remote work easier. The tools I’m referring to are the ones that will keep the team connected to customers and to each other. Having these tools isn’t the skill. Knowing how to use them and how to recover when they malfunction (which happens sometimes!) is critical. Leaders with remote staff should ensure that these tools in these categories are available:

  • Hardware – Let’s start with the obvious. Your machine or laptop. These must enable you to connect to the internet reliably but also connect to your network or the tools you use to do your job. (note about VPN: these can be fickle. Lots of remote workers can overwhelm a poorly planned VPN. Cloud products which don’t rely on network access are better for companies who use remote workers).
  • Internet – I have seen lack of access to or poor quality of internet be a barrier to remote workers. Your internet access should be as high quality as possible. Many times employers will provide a stipend for your internet account so be sure to ask.
  • Audio/Video tools – I don’t just include the computer in the list of required hardware. Having a camera and headset (or one of the fancier speaker/microphone combos) is essential. Your work is already largely conversational and collaborative as an analyst. You must have tools that will enable you to communicate clearly. Don’t just rely on your machines microphone and speakers. These are generally mediocre quality.
  • Collaboration tools – At some point, the results of your work will be documented and when it is, collaborative tools are the best. These tools allow you to get your thoughts on “paper” and then have co-workers or stakeholders access the same content. Collaborative tools like wikis (think Confluence), online document tools (Google Docs) or SharePoint make your work accessible 24/7 to an audience anywhere who can comment, update or view. These tools are critical to the role of the remote analyst.

Leaders of remote teams need to make sure their employees know how to recover or whom to call in the event that something stops working. The day doesn’t end if there’s a tool failure but the remote worker must be resilient enough to know what alternates are available to resume their work.

Self-direction

Do you get your work done when no one is watching? That’s pretty much every day on the job when you’re a remote employee. If being self-directed is tough, being a remote product person can be tough. A remote worker must be able to put together a work plan for the day and then perform her tasks. In addition, being remote means that if you encounter an obstacle, you must figure out a workaround or know that you must reach out to someone for assistance.

Examples of what it means to be self-directed are:

  • able to plan your own work
  • being accountable for seeing work to its completion with little direct guidance
  • being able to move forward without having to ask for permission or instructions
  • capable of independent decision making
  • knowing when to reach out for help before an assignment is late

Managers of remote teams must have regular touch points with remote employees to help gauge progress and assess their remote workers’ ability to keep moving. This doesn’t mean being over-bearing or micromanaging but finding a balance between checking in and letting the product team member work independently.

Team Spirit

Admittedly, this is one you probably haven’t heard before. I think having team spirit and knowing how to convey it is essential for the work of the remote product team. Most of the work that product professionals do is transactional. We have conversations. We ask questions. We listen to our customers. We build relationships. In the office we do this by “showing ourselves” to build trust and collaboration. A little play and team spirit are a crucial part of your virtual day too! Product Leaders and Managers, remember to coach your remote product team to incorporate a few of these things into their day:

  • Start the first few minutes of your meetings with a little light conversation. I call this technique Take Five to Socialize: A Remote Technique! As people are joining the call, call each person by name and speak to them. Such as, “Jenny, good to see you. How was your ski trip?” Tell a funny story or do a little show and tell. This light conversation builds a sense of community and trust.
  • Host virtual lunches or coffees. I spend a lot of my day on calls, but I like to catch up with my team mates every once in a while. The only time I can do that is over lunch . . . introducing the Virtual Lunch! We bring our lunches and shoot the breeze. Just like in the office break room but virtually.
  • Celebrate. I’m not typically the one in the office who decorates for holidays or dresses up for occasions but when I’m remote, I do. Why? Because I am in front of the camera most of the time and I want the people I work with to see that I’m human and I like to have a little fun. This can also be a fun activity if you have a multi-cultural team. I love seeing my Indian team members dressed so colorfully for Diwali and they love my ugly Christmas sweaters!

Managing a remote product team is much like managing one located in an office. The focus of your time however should be on coaching for these five key areas that will enhance their communication and collaboration. Coaching in these areas will make your product team not only better at remote work but better all around in their product work.

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