Now everybody is working from home

It’s a strange world we are living in today. Coronavirus is sweeping across the globe and creating chaos. It’s a scary time for everyone, both on a personal and business level.

We’re all trying to adapt quickly to keep the world moving. And one interesting dimension is the challenge to the base assumption that we all have to go into a commonplace of work, “the office”, to do most things.

The idea of working from home has existed for a long time. But it’s been damaged by people saying that’s what they’re doing when, in reality, they’re just at home in their PJs, bingeing on Netflix. This puts even more pressure on people who regularly work from home to prove they are doing something worthwhile.

Now that everyone is doing it, maybe it will help overcome this negative stereotype!

For some people and companies, remote working is normal

Famously in the Product Management tools space, Aha! is a fully remote business. Brian de Haaf, their CEO, is a great advocate for the benefits of a remote team and has written lots about it.

I also find myself uniquely qualified to provide advice right now, because it turns out that for pretty much my entire Product Management career (11 years) I have been a remote worker!

At one point I was sat in the UK, doing no work with the UK team, but instead working with India and the USA every day. Believe me, it took some time to make this work effectively.

How I started to work remotely

I started working remotely back in 2009. It was an odd situation. The company I worked for had just been acquired, and within three months, I found myself a newly-minted Product Manager. That’s not odd. The odd bit was that I was now part of a global product team that had nothing to do with the people around me. I was driving 2 hours every day to go into an office, sit on my own and not talk to anyone in the building.

So I broached the subject with my new boss; “Do you mind if I start working from home?” He laughed and said “I’m the only person based in San Diego, and my boss is one of only two based in Detroit. What do you think we do?” And that was it; I was a remote worker. That wasn’t as extreme as is happening now, but started my journey. I had no idea how to do it and make it work, but I figured it out as I went along.

The new normal?

To be honest, it worked well for me. I already had a home office, so I just used it more. I brought an extra monitor and docking station home from work to improve my setup. Having the right environment certainly helped make it easier. Working on the sofa in front of the TV was much less productive!

Since then, I have continued to work remotely. This has included building and leading teams of product managers. Many of the most effective people I have ever had the pleasure of working with are also remote workers. They know when and how to interact and communicate. They also know when and how to knuckle down and get some deep work done.

I exchanged messages with another previous boss this week. He commented about how the whole organization was now working together remotely. I had to laugh as he had resisted working from home when I worked with him. It took a major global crisis to crack him out of his old ways of working. I suspect that is also true for many of you out there.

So the big question is, will we ever want to go back, or will this be the start of a significant change to how many businesses work longer-term?

Advice for leaders …

As someone who has led distributed and remote teams, here is my key advice: Trust and flexibility are essential.

Also think about how you can turn what is happening into an opportunity, not a problem.

1. Build a foundation of trust

Over the last few years, the realization that outcomes are more important than output has grown in the Product world, but it has not reached everyone. It’s too easy to measure the amount of work done as a proxy measure that we assume maps to success. But we have learned this is not accurate in most cases. If you want to know more about this, check out “Escaping the Build Trap” or “Project to Product”.

Presentee-ism is a symptom of this, with people working longer hours in the office to be “seen” to be contributing. But typically, this leads to diminishing returns, with every extra hour being less and less productive.

When the team isn’t sat in front of you in the office, you can’t do this.

Some people are tempted to use further proxies, such as seeing people logged in and active on their computers. Resist the urge. Trust your team and focus on them having a positive business impact, not just burning hours. Frankly, I learned not to care if my team worked only 10 hours a week as long as they delivered!

2. Embrace flexibility within a framework

Understand and define what the team needs to achieve and how you want to operate in these times. Then clearly communicate them both.

In my experience, many people will stretch the hours, perhaps working at different times of day that better suit them and their productivity. Maybe exercising in the middle of the day when they used to do it first thing before work.

You might want to consider some core hours that make collaboration easier but be flexible beyond that so that people can find what works best for them.

Define, with the team, how people should communicate. By that I mean there are lots of channels available to us all today: Phone, Chat, Slack, E-mail, Video, WhatsApp, etc. The list seems to grow every day.

When switching to remote work, there can be a temptation to add more channels or change current patterns. But if everyone tries something different, it fragments information and adds even more overheads to stay aligned. Define the tools you will use and how. Is it Phone if you need a quick answer now? Is it Chat if you want something over the next 30 minutes to an hour, but not urgent? Is e-mail a 1-2 day turnaround? Hint, that is how I use them!

3. Seize the opportunity

The current situation might be an excellent opportunity for you. The slowing of “normal” business presents a chance to reflect, reset and invest in building for the future. Set the goal to come out the other side stronger. Take some time to plan how you will achieve that. Take a look at our Product Management Audit service – now could be an ideal time to benchmark and improve how you do product management.

I fear there are a lot of companies that will not survive through this crisis. Those that do will be leaner and some will be stronger. Ready to take the market by storm. Are you going to be one of them?

One option is to invest in the training and development of your team. At Product Focus, we’re adapting our world class face-to-face training into an online course. Take a look if you’re interested in our online training.

4. Remember the individuals

Don’t forget one-2-ones, because at this time everyone is more stressed than usual. Some people will take it in their stride, some will even thrive in this environment, but others will struggle.

You need to monitor how people are doing and be available to help them. The personal connection and knowing you care, that you will listen even if you can’t change anything, will help a lot of people.

Don’t just talk about work. Talk about how they are feeling, their fears, their families, anything to help put them at ease and show you care about them. You might find that you come out of this with deeper relationships that will be an even stronger basis for your future success.

5. Focus on enabling

It is not going to be a smooth transition for all of your team members. And there will be challenges in making things run smoothly. Not least of which is having the right technology in place.

As a leader, your job is to make sure that the impediments and issues that the team encounters are dealt with quickly and smoothly. The more you take that hassle away from your team, the more effective they will be in this new setting, which ultimately translates into your success.

Yes, it can be tough being a leading team, especially at the moment, so you may want to consider our Product Leader Mentoring.

Advice for product managers

As an individual working remotely, it can feel lonely, so make the most of any community and connection you can. Set some positive habits to help you get your head in the right place.

As humans, the need for face-2-face interaction is baked into how our brains work. And that is still true for introverts like me! Without human contact, you will go insane, possibly quite literally! Most of us work as part of a team, so don’t lose sight of that when working remotely; the team is still there even if you can’t see them all the time.

1. Work at staying in touch

Remember you are not alone; you are part of a team, part of a community. Look after each other. It is not just the leader’s job to look after the team; it is everyone’s responsibility to support each other.

Ask other people what they are doing. Ask how they are making it work. Show you care, dedicate some time on calls to the little chats you would have had in the office. It is fine for it not to be all about business, or work, all of the time!

Don’t forget that you have a phone. Voice is so much more powerful than written text in a chatbox. Call each other. Better yet use video. I know some remote teams that leave the video running all day to give the feeling of togetherness. Don’t just talk about work, have the “water cooler” or coffee machine chats you would have had about what is happening in the world and people’s lives. Doing that helps build and maintain the connection.

2. Synchronize regularly

Regular communication is key; you need to stay synchronized. Don’t just rely on updating data in tools. Talk to each other.

I borrowed a technique from the agile software world: the standup. Every day my team had a quick check-in with each other. The subject matter was three simple points:

  1. What happened yesterday that we need to know? (hint don’t list your meetings!)
  2. What is your focus today? (again not a list of meetings, but the things you plan to achieve)
  3. What help do you need or blockers do you have? (but don’t try to solve them on the call)

This simple structure gave a great way of keeping aligned. It was the first 15-minutes of every day. Obviously, with teams across multiple time zones, you might have to schedule things a bit differently, but if that is the case you are probably already used to handling being remote from some of the team!

3. Support each other

We always followed this session with “office hours”, a simple 45-minute slot that the whole team kept free. This was the time to deal with the problems identified. To handle any pressing issues. If no-one needed it, you also had some time to do some real work! It wasn’t always down to me as the leader to solve the problems in this slot; often, it was a case of getting two or three of the team to work together to deal with it themselves.

Helping each other should also not be limited to just that time slot. Being able to put a call for help out on systems like Teams or Slack and to ask for an opinion just like you would across the office shouldn’t go away. Just because someone is not sitting there in front of you doesn’t mean you can’t contact them. People forget they can just reach out to ask the same thing. They get stuck inside their head. Break out of yours!

What not to do!

4. Routine provides a foundation

Have a routine and stick to it. It might not be the classic 9-5 routine, but it should be a simple and repeatable pattern. People need to know when you are available, and the discipline will also help you be productive. This also means setting some boundaries; don’t check your e-mail 24-hours a day or continue working into the small hours, just because you didn’t get up from the sofa.

Remember to take breaks. Get away from the computer for a coffee and lunch. Maybe that is time to indulge that Netflix urge, but just one episode! The way you work needs to be sustainable for more than a few days. Many people are looking at many months of this new way of working. It will be novel for the first week then if you don’t do it right you will be climbing the walls!

5. Stay professional

You are in your home environment; you will be tempted not to get dressed or to put the TV on. Remember, you are at work. Behave like you are. Stay professional. Put on your work clothes. Play some music maybe; I find that music is a great way to help reduce the temptations of other more distracting things.

6. Get your mind in the right place

Having a routine is a foundation for this but not enough. You also need the right mindset. Most people have some sort of commute to an office. The benefits of that mentally cannot be understated. Whether you realize it or not, you mentally transition from “home” to “work” and back again on that commute. Walking across the landing, or down the stairs, just doesn’t achieve the same thing.

For me, it is a long shower before I put on my “uniform” and go into my office. I sometimes follow that by playing a “psyche up” playlist that I created. For other people, it’s exercise. It might be as simple as a cup of coffee sitting at your desk reading your LinkedIn feed for 10 minutes. Find what works for you to make that mental switch and use it each day, both start and end.

7. Have a workspace

Set yourself up a workspace. Not merely sitting on the sofa if you can avoid it. If you don’t have a home office, then the dining room table is probably your best option. It is more like the desk you are used to having.

Keep the area clear. Ending up surrounded by piles of washing or empty coffee cups will make you less productive. It will distract you. Treat your new workspace like your workspace in the office.

Don’t just sit at a laptop all day as well. Work offline. I have a bigger whiteboard in my home office than you see in most meeting rooms. It is a vital part of my way of working because it allows me to escape the digital noise for a while. You might not have that – but I bet you have some pads of paper. Use them to achieve the same escape. Analog techniques are powerful even on your own.

8. Prioritize the long term

For most of us, the short-term right now is out of our hands. Governments are closing things down. Business has taken a dive as customers tighten their financial belts to weather the storm. But it won’t last forever.

What you can do is get ready for when things are over or at least improving. You can make sure you come out of this stronger. Spend time planning. Your customers have the same thing happening to them. And strangely they are probably more available for you to talk to now than normally. You just won’t be able to do it face-2-face. If you want to do some real and valuable discovery to ensure you have the right product when the crisis passes, why not line up lots of video calls?

Invest in personal growth, as well. Take that online course you have been planning. Read those books sitting on your bookshelf. Feed your mind with the knowledge you need to be even better in the future.

Ash cloud

Ash cloud rising from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland

Stuff happens, roll with it

COVID-19 is not the first crisis, and it won’t be the last. Medically there has been SARS, MERS, H1N1, and Ebola in just the last 20 years. There was the financial crisis of 2008/9. The dotcom bubble bursting in the late 1990s. They all had an impact, but for certain, they all passed.

Some of you may remember the Icelandic ash cloud back in 2010. I was one of the unfortunate people who found themselves stuck a long way from home. Literally. I wasn’t just in mainland Europe struggling to get back to the UK, where I might be able to drive home. I was stuck in Singapore.

At the time there was lots of talk about people having to use holidays or just not get paid. There were indeed people I know who had to do a combination of both. I managed the situation quite well, though. I showed willingness. I got things done despite being on the other side of the world with no laptop.

I had my Blackberry with me, and I knew the company had a local office, so I went to see them and got onto the company systems. I was able to get caught up on my holiday backlog, broadly keep on top of new things and start making some progress. No way was I as efficient as if I had my equipment, but it was better than doing nothing.

Note: I would not recommend walking into your company’s international offices at this point, because they are probably on lockdown like everyone else. The moral of this story though is to get a bit creative, be flexible and find options on how you can get things done. Instead of complaining about what is going wrong, get going on making things work.

Don’t be afraid to experiment and learn from others

All the advice here might sound like it was a simple and straight line to successful remote working. That could not be further from the truth. It is easy to make it sound straightforward in retrospect. The reality is that there were many bumps along the way. Things that I tried that simply didn’t work. Some other things I tried that made things worse than they were before. You can’t know precisely what will work for you and your team until you try it, so don’t be afraid to experiment a little. If it doesn’t work, then try something else.

I hope I have inspired you with some nuggets of wisdom I have learned along the way that can help you turn this crisis into an opportunity. I believe virtually all of the advice is applicable beyond Product Management teams too, but that is where it was all learned, so it is especially relevant there.

I’m also not the only person writing about this area, and as I was partway through, I saw posts by other thought leaders in the Product Management world. Marty Cagan, despite being a big fan of the benefits of face-2-face, has posted about it here. Teresa Torres has also posted “5 Ways to Help Your Product Team Thrive”. There is lots of guidance out there – soak it in and figure out what works for you.

Don’t forget we’re here to help, even if it is remotely at the moment, so get in touch if you’re interested in online product management training.

Phil Hornby
Product Focus Senior Consultant and Independent Consultant

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Phil,
Hi,
This is a great piece for those who are working at home for the first time as the majority of people are now!!
You cover everything that people need to know.
You and I both started on a similar path at the same time so we know that with a little discipline it can and does work.
Well done. Inspiring and practical.

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