Now that 2020 has shifted how and where the world works, it’s time to look at the things that can help digital product organizations thrive when everyone isn’t always together.
It goes without saying – COVID-19 fundamentally changed how the global workforce operates when tens of millions of workers were forced to work from home, essentially overnight. For many digital product teams, the change was drastic and jarring. For others, this is how they’ve already been working, driven largely by offshore engineering teams.
As we settle into the new normal (which is still being shaped), teams are still figuring out how to build products when the team is completely or partially distributed and away from the office. In this article, we are calling this new working structure a ‘hybrid product organization.’ We also believe this working model is here to stay.
Now, for some product teams, this has been the case for a long time, particularly if you have already been working in an offshore engineering model. These organizations have taught us a lot about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to building great digital products and driving innovation & growth for the business. Those teams that have been working this way for years clearly had an advantage over those that didn’t when COVID hit in early 2019.
Our experience leading hybrid product organizations is that this new model can be highly effective and should be embraced by leaders. There is strong evidence that productivity and results can be achieved, even when some or all employees are remote. “The McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) estimates that more than 20 percent of the global workforce (most of them in high-skilled jobs in sectors such as finance, insurance, and IT) could work the majority of its time away from the office—and be just as effective.” (https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/leadership/the-next-normal-arrives-trends-that-will-define-2021-and-beyond)
In order for digital product organizations to achieve this level of effectiveness when everyone isn’t in the office, product leaders should be focused on taking the product management methodology and applying it to their own organization by optimizing and iterating on how the team works, communicates, and collaborates.
Here are six focus areas that digital product leaders should address to ensure success in the new hybrid model.
Vision & Culture
One of the issues that keep many executives up at night is how to maintain the unique identity, culture, and values of their company or team now that their employees are no longer together on a daily basis. This challenge requires a new level of leadership to maintain and adapt their culture to the new paradigm of working.
Another challenge in the hybrid model for digital product teams is driving innovation. Continuing to develop innovative products and capabilities is dependent on everyone buying into the vision and seeing their role in that vision. Innovation isn’t going to happen by accident. It must be fostered and cultivated. Developing innovation within hybrid product organizations starts with leadership clearly defining the mission and vision, ensuring everyone understands that vision, and continuously reinforcing the vision with their teams and individuals. This reinforcement should be consistently delivered across your product, UX, and engineering resources.
With everyone on the same page and driving to the same goal, working in a hybrid model can lead to incredible culture and results.
Organization Design & Structure
Creating the optimal product team structures is a core tenant of a product leader’s role. With a hybrid product workforce, new team structures may be needed. This may require fewer or more employees and different team alignment. Finding the right balance between team members that are now fully remote and those that spend time in the office permanently or partially is important to ensure all teams have the same capacity for collaboration and team building.
Product leaders should be continuously evaluating the makeup of their hybrid teams to identify quickly those teams that have too many or too few resources, and those that experiencing roadblocks due to a new working model.
A hybrid team model requires a new leadership toolkit. One of the most important aspects of leading remote teams is alignment on goals, objectives, and expected outcomes for each remote employee. As a leader of people, it’s your job to balance your team’s personal productivity with business results. Ensuring each employee is clear on what is expected of them when working remotely from the beginning can reduce the risk of compliance issues down the road.
In addition to being clear on accountability and expectations, great leaders know that empowering their employees can have a dramatic positive impact on employee satisfaction. Setting expectations for the team but giving them the ability to navigate how to get there can reduce the pressure on teams to perform but not being vested in those results.
Tools & Collaboration
In addition to new leadership tools, this new way of working requires a new set of productivity, communication, and collaboration tools. Fortunately, many of these tools have been advancing over the last decade that help teams communicate and collaborate with each other in real-time, even when they are around the globe.
Most enterprise-level organizations already utilize software like Slack, Zoom, Notion, Microsoft Teams, Basecamp, and the Atlassian suite to collaborate and drive work forward. Utilizing these tools is now baked into the DNA of how modern digital product teams work.
One of our favorite new tools is a digital whiteboard platform called Mural.co. Mural lets teams collaborate together and can be an effective tool to use with internal teams and clients. Mural also comes with many pre-loaded templates designed specifically for digital product teams.
The bottom line is new tools can greatly help reduce the friction of not being in the same room as a colleague. But they still cannot replicate the value of human interaction. Don’t count on a software tool to solve all of your problems when it comes to working in a hybrid model, and plan for face-to-face collaboration when possible.
Too often leaders think that others understand what is happening, why change is happening, and how the employee is expected to support that change. As we know, this doesn’t always happen, and if it does, typically the communication falls short. Making things worse, the move to a hybrid product organization will exacerbate the issue. It’s critical to continuously reinforce these core messages and not assume your employees know and accept those reasons.
Strong communication that is timely and consistent will help employees adjust faster to new models. Creating systems like pulse surveys and other forums for employees to give feedback to leadership and ask questions also has been proven to make the transformation easier.
Without strategic, two-way communication between employees and leaders, your chances of fostering an environment that will thrive are far less likely.
Training & Change Management
One of the most overlooked aspects of any transformation is change management and training. By providing your employees the knowledge and tools to progress their careers and thrive during periods of immense change, they will reward you with better outcomes. Helping employees understand the why behind the changes taking place is a critical first step that often gets missed by leaders that are in a rush to get moving. Helping your product teams understand how they fit into a new organizational structure and how their career paths may alter can provide a sense of security, even when seismic changes are taking place around them.
Leaders should ask the following questions when thinking about optimizing a hybrid workforce:
- How do we hold meetings? Certain days of the week? And how do we ensure meetings are effective for those in the office and remote?
- To level the playing field for remote workers – should we have certain days that everyone is remote? Should we cycle people in the office on a schedule to ensure everyone has the same experience?
- How do we approach team building and brainstorming? What tools do we need to drive better collaboration when everyone isn’t in the same room?
- How do we foster a connected culture, where everyone feels they are valued and heard?
It’s rare for product teams to have the opportunity to reset how they work. The old saying goes it’s like trying to change the tires on a car that’s doing 60 mph down the highway. But COVID has done just that. Many leaders of digital product teams have already started the hybrid model but more can be done. Take the opportunity to reevaluate how your hybrid product organization can accelerate growth by leveraging the very same product management models to optimize how your teams work and deliver value to your customers.