Remote Product Development: 5 Project Manager-y Tips to Transition to Remote Work

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Grey kitten looking at laptop screen

This article is part of a multi-part series on remote digital product development. As a fully-distributed organization since 2016, DockYard’s experienced teams of project managers, designers, and engineers have learned a lot about how to seamlessly collaborate across disciplines and time zones.

Over the last decade, I’ve worked remotely as a project manager “herding kittens” from afar. My goal was always to avoid a commute longer than 26 steps, but I’ll admit it has its challenges. As a project manager working in product development, I’ve had the opportunity to onboard many new remote workers and have cultivated some suggestions to streamline the transition.

1. Emojis and Gifs are Your Friends

In the office, you show your personality many ways: the collectible “DT saber” Luke Skywalker action figure on your desk, animal-shaped brownies every Friday, or wearing your favorite bowling shoes. However, working remotely, many personal quirks are hidden. Communication is usually asynchronous via Slack or other collaboration tools which removes the ability to convey tone of voice, body language, the iconic cocked eyebrow.

One solution to both problems? Emojis and GIFs.

I hear you, you’re saying, “but that’s not my style,” and I get it. A yellow smiley face is nobody’s style. But push past that resistance and embrace all that these tools can do. They fill in those communication gaps. Sarcasm is a winky face away. That laughing emoji? It says “they’re joking.” Not satisfied with the yellow-faced “stock” emojis?” Create custom emojis to demonstrate your personality. Replace “winky face” with Nick Cage’s ConAir wink or replace the eye roll emoji with an exasperated Judge Judy. Spice things up with a GIF of Homer disappearing into bushes, illustrating how much you don’t want a task being assigned. Miscommunications will vanish and coworkers can grasp how big a Batman fan you are.

2. Create Casual Conversations and Team Bonding Moments

At first, working from home is a festival of freedoms. Pants? Dealer’s choice! But when the shine dulls, sometimes isolation settles in. Remote workers can struggle with feeling disconnected from their co-workers. Supportive organizations recognize this by providing methods to help. Distributed companies often schedule in-person retreats which are great! But they can also be a logistical challenge, expensive, and only happen annually. Ain’t nobody bonding at that pace.

DockYard has implemented several rituals to help here. We have onboarding buddies: a pilot program matching new hires with an experienced DockYarder to be their guide, their go-to for questions, and to help them settle in. Fridays are for Coffee House: a standing window with an open video call for folks to chat about non-work stuff (aka a virtual water cooler). We also recently started a Narwin Culture Buddy program where participants are randomly matched every two weeks, taking time for a quick, casual 1-on-1 chat to get to know each other. These all bring our organization together, breaking down the potential for isolation.

3. Give Timely and Specific Feedback

As part of a remote team, it can be hard to get a balanced impression of your co-workers, direct reports, and management. Interactions often happen in little vacuums, with results working their way through pipelines slowly with the accuracy of a game of telephone. Someone’s triumphant bug fix becomes a tale of catching a huge spider. Still good, but very different. This is countered by prompt, robust, and detailed feedback. Positive feedback encourages repeat behavior and constructive feedback is how we improve.

DockYard employs a product called Fellow to streamline the feedback process, channeling it to recipients and conveniently storing it for later. We also have a way for employees to recognize their fellow coworker’s outstanding contributions. Our DockYard store (full of DockYard swag like shirts, accessories, etc.), includes an online form one can use to nominate colleagues for stand-out work that truly embodies DockYard’s values. This results in the recognized DockYarder receiving the glowing feedback and a rocking store credit!

4. Collaborate Online

Being spread across different geographies, you lose the luxury of grabbing an open conference room and “tossing ideas on the whiteboard to see what sticks.” This could stymy collaboration — a crucial aspect of strong teamwork. Thanks to something called “the internet” we collaborate from the comfort of our breakfast nook or screened porch.

DockYard uses Google Docs, but there are many options out there; the key is consistent use of collaborative platforms: share meeting agendas with attendees and encourage their input, take notes online so others see them evolve, or sketch out concepts via virtual whiteboards. Not only does this provide free-flowing collaboration, it improves the process. Gone is the “who is taking notes?”/not-it mamba! You record as you brainstorm. It’s iterative and efficient!

5. Document Your Achievements

Someone once said: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” It’s never more true than at work. You probably do two to three awesome things a week, but if I asked you right this minute for one, could you think of any? Probably not. Solution: create infrastructure to track it. Every Friday my calendar asks “Any accomplishments this week?” and I protect 15-minutes to really consider the question. I record whatever I think of during these super-uncomfortable, self-congratulatory reflections. Icky? Maybe. But get beyond that to see the value and learn about yourself. This sometimes provides those “aha!” moments to figure out what to be when you grow up. Or if you even should.

At the end of the day, project management is as much about understanding people as it is about workflows. While you may not share a physical space with your teammates, know that you can be just as productive and collaborative when you convey your personality digitally by using the right tools, make space for team bonding, create a culture of feedback, and remember to celebrate the wins — both big and small!

DockYard is a digital product agency offering custom software, mobile, and web application development consulting. We provide exceptional professional services in strategy, user experience, design, and full stack engineering using Ember.js, React.js, Ruby, and Elixir. With a nationwide staff, we’ve got consultants in key markets across the United States, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, Austin, New York, and Boston.