In January 2019, I joined a team that was based out of HubSpot’s Dublin office, while I was based in Cambridge, MA. Our frontend engineers, backend engineers, designer, UX researcher, and analyst were all sitting together and for the most part, had been working together for some time. It was an intimidating career move to join that team as a product manager.
At the time, I would still go into the HubSpot HQ office in Cambridge every day. I spent most of my morning on Zoom with the team and then the afternoon writing, researching, or meeting with stakeholders who were in my timezone. It took some time to get used to working this way, and I’d be lying if I said it was a smooth adjustment. For the three years prior, I sat with HubSpot’s marketing acquisition team, who were all colocated. The truth is that Zoom calls weren’t the norm at the time — in-person design workshops, in-person team meetings, and in-person after work beers were. I thought building camaraderie and the team’s sense of purpose was primarily an in-person activity.
Since then, and especially over the past year of COVID-enforced remote work, I’ve realized that working on a fully distributed team isn’t the asynchronous collab disaster I once thought it might be. In fact, the organizational design my team and I share now is actually a blessing in disguise.
Our team learned to think of our operating system more intentionally, as well as how we should optimize our time together and apart in order to maximize our mental health and our impact (in that order). If you’re new to managing a distributed team, or your company, like HubSpot, is planning to remain a hybrid workforce even after the pandemic ends, this post is for you. So read on, and share with your team members: if a team is going to be successful, it’s because everyone involved is contributing to its adaptability.
Optimize Your Operating System
Remember back in March of 2020, when we all first went remote and our calendars lit up with more Zoom meetings than ever? It was a stressful time for everyone on the planet anyway, and the number of non-work-related Zoom meetings — the hangouts, the watercoolers, the trivia sessions — introduced us all to the concept of Zoom fatigue in a very real way. Suddenly we were logging off from a day of Zoom meetings, only to log back in to have Zoom drinks with our friends who were quarantined in other parts of the same city. I even hosted my sister’s baby shower over Zoom! It didn’t take long — somewhere in between buying stock in Zoom and ordering at-home exercise equipment — for me to realize that a rebalance of our operating system was in order.
I surveyed the team to get everyone’s perspective on all of the recurring meetings we were having, how valuable they were to each team member, and whether or not they thought we should adjust them. I noticed that, for the most part, our team All-Hands meeting every two weeks could take the place of several other meetings as long as we planned it more intentionally. The last 30 minutes of the first all-hands meeting of each quarter could work as a quarterly team retro. It seems small, but save 30 minutes for eight people, four times per year, and those precious minutes add up. Also, those watercooler chats that are great for building camaraderie and zooming out from our day-to-day fit nicely at the start of a team meeting while attendees are all logging in.
Make Your Calendar Work For You
That mindset of intentionality led to me rethinking my own calendar, and leaning into something I’d only done haphazardly before the pandemic: time-blocking. If I have ten 30-minute meetings sporadically throughout the week, my productivity suffers due to the sheer amount of task switching between creative mode and collaborative mode I’ve induced on myself. As an introvert, collaboration mode isn’t my default setting, and turning it on doesn’t come easily for me — getting myself in and out of it takes time. If I consolidate meetings into a few long blocks per week, particularly similar ones like 1:1s with my core team, I'm a lot less susceptible to task- switching-induced brain drain. My Thursday mornings these days are like speed dating! (Well, not exactly, but you know what I mean…)
Therein lies my tip for productive remote product management: biohacking my calendar. I know that my creative brain runs the smoothest in the morning, while my collaborative brain works better in the afternoon. (I’m writing this post at 7:30am, if you’re wondering.) Of course, my morning is also the only time I have to meet with my Dublin-based team, who are five hours ahead.
My solution? When I have some control over scheduling, I group all of my meetings in the morning later in the week, prioritizing the ones that really do have to be in the morning because they’re with a Dublin-based teammate, and block off my creator time in the morning in the beginning of the week. Having a finite amount of time in which we meet and collaborate forces my teammates and I to use that shared time efficiently. And having hyper-productive ‘creator’ time built into my calendar allows me space to think deeply.
Afternoons are left for stakeholder meetings, user interviews, or meetings with my colleagues around the US, and of course, anything I didn’t get done that morning. It’s not always perfect, but I’ve found that this strategy enables me to maximize my time as a remote product manager working with a team across multiple time zones.
Lean Into Asynchronous Collaboration
Individual meetings are one thing, but the team also needed to figure out how to have brainstorming sessions and workshops via Zoom. For the most part, these types of meetings went smoothly with the help of digital whiteboard apps. We learned how to do this better over time and ultimately got to the point where we could do them asynchronously. Having the option of asynchronous collaboration let us look at each individual meeting and decide whether it truly required us all to be logged in to a Zoom at the same time, whether part of it could be done asynchronously (like preparation for a team retro), or whether all of it could be done asynchronously (like a content design workshop.)
To be fair, there are some ground rules to making asynchronous workshops work. Your first one will likely be a mess, but that’s okay. Everyone has to participate with positive intent, fully aware that we’re trying something new that’s destined to get more efficient over time, and that the team is owed feedback on the experience so that we can do it better the next time. I’m lucky to be on a team where this was the default mode of operation.
What it comes down to is an extra hour or so spent preparing the ‘whiteboard experience’ ahead of time, which then tends to save the 5-15 participants about 30 minutes later on. That’s a bet my team and I are willing to take, as long as we share the responsibility of setting it up.
If you’re just getting started with asynchronous meetings, that setup time is key: prepare the board by giving your attendees written instruction, drawn out boxes to enter their opinions, and pre-made post-its next to their avatar to help them orient themselves. Even your basic synchronous digital whiteboard meetings are much more susceptible to distraction than in-person meetings, so write down the instructions on the digital whiteboard so whoever missed them in the beginning of the meeting can easily catch up and follow along.
As for asynchronous meetings, logging in to a well-set up digital whiteboard feels like you’re about to go on a scavenger hunt and generally amps up the excitement and participation. I have our UX Content Designer Dayne Topkin to thank for running our first ever asynchronous design workshop, and this really was a turning point for our team and our operating system. I will try to convince Dayne to write up a post here on the HubSpot Product Blog with more specifics on how to do this, but to give you a idea, here is how the workshop starts at the top of the digital whiteboard:
If you want to dig deeper into strategies for distributed work, here’s a post with tips for better asynchronous communication in general.
I think there are more positives to having a product team distributed across multiple time zones than negatives. Sure, it’s easy to look fondly on the old ways where we would all get a beer after work together, but then we wouldn’t even have some of the teammates we have now.
When you take geography out of the equation, you can bring the best talent to the team, not just the best talent in your proximity. We’ve learned to optimize our schedule so that time spent together is spent more intentionally. New team members ramp up faster because the whole team knows the routine, and there’s predictability and camaraderie built in. Our meetings are more productive, and our operating system is more adaptable.
As Iron Man once said: No amount of money ever bought a second of time. Working flexibly and asynchronously is the future of distributed product teams, and while it might be intimidating at first, it will make your team stronger and more productive in the long run, and it balances productivity and collaboration in a way that I never would have expected.
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