It was a cold January day when I first started at The Canadian Digital Service (CDS). I went to the Ottawa office for a two-week onboarding session, after which I’d go back home to a slightly warmer Kitchener-Waterloo, to work full-time.
As I was one of the first distributed product managers to work outside of Ottawa, it was a bit hectic to get me properly set-up with everything I would need. We were all new to this, so we were experimenting and learning as we went along.
While I was in Ottawa, I loved getting to know the agile development team I would be working with. But knowing that I only had two weeks of face-time with them, and that I would soon be driving six hours away, pushed me to speed up the bonding process, because I feared it would be harder to build relationships over video conferences.
Turns out, there was some truth in these fears.
Riding the learning curve
As a product manager, I make sure the team builds the right thing at the right time. Doing that is no small task; doing it from so far away made it even harder. It was difficult to keep up to speed with what they were working on every day, if they were having problems, or if they made a change to the software and forgot to tell me. I couldn’t even do the little things, like say “Hi” in the mornings, or casually chat about our weekend plans.
Having only ever worked in the same office as my team, I was used to standing up from my desk and just asking the team questions if I needed clarification. But they weren’t there. It made me feel very disconnected. It impacted my ability to do my job.
It wasn’t anyone’s fault. None of us were used to collaborating closely across cities. We needed to find another way to “just stand up from our desks and ask questions”.
To get better at distributed collaboration, we experimented with different tools, processes, and software to help us.
Being in the same office together means you have more visibility into what your colleagues are working on. We didn’t have that. So we moved our work into a cloud application called Trello. This allowed us to share and manage our workflows, assign tasks to people, and create due dates. Trello lets me see what people are working on, ask questions about tasks, and keep visibility into the work. As a team, we can now avoid gaps, pitfalls, and “gotchas” sooner.
Since I don’t have face-to-face contact with the team, we needed to find a way to keep in touch throughout the day. We use Google Meet video conferencing to have 15-minute standup meetings each morning to talk about what we are working on that day. By sharing this openly, it lets developers help each other and improve team cohesion.
Slack is another great tool that helps the team communicate. When a new designer and a researcher joined the team, they, like me, were outside of Ottawa (in Toronto and Montreal). Suddenly, I wasn’t the only distributed team member anymore. To close the distance gap, we all agreed to put any questions in our team slack channel, no matter how dumb we thought they were, and even if we sat beside the person. It was as if we were standing up from our desk to casually ask the team a question, except it was virtual.
With the team now working and learning together, the final challenge was collaborating as quickly as people who are in the same physical space.
It was hard to share things like research findings or design mockups with the team and get feedback. We would have to send a document around via email, make separate revisions, and piece it all back together at the end. As a team we started using Google Drive to help with this.
Being able to put all our files in the cloud and work on them at the same time was a life saver. I could be writing a new section in a document or presentation while the team adds suggestions to my previous work. And we can see it all in real-time.
With access to these tools, the team became more productive and ultimately grew closer.
Distributed is a team sport
While tools opened up options, the success we’re seeing is largely thanks to the entire team’s continued efforts to adapt to these cultural shifts and embrace new ways of working. With the whole team on board, it’s been easier to communicate to one another and easier for me to lead.
But it doesn’t stop here. Every two weeks we get together online to make sure we are on track with our work and improving the distributed experience. Thanks to those meetings, we’ve been able to iterate and come up with the solutions to the problems I initially experienced back on that cold January day.
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