Happy, Productive Engineering & Product Teams [Panel]

InHerSight, Allstacks, Thoughtbot, and Growpath recently gathered to share their expertise on keeping product teams connected, productive, and motivated.

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With more pressure on product leadership to support the growth and retention of customers, product teams are juggling many priorities.

The onset of COVID-19 has only made operations more challenging. Watch the video replay or keep reading to get key takeaways from the panel.

It’s not only about creating efficiency but also working with folks in terms of where they are,” says host Emily Bahna. The human factor and emotional state of employees, customers, and others matter more than ever, as organizations are made up of living, breathing people. 

How can you help your team balance work, pressures, and unexpected personal challenges today? 

  • Based on the trends and data found in Allstacks’ “State of Software Development Report,” the leadership team decided to mitigate burnout by implementing a mandatory company holiday once a month; this helps teams rest and recharge to be more productive. It’s important to lead by example, so once you create new policies or processes, be sure to follow them as well.
  • Be mindful that customers and other stakeholders may not be as tech-savvy as their providers and vendors. This may require a bit of extra hand-holding from your product team when listening to their problems and supporting them, even though it’s not your core job. 
  • Transparency, acceptance, and getting comfortable with the realities of your team can help. For example, you can’t hide a crying baby or kids in the background on a work Zoom call. Get comfortable with these changes, and express that it’s okay to have these other demands or interruptions.

Do folks on your team set their own schedules? How are your teams able to stay aligned with flexible schedules?

  • Use tools like Calendar and Slack to set “do-not-disturb” hours, block off dedicated periods and use icons to represent why you’re offline. This allows others to see what’s going on with their colleagues without asking or guessing if they are available. 
  • Asking questions like, “When do you need this by?” and “What is your timeline?” is more important than ever. The requester should be explicit about the level of priority and timeline, especially if it’s you as a leader requesting something from a member of your team.

What adjustments have you made (during the transition to remote work) to help your product teams stay productive and successful? 

Remote work has driven Product and Engineering to be more intentional with planning work ahead of time. Work pattern data indicates that adding extra time in the planning phase reduces cycle times, large commits, and peer review times. Methods of successful planning and task completion include: 

  • Diversify story sizes to allow employees to easily choose when to complete what stories, based on the time they have available; communicate what the goal is for your sprint and give the individuals space to pick and choose what they work on in that time frame. 
  • Create more granular stories so that tasks are easier to complete. 
  • Leverage all of the tools your organization already invested in, like Calendar and Slack, and practice “over-communicating” when chatting with team members to ensure clear communication. Find the right balance between holding meetings and leveraging your tools to collaborate.
  • Embrace new needs. Due to the unique circumstances, customer demands have quickly shifted, and the products that are being built need to change. Product teams are mission-driven and often focused on innovation and change; teams are happiest when they can see the results of their efforts having a positive, direct impact on customer delivery and the value it offers.

How do you onboard new employees remotely?

Onboarding has been one of the most significant changes for teams. Transferring knowledge, training, and skill-sharing looks different in the new paradigm. It’s important to realize new people do not have the same social relationships or tribal knowledge that other employees have who had space and time to do so within the office. 

  • Pair new employees with more experienced employees to ensure that knowledge transfer starts to occur and get the support they need. 
  • Encourage employees to discuss their challenges during 1-1s, and make it a safe space for them to bring up what they don’t understand or areas where they need extra support. 

What advice do you have for other founders and product leaders to keep their teams motivated and engaged? 

  • There are fun activities that can be planned and done to make up for personal interaction. For example, online games, drive-thru events, and social distance park gatherings. It’s helpful to think about the parts of in-office culture that your employees liked and try to mimic them.
  • It’s essential to change the range of engagement activities to keep them fresh and exciting; otherwise, engagement will trail off over time. 

How do you cultivate and maintain a culture that promotes independence, efficiency, and responsibility in working remotely? 

  • Set clear expectations and communicate how employees will be measured. This will foster autonomy. 
  • Communicate the high-level business metrics to all employees to help them see the bigger picture. Map employee work and their individual goals to team goals and the overarching company goals for best results. Employees will be more invested in their work, understand their value, and feel like they are part of a community. 
  • Let employees have direct exposure to customers and encourage them to sit in on demos or customer check-ins. For example, developers can join customer calls to get first-hand feedback on initiatives they’re working on and gain deeper knowledge in particular verticals.

What has worked for your product team in recent months? What decisions are you making for the rest of the year moving into 2021? 

This panel was originally hosted on by Thoughtbot. A special thanks to their team for having us. You can find more information about the speakers and the host here.


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