These are challenging times, and many of us are now working remote.
If you’re used to working remote, you’ll already have processes, rules and tools in place that work for your team. If you suddenly find yourself working from home, you’ll need to get up to speed quickly.
In this article, I’ve asked product managers what tools they use and how they use them in a remote setting.
- Documentation tools
- Workshop tools
- Product management and customer feedback tools
- Project management tools
- Noise cancellation tools
- Communication tools
- Other articles on remote working
1. Documentation tools
A documentation tool for your organization is essential to working remotely. While traditionally you may have had side conversations that you set to memory and then acted on later, now that your teammates are not in the same room as you it is very possible to become a little more disorganized without purposeful organization.
— Brien Buckman, Joy Labs
Documentation tools include:
- Dropbox Paper (free product from Dropbox)
- Notion ($8 per member per month for a team)
- Confluence ($5 per user per month for up to 5,000 users)
Whether these are a good fit will depend on the size of your organisation and the complexity of your work.
As a small, remote SaaS company we use Notion. We find it simple to use and flexible. You can create almost any kind of content: document, table, list, calendar, gallery and so on. You can nest content to keep it organised. Importing content is easy. There’s a ‘quick find’ option for searching.
You can use Notion to create a public roadmap
When it comes to documentation tools though, their success really depends on how you use and maintain them. Here are some tips:
Keep your content organised
As Brien says, being organised is essential for remote teams. It’s helpful to all teams of course, but in a co-located situation you can get away with occasional lapses. You’ll quickly run into problems if you start doing this now.
Make sure you organise your content into a folder structure that makes sense to your whole team, not just you. If in doubt, ask your team rather than making assumptions.
Consider using tags to make search easier
Make sure someone has ultimate responsibility for your documents
When you have everyone in you team adding content, then you will start seeing inconsistencies develop. This is usually the case for even well-organised teams with clear processes for adding content.
Assign one person ultimate responsibility for keeping track of your content and ironing out any issues. This is usually your content strategist. If you don’t have one, it’s probably you!
Create a style guide
Create a simple document that helps everyone on your team know how to add content and what it should look like. Or create a few templates for different types of content, showing good practice. ‘Show, don’t tell’ can be a powerful teaching tool.
Having clear guidelines for how to contribute should help increase use of your documentation tool among all your team. It should also help you maintain clarity: so you don’t have to chase up colleagues because something is ambiguous.
2. Workshop tools
Many of your existing product management tools (like Github, Trello or Jira) are well suited to asynchronous communication. However, what about those situations where you usually collaborate with a number of team members in person? For example, sketching and whiteboard sessions that are critical for coming up with ideas and collaborating?
There are a number of online workshop tools that can help. These include:
This Miro map shows the impact of coronavirus
Advice from the Evojam team, who work remote and use Miro
Artur Bańkowski, head of development, uses Miro for design/algorithm workshops, drawing architecture designs, as a whiteboard for planning, and for preparing images for presentation slides.
Piotr Dzieciol, project manager, uses Miro for remote workshops, drawing diagrams, brainstorming, sharing designs for software development and explaining the flow of software.
Their advice is:
Collaborating is fun: you can use colours, labels and emojis for your sticky notes. Just remember that if everyone tries to modify the same diagram/section at the same time, it’s easy to get lost. Imagine 10 people in front of the whiteboard moving sticky notes at the same time. It’s the same.
Stick to the single responsibility principle - one board, one goal. If you mix too many topics within one board it may become overwhelming and disorganized quite fast
Group things in frames: it helps in keeping things structured
Don’t put too much content on one board, as it may take a lot of time to load before you can work with it
Remember to clean your boards from time to time to remove draft data and annotations that could cause confusion later on
During your workshop lock as many items (context, frame) as possible to avoid undesirable edits
Keep default size of items: you can use infinite zoom in/out and you can also easily group resize them later on
Miro is a perfect workshop tool but it’s not a project planner or project management tool
3. Project management tools
You’ll have project management tools already. We use Jira, Github and Slack, for example.
However, if you’re suddenly working remote, your project management tool will become REALLY important as face-to-face meetings and informal chats over the coffee machine stop.
Here are our tips for using project management tools as a remote team:
Take care with your titles and descriptions
I’ve been guilty of this myself: I’ve been in a hurry so have written an unclear Jira title and description. My colleague then has to contact me (through Slack) and ask for clarification. If I’m not around – because we are in different time zones – then this can lead to a 24 hour delay.
As a result of such lapses, we recently had a discussion as a team on the importance of writing clear, descriptive titles and descriptions for Jira issues and for Git commits. This has stopped us wasting time seeking clarification from colleagues.
Here is some sensible advice from Jira about titles:
This is the most important part of the issue. It cannot be too general and bland as its main role is to get the assignee attention. A title should be a real call to action as it helps your colleagues who are browsing Jira dashboards.
You should know specifically what an issue is planned to resolve just by its title. In other words, the title should describe the action that the issue is to fulfill and as such, it can leave no room for assumptions.
If you are having trouble coming up with a specific enough title, consider breaking the ticket down into smaller subtasks, or promoting the ticket to an epic.
You can read more here about good Jira etiquette.
Ambigious Jira titles can slow down your remote workflow
Agree on how you get input from team members
Working remotely means your entire team will be getting a lot of information and requests through your project management tools. This can make it easy to miss what’s important.
We had to tweak our project management processes recently for this reason. We basically agreed:
Use Jira to assign issues to team members when you need help – don’t just use a mention on Github
Only use Slack for messages that can have a one-sentence reply, and only use for parallel communication (so when you’re online at the same time as a colleague).
Prioritise what’s really important, so team members can concentrate on important tasks
4. Product management and customer feedback tools
You might not use a product management or customer feedback tool as a co-located team. This might be because discussions about customer feedback and roadmapping largely take place face-to-face.
However, when you are working remote you might find the idea of a product management and/or customer feedback tool more appealing. These tools can help make it easier to work collaboratively together. They can also help you collect and prioritise information.
Product management and customer feedback tools include:
Product manager Lavish Lalwani uses productboard, as well as Slack, Google Drive and Github for product management.
Productboard has been useful because it lets us gather all product feedback and process them in one place. It’s also the place we prioritise and plan our product roadmap. It is basically like the knowledge base of our product, and where we figure out what to do next. It is a place that everyone has access to understand where we’re all heading.
When using Productboard, It’s important to have a clear protocol in using it. Productboard is a very flexible tool and different teams can have a completely different setup. It’s also important to ensure things are documented. When you’re in the same room with someone, you take for granted how much information is conveyed through conversations. When working remotely, that lost information needs to be captured some other way. For us, it’s been the habit of documenting everything.
We don’t use a product management tool ourselves: instead, we use our own customer feedback tool Feature Upvote, in conjunction with Notion (and Jira and Github). This is because our ethos is ‘keep in simple’ and this workflow is as simple as we can make it.
Our customers add suggestions direct to our feedback board and upvote others they agree with. We get a clear idea of what a significant number of our customers want.
Our own Feature Upvote board and suggestion form
We then move some of the more popular (and feasible) ideas to Notion where we analyse how long they would take us to build, who exactly they would benefit, what the content requirements would be, and what they would require in terms of maintenance.
Then we move green-lighted ideas to Jira, and ultimately to Github. Feature Upvote does have a Jira integration, so ideas that are super obvious get moved straight over to Jira.
5. Noise cancellation tools
If you’ve been working remote for some time, the odds are you’ve got a decent set up. However, if you suddenly find yourself working remote, or stranded in a different country, then you might be struggling with distractions.
I have two small kids and a dog: noise levels can be epic.
Here are tools for helping you deal with noise and work productively:
This app was suggested by senior product manager Elizabeth Shiraz. It mutes background noise during calls. You can quickly remove the background noise going from you to other call participants as well as the background noise coming from the call participants to you. It is free to download for Windows and iOS. Pricing for teams is $3.33 per user per month.
“The Hear app filters your acoustic environment, takes out harsh sounds and turns stressful noise into harmonic sound environments.” Free to download on the App Store.
Be kind on yourself and your family though. These are difficult times and your other team members will understand if there is noise on calls or you have to dive off for 10 minutes to rescue a child/dog/soup that you forgot about on the hob.
6. Communication tools
Working in an office can be distracting. However, chatting face-to-face is a fairly fast and effective way of communicating. You have all kinds of ‘non verbal’ clues that show you what someone else is actually trying to say.
In contrast, written communication is slower and potentially more confusing. You have to spend longer saying the same thing. Even Zoom calls are harder to interpret than face-to-face chats.
Be clear in your head about what you want from communication: an enquiry about how your team member is getting on under lockdown? A more general discussion about strategy? A precise question that needs an answer? Then you can keep discussions on track.
Marissa Goldberg, Marissa Goldberg, founder of Remote Work Prep, recommends these tools:
- Slack is best for daily conversations
- Zoom is the most reliable video conferencing tool
- Calendly for having a link where employees can instantly schedule 1:1s with their manager
- Doodle for gathering a meeting time that works for a group