Going Remote. Iterating to a high trust team in uncertain times

I started at IAG on the 2nd of March 2020, within two weeks IAG had made the call that we would all be working from home indefinitely… In this session

I will be walking through the journey (successes and failures) of moving cross functional teams who had just formed from an in person creative lab setting to a fully remote environment.

I will be outlining the steps I took and the blueprint I have created after many iterations to build strong relationships, trust and ownership within my teams.

Going Remote. Iterating to a high trust team in uncertain times.

Alejandro Patterson: Product Management – IAG

Keywords: strategy, trust, leadership, rituals, values, authenticity, team-driven processes, roadmaps.

TL;DR: Alejandro shares his experience of joining a new company immediately prior to Covid shutdown, and the process of adapting his initial high level strategy outline to enabling the highest value to empower his team working remotely. Key elements of this strategy included working toward shared outcomes and goals through fostering a trust centred, empathic culture, and from this anchor developing clear product visions and roadmaps. Communication, flexibility, honesty, and iteration were key, and through co-creating and refining a series of rituals, space was created where team members felt valued and connected to the whole despite being physically remote.

kia ora (Greetings)

Alejandro is a product person based in Sydney, born in Costa Rica and moved to NZ at the age of 16. He has a long and storied of entrepreneurship and product management has always been in his veins, but the focus of this talk will be around his story of ‘going remote’ due to Covid and his own experience and how he used it as an opportunity to build his team and build ways of working much more quickly.

Background: Alejandro joined IAG on March 2, 2020. He was looking for a new challenge but was unsure of what industry he wanted to focus on. He had broad experience in leading startups, but felt this was an opportunity to go big in a large company and learn new areas.

His initial goals: to meet the team, get to know IAG’s culture, and understand his team’s focus. Had a strategy planned out but wasn’t sure on formation in early stages.

01 Strategy: Initial team strategy was anchored in a trust focused approach to work toward shared understandings, goals, and empathy within the team and broader company culture and developing clear product vision and roadmap. At this stage it was a clear, succinct high level strategy that was easy to communicate to the team. Post shutdown additional bullets were added to include providing certainty and guidance through the uncertain and championing new tools and rituals to reflect the new fully remote format.

Many team members were new and had been brought in for this team, which was largely entrepreneurial within ‘customer technology’ and they largely had free reign – they had a design lab, post-its, the usual suspects when it comes to large corporations and their preferred methods for innovation.

In week two of Alejandro’s tenure the engineers were sent home due to covid and by week three the whole office were working remotely. This led to him really having to rethink what it meant to how he was going to show up as a leader. All well and good to have a strategy outline for the team, but now asking himself What is my personal strategy? Refined out his value set on a more personal level.

Alejandro mapped his personal attributes around four core themes: reliability, integrity, communication and competence. He recognized some were weaknesses and some were strengths, and needed to be clear to the team on those so that they could call him out when needed and various members could complement one another’s strengths.

Some initial strategies he implemented toward these goals were: sharing the visibility of his calendar with all team members and key stakeholders. He also empowered them to be able to call him or book time with him whenever needed. He assured the team he would give timely and honest communication around internal information.

Sometimes in product management the leader’s role is to shield the team from external forces but in this situation the reverse was true. It was important to Alejandro to set up ways of communication that allowed the team not only to hear what’s happening but also to have input into it.

For the first couple of weeks they worked on processes and rituals for how they would manage the workload and how they would implement.

02 Implementation: Learn. Build. Measure. View your team as your customer and your process as your product. [Graphics detailing the relationship between team members and systems/processes via steps of building the picture, communicate, execute, review, and iterate, then circling back as needed.]

Ex: Applying one principle: Think of team members as customers. They have pain points, frustrations, and also goals and tasks. If you can align that with the work and build the process around them rather than fitting them to the process you have a stronger team. This is a core view for Alejandro.

After the first step of talking through how to translate systems and processes to the digital realm and how to replace in office chats and casual encounters that were no longer available they had to come up with a set of rituals.

For Alejandro, a key strategy for unlocking team trust is to focus on the alignment between purpose, commitment, and values – something many companies do not focus on enough. [See slide demo for details]. What is important to individual team members and the team as a whole? How does that level up to the IAG purpose? and how are values being reflected?

Ex: the leadership commitments from Alejandro encompassed: Being transparent, vulnerable, authentic and available and to facilitate communication and provide certainty. But these were not purely his set of personal commitments, these were commitments that were generated by the team as a whole that they felt they needed from him as leader. Leadership is not owned by an individual, it is a group process.

N.B: As he presents and discusses these slides, the process appears more linear than it actually was. It was a much messier and iterative process as they felt their way through new terrain.

Communication is Key. Alejandro’s communication strategy was centred on context and understanding. What rituals work one to one vs one to many vs many to many communication? Are they asynchronous? Synchronous? Pressure testing was helpful rather than setting in advance. It’s important to take time to uncover your team’s unique needs and define what channels you will use as a team, set out how you will use them and for what types of activities, and be sure to audit usage and make adjustments – use learn/build/measure thinking as baseline.

Large organizations like IAG tend to be meeting heavy, perhaps too meeting heavy. By delineating agendas they were more effective. They did still use Slack,Trello, Confluence and the like, but these were more a capturing mechanism for what was happening and there is a clear distinction between that world and the world of working online and how those systems and tools for communication came into play.

Plug for Miro! Alejandro was already a fan but feels this tool capitalized on covid very well. It does the one to one and one to many and many to many and also allows this to be captured. Alejandro highly recommends.

A key part of empowering communication is ensuring team members have what they need to work from home. IAG were great in this regard with blanket disbursement to acquire whatever was needed. This made him feel cared for by the company.

How to take that a step further? How to ensure that team members who are parents have the support they need? IAG had a strong family culture prior to going remote so they continued to lean into that as a team as they transitioned.

Here is the part that the ‘just enough’ process people are going to freak out about! They went full throttle with rituals.

Rituals: The importance of well defined ways of workingWork rituals changed from pre-covid to a kitchen sink experimental phase and then a happy medium between the two.The kitchen sink phase was heavy on including things like morning and afternoon tea and cocktail hour to ensure opportunities for casual communication woven in with Slack and video standups, buddy chats, one on ones, learning sessions, sprint planning sessions and weekly roundups and retrospectives. By the end of the first month things were working great as the ‘new normal’ started to make sense and they could cut back on some of the social aspects as folks were keen to focus more on their own tasks as they adapted to remote work.

Alejandro likens this process to prototyping and hardware – you put a product together, put it out there and test, iterate and over time cut back. A critical part of this process was honesty. Being honest built trust, which had been a goal pre-covid but got sped up through the need for candour in the remote working format.

Alejandro had a competitive advantage in that he had come from a company that had remote and in-person functions simultaneously so for him this felt normal, but several team members found this more painful, but through leaning into it and embracing it they were a better team for the process.

03 Rituals in Focus: Let’s explore three key rituals that can add value to you and your team. You are likely already using or have heard of, but let’s look at how these have evolved to become much more powerful in 2020 with the focus on remote work. These all make Alejandro happy and he will likely reverse adapt them on return to the traditional office work environment.

Ritual 1) One on one’s. Any manager probably has these, if you don’t, start! Alejandro loves these are (overshare alert!) color codes them purple in his calendar. They make up close to a third of his week.

This is not a jam discussing work. This is an opportunity for team members to give feedback on how they feel about work and where they are going. Alejandro uses these as an icebreaker and has a traffic colour system (shout out to former manager Ben for this!) where you simply ask are you green orange or red with what’s happening at work? Pre-covid these were done off site. Alejandro does twenty percent of the talking, the team member does eighty percent. It is very much understood that this is time for them to be heard and understood.

They did fun things like zoom one on one with animal filters applied. These are fun!

Ritual 2) Asynchronous Stand-Ups. These are critical for keeping a pulse on team sentiment. Originally they did these every morning via video, but he noticed high attrition. Why? Because morning was core productive time for many team members. He realized he was being a little dictatorial – he did need this info, but not at that particular moment. So they kept one weekly more casual group chat, but moved others to asynchronous format.

Two pieces of data demonstrate how asking these questions can impact the result. Did I accomplish everything I set out to do yesterday? And: How busy am I feeling over the next three days? One is How much did you get done? but how do you measure this (particularly in UX format)? What it really means is Are we on track? A different question is How busy do you feel out of 10?

Ex:using color coded busi-ness markers. This allows Alejandro to see how people are feeling. He can often identify correlations between red and orange blocks and company announcements or lockdowns. Whenever he sees numbers going over the baseline of 7 he knows it’s time to reach out to that team member and figure out how to lighten the load or allow more time or context.

Ritual 3) Retrospectives: These are safe spaces to share and have fun. A way to get the team engaged so that once they get through the nitty gritty process, they can be honest so that Alejandro as a manager can problem solve.

These are fun to work on and also provide a lot of value.

Thankyou for having me and listening to my experiences! Alejandro hopes this was useful to you. It was very useful for him in terms of providing opportunity to reflect and also shape something he can share with his team, which he did with them earlier this week. So thankyou!