The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the dynamic of companies around the world, with over 4.3 million people in the USA working remotely in January 2021.

For the time being, at least, it’d seem office life is a thing of the past. With internal communication and PMM collaboration considered critical skills, how can you amend your practice and successfully lead teams remotely?

Bettina Jakobsen, Product Marketing Manager at Google, formerly of trivago, answered burning questions on the topic in a recent AMA.

She discussed key areas of discussion, including:

How to introduce a suitable team infrastructure

Q: How can I put the right infrastructure in place to be 100% sure my team has what they need to work to their full potential?

A: “From my perspective, the best way to start first is to discuss with your team so they can express what they need, what differs for them from working in the office, what’s changed, and what can be difficult and easy in their lives. Ask these questions and make them reflect in a written form, so it is clear to them and to you too.

“The best tool for this I used in the past in-person to understand talent´s motivation is the `3 psychological hungers.´:

  1. Structure: Need for certainty
  2. Acknowledgment: Connectiveness
  3. Stimulus: New challenges and learnings

“Ask them to draw these three on a bar chart twice: 1. Drawing their current status quo (scale 1-5) and 2. Where they would like to be (scale 1-5).

“I’d ask them to do a self-reflection first and then do it in a team or on 1:1s and come up with action steps for themselves and/or for the whole team.”

How to motivate your team

Q: There are some members of my team who, by their admission, are struggling to embrace remote work. How can I help these members of my team prepare psychologically for the challenges that lay ahead, given we’re not going to be returning to office life anytime soon?

A: “That's a great question, and I'd tackle it by:

  1. Listening to them: The most important thing for me would be to understand the real reasons for their struggle. If this is unclear, or if people immediately  share the real, main reasons for the problem, I would ask more times: why? (eg. Why do you find this situation so challenging? What is the difference for you between working from home vs the office? Why is this reason/situation important to you?)
  2. Ask more questions: Apply the ´3 psychological hungers´ format: Structure, Acknowledgement, Stimulus. I love to figure out what motivates each member of the team. Some people have a high need for structure and certainty that unfortunately, COVID is not allowing right now. But you could ask them what would make them feel more secure? Provide information, regular 1:1s, a clear roadmap of tasks, clear mission/OKRs shared in advance so they know what they are going to be part of and can look forward to. What could help to ease the problems that they shared?
  3. Acknowledgment: Providing feedback constantly is important in these times too and also when creating a sense of belonging to a team. Holding virtual coffee breaks, team spirit-lifting activities, and regular catch-ups could all help in creating a sense of belonging. I would ask what would be their preference. As for Stimulus, I find out what makes the team push themselves to their limits, what excites them, what new tasks could be shared, or how could they develop themselves if that's important.
  4. Communication: This is incredibly important now we’re working remotely. I’d focus on the following: a) Transparency: Being open and honest and sharing emotions b) state who is responsible/accountable and keep the team informed of the needs and what their key goals and tasks are, and c) Provide clear structure and create a culture of over-communication, e.g. more regular meetings with the team to provide more certainty.”

How to make your team more creative

Q: I’ve always been an advocate of an open-door policy when working from the office, and my team has always been very forthcoming, coming to me with ideas, wins/losses, etc. However, since remote working came into force, my team has gone into their shell - like the pandemic has stifled their creativity. Do you have any suggestions on how I can provide light encouragement for them to be more open with me and their colleagues in sharing any ideas they may have? A virtual round-robin session perhaps?

A: “I think this is becoming a challenge in more product marketing teams; I love your idea about the round-robin session.

“To encourage transparency and generate more thoughts among your team, hold regular 1:1s/team meetings dedicated exclusively to a certain topic. These should be regular and at the same time each week.

“For example, on a Monday morning, you could hold a 30-minute session where the agenda is to share what worked/what didn't last week, any surprising things found, and main priorities each member will work on during the week. In our team, there are usually some collaboration ideas and new perspectives.

“Also, consider a dedicated coffee/tea/lunch break/virtual quiz/team event. During this time, don’t discuss anything business-related. This can boost morale, lift team spirit, and encourage your team members to trust and encourage each other to share more thoughts during other meetings. You’ll connect also on a personal level, and this’ll help professionally.

“I’d also recommend dedicated meetings for milestones and team projects. Present interesting findings, milestones where each member could share feedback, or provide a different perspective on the topic.

“I’m a believer in asking for feedback. To lift the mood at the beginning of a meeting, ask your team to come up with ideas and their preferences for new, interesting ways of sharing information. At the end of the chat, everyone could vote for the best ideas. With this, you can make sure you implement something everyone will like and the idea would come from them.”

Tips for a healthy remote working culture

Q: In your opinion, what are the top three things leaders need to do to create a good remote culture?

A: “Firstly, you need to provide structure. I find clear goals, clear alignments, transparency, and constant information flow via regular meetings to be essential. Besides this, the workload has to be manageable and the right priorities have to be set each week. Surveys have shown workers tend to work 2-3 hours more at home compared to the office, so it’s important to communicate with your team to see how they feel and if they consider their workload and deadlines to be realistic.

“Leaders should also share the big picture more often, and emphasize the key takeaway to their teams. The focus could also be on a more regular or longer meeting culture compared to the office. It’s also important to engage with the team to discuss life away from work. This fosters trust, boosts the mood, and helps you engage with the team on a different level virtually.

“Finally, you need to keep your team motivated. A leader's most important role is also to keep employees engaged. This is a challenge virtually, but ask the teams about their challenges working from home and how they could be more productive - there could be some creative solutions that materialize during these exchanges.”

Tips for leading a remote team

Q: What have been your go-to methods for leading remotely at trivago during the pandemic?

A: “At trivago, the company did a lot of steps to support leads and the best possible information flow. We put a lot of emphasis on alignments, as we work in very diverse cross-functional teams. Because of this, there has been an increase in the amount of meetings/communication through the company during the pandemic:

“1:1 meetings increased to make sure everyone is up-to-date on all company goals and initiatives, and mostly about how COVID is progressing, as it has an impact on everyone's daily work in the travel industry and personal life too. trivago has always been an agile company, but now there is an even bigger focus on fast decision making.

“Documentation became much more essential for meetings in our internal team, and also with different functions, to make sure we avoid duplicating tasks, making mistakes and that we can manage workload properly.

“Besides making sure that alignments and information flow is efficient, leads also need to make sure that talents feel supported, connected, and motivated. We have company events, team events online where talents can engage with their leads and peers on a personal level, which boosts the mood and makes people feel more connected.

“Talented leads receive leadership training at trivago and there are groups where you can also share experiences and learn from other leads on how to tackle the challenges of remote work. That's a great way to learn together to make sure every team members’ psychological needs are taken into account and discussed properly.”

Effective communication for remote management

Q: Collaboration and communication are skills that are fundamental to the success of any product marketer. In office-based work environments, it’s much, much easier to liaise with our peers.

How can product marketing leaders help their team members communicate effectively, to avoid potential pitfalls during product launches, development, etc. taking place during the pandemic?

A: “A few things came to my mind:

“First of all, leads need to make sure alignment is made on every level in the organization by having regular catch-ups with other department heads online. Leads can ask their teams if this is needed and useful, as then they can also emphasize the key messages on these catch-ups. In remote leadership, over-communication is positive to avoid pitfalls.

“Create mutual documents like Dropbox papers and roadmaps with important milestones. Meeting notes are essential too, to make sure that everyone has access to all up-to-date data. If you’re in an industry that is impacted by COVID, regulations could postpone product launches. For example, the travel industry.

“Also, encourage the team to keep virtual kick-off meetings with all stakeholders, in which responsibilities are aligned and the big picture is presented to get the buy-in from all stakeholders. This also gives a chance for stakeholders to ask questions, challenge the status quo, get more engaged, and for PMMs to also see where the potential blockers/delays can come from.

“Before creating plans, roadmaps, etc., I’d encourage the team to create a list of risks and potential pitfalls. This can help the team avoid potential challenges and calculate with buffers.

“Finally, gamification might help, like sending a countdown reminder to the teams, showing how many days until phase 1, 2, 3 are unlocked, and a virtual ´launch party´ to organize to celebrate the successful launch with all stakeholders involved. People tend to remember fun things, so this can be an interesting tool for the team.”

The signs of a successful mentor

Q: I recently came across an article that suggested leaders should "mentor, not manage" to get the most out of their respective teams while we're working remotely.

I just wanted to pick your brains and get your thoughts on this mindset? Would you agree? Disagree? Or should a good leader mentor and manage?

A: “I agree with the statement “mentor, not manage”, irrespective of whether you work in an office or remotely.

“Being a mentor myself at trivago, and previously team lead at P&G, I could experience the difference between the two as a lead and also as a talent.

“Mentoring gives new perspectives, ideas that foster learning and help a lot with reflection, as the mentor is asking a lot of questions to make the mentee think about options. This wouldn’t happen if the leader just gave answers and solutions. Furthermore, the solution might not be the best for the talent to reach the easiest/best way to the goal.

“For me, mentorship created a trusting relationship and created a more pleasant, casual atmosphere for discussions.

“To deliver results or give inputs as a leader, the best way is also mentoring and by asking questions. This helps you know if there are any areas where support is needed.”