Working from home as a Product Owner

With many companies around the world asking staff to work from home during the current COVID-19 virus outbreak, we’re all having to adapt to a new way of working.

So how do we, as Product Owners / Managers, help keep our team productive during this time?

Communication is everything

When everyone is working from home the communication benefit of being co-located with your team has been lost. No longer can the team shout across the top of their monitor to get clarification on a story. And no longer can you overhear a conversation between developers, and jump in to add context.

We have to try extra-hard to overcome these communication obstacles, and make use of all the tools we have at our disposal.

For ceremonies such as daily standups and sprint planning, there’s load of video conferencing tools out there, like Zoom, Skype or Google Hangouts Meet.

It’s great to encourage people to turn their video on, even if they’re reluctant to do so. It’s not about finding out if they’re still dressed in their pyjamas, but about re-affirming the social connection between team members.

It’s also important to not forget about the benefits of informal communication for team bonding. So maybe plan for a social catch-up for the first 10 minutes of any meetings. Or even organise a virtual coffee break, or online beer at the end of the day.

Check out alternate online tools

If you use a lot of physical objects and tools – such as scrum boards, whiteboards, index cards, and post-it notes – to communicate with your team, it might be worth working with your Scrum Master to identify online alternatives.

Can you switch from a physical scrum board to using Jira or another agile tool? Do you have access to an online whiteboard tool that you can use for drawing diagrams or sharing ideas?

Maybe even have a think about how you can still have an engaging retrospective meeting that moves away from sticking post-it notes on an office wall.

INVEST in your stories

We all know that our user stories should be independent, negotiable, valuable, estimable, small and testable – but maybe now is the time to check over them again with a fresh pair of eyes.

With team members working remotely, it’s important to ensure our stories are really independent, as we don’t have the same level of informal coordination between developers. And so maybe double-check that all the stories are independent and free of dependencies – or where dependencies do occur, make sure they are called out.

Also check that stories are small enough for a single developer to complete on their own, as it’s a lot harder now for developers to pair or swarm on a story.

And don’t forget to work out some way to clearly communicate your priorities. Order the stories in your sprint, and have additional stories ready at the top of your backlog in case they need more work.

Form a working agreement

One of the major benefits of working from home is the flexibility in working hours. People may like to shift around their working day for their own convenience, or may need to interrupt their day to care for children or elderly relatives.

And while we want to be flexible and make allowances for everyone, it’s important that an individual doesn’t impact on the whole team’s performance. That’s where a working agreement can help.

It involves having an open and honest conversation with your team about your work preferences and personal commitments. You can agree between if you need to move regular meetings around to suit new working patterns, you can agree ‘core’ hours when you will normally be contactable, and you can also forewarn team members that you might need to suddenly drop off a call to attend to a child!

I suppose it all boils down to making an extra effort to talk with the rest of your team, to make up for the lack of informal conversation you’d have together in the office.

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