Bringing Remote Teams Together: A Conversation Between frog Program Managers

Managing teams remotely during a pandemic has required adjustment in processes and communication. Here’s what we've learned as frog program managers during this time.
By Rahul Gill & Rhishiraj Neog

In mid-March 2020, while the COVID-19 pandemic was still in its nascent stages in India, it was announced that our Delhi and Bangalore studios would be shifting to a work-from-home structure. This wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction, rather a learning from our frog studios in Shanghai and Milan who had been at the center of the crisis for months.

To be honest, we weren’t fully prepared to go completely remote, but we knew we would figure it out along the way. Our priority was the safety of our employees and reassurance for our clients. We had to ensure that there was business continuity and high team morale while continuing to deliver “frog quality.” The very first thing we did was set up a daily stand-up for the entire studio to connect virtually to provide updates, share concerns and to have a general catch-up with the colleagues to make this transition smoother.

As frog program managers (PMs), we have always gotten together to discuss team management, share intricacies of our respective programs and explore new tools to make DesignOps more effective. Now that we have ridden out the turbulence, we decided to do a virtual catch-up to share and learn from each other on how we managed during this period. Below is an excerpt from our conversation including lessons learned and best practices for navigating the ambiguity we now call the “New Normal.”

“Because of how distributed we all are, the remote setup actually worked for us.”
The Rapid Shift to Remote Work 

Rhishiraj (Rhish): Let’s rewind to Mid-March 2020. How did you prepare your program for this new remote set-up?

Rahul: The program I’ve been managing has team members spread across Milan, Munich, Delhi and Bangalore. The client is in the Middle East region. Because of how distributed we all are, the remote setup actually worked for us. Luckily, we’d already met with the client twice in person and were even co-located with them for more than two weeks during earlier program phases. Once the lockdown began, we set up daily stand-ups, sprint planning sessions, client sprint reviews and even sprint retrospectives—all remotely. 

Rhish: On my end, we recently delivered a 10-week program that was completely remote for both our team and our clients. As a team, we actually decided to change our body clocks to be able to deliver the program in a more efficient way for our clients based on the West Coast, USA. So, we were working really early mornings and late nights India time and sleeping during the day. To be honest, we had a lot of fun doing this. 

Rahul: There has been increased productivity from my teams, partly because they are working in the comfort of their house. This saves time commuting to the office, which can be a lot in a city like Delhi! Our clients have adapted to this style of working really well, too. As we’re all in this same situation together, we’ve been able to prove there’s no negative impact on the timelines and quality of the deliverables they are receiving.

Rhish: I couldn’t agree more. As far as team morale goes, we’ve found ways to replicate working together in a room by fixing a time where we’re all on Microsoft Teams together. We’ve even shared a common music playlist. This kept us connected for a few hours every day and allowed us to indulge in regular banter as we would do in-studio.

“Overall, I feel we’ve been focused and productive because we deployed the right combination of tools.”
The New Tools of the Remote Design Team

Rhish: I feel as team leaders we all went on an overdrive to ensure we had all the tools necessary to facilitate remote collaboration.

Rahul: Agreed. frog rolled out a survey globally to capture our views on what new remote collaboration tools we should adopt. The results came out strongly in favor of using Miro for remote workshops, collaborative sessions, brainstorming and for synthesis activities. We quickly integrated the tool into the working culture of our organization. We’ve even used it for scoping and prioritizing requirements with clients, who have been pleased with how interactive and collaborative these virtual work sessions have been. Are there any other tools that have been a revelation to you during this period?

Rhish: Definitely Microsoft Teams. Top of my list. We have been using Teams to not only make calls or attend live sessions, but to share large files. We also used it to create a Kanban board to track our work. It’s integrated with our SharePoint and Outlook, so it’s very seamless. We have also been heavily relying on the record feature for documentation purposes. Overall, I feel we’ve been focused and productive because we deployed the right combination of tools.

Rahul: For my program, I used to travel to the client in the Middle East at the end of every other sprint closure to showcase the progress in person, discuss priorities and plan for future sprints. But obviously, due to the pandemic and the travel restrictions we could not do that. That meant having the sprint reviews remotely. 

Rhish: I remember your travel calendar! How are you and your team managing?

Rahul: To facilitate this, we increased our touchpoints with the client to thrice a week. We have mid-sprint and end-of-sprint reviews so that we can get continuous feedback. We set up a strong workflow in JIRA for a two-level approval process from the business and technology stakeholders. This makes sure the deliverables pass through all the relevant client teams and also set up separate leadership reviews to attain feedback at a program level. This process has really helped us collaborate effectively. It did take us one sprint to adapt to this process and there is always scope for improvement, but now the team and the leadership are well adapted and it is really working well for us. One client stakeholder told us how much they “loved” the new experience for being so “clean and intuitive.” 

“Sometimes I do miss the occasions we all spent together in the studio, taking inspiration and energy from each other.”
The Challenges of Managing During a Crisis

Rahul: This shift to remote work has taught us a lot, and there have been benefits. But there have also been some downfalls. There has been a bit more burnout for the team while working remotely. It adds to the stress of the situation now that we can’t have more relaxed conversations, personal interactions, coffee breaks and post-office cocktails in-person. Instead, we planned a virtual celebration with drinks and food to congratulate and acknowledge the team’s effort through a video call. This was fun and brought the excitement back to the team.

I also remember we planned a self-care session with an external professional to talk us through the importance of mental health and to remain positive during these turbulent times. I think that was a great session and we received some amazing feedback on it. In fact, we then extended this session for other India studios as well. As a PM, I am sure you agree we do have to take care of managing the team’s expectations and motivation levels far more now. 

Rhish: Absolutely. In fact, I recently started on a new program where we have a cross-functional team spread across the US, Europe and India. We started the new phase with our signature ‘frog Leap.’ This is a chance to talk about personal goals for the project, preferred working styles, secret superpowers, pet peeves, etc. Basically, it’s a chance to set some ground rules as a team. My PM counterpart from the London studio actually tweaked the frog Leap process to suit the remote working situation we’re all now in. For example, there were additional new questions like, “Do you have any home dynamics we should be aware of? As in, school pickups, coursework, pets that need to be walked at 2pm on the dot, etc.?” I felt that was really relevant, empathetic and nicely done.

Rahul: That does seem like a very useful addition to this exercise. Sometimes I do miss the occasions we all spent together in the studio, taking inspiration and energy from each other. The personal and professional equations we built with each other might not have been possible if we were all remote since the beginning. So, I think there is definitely a flip side to the coin in this case as well, which we shouldn’t ignore.

Rhish: It seems we’ll continue to agree to disagree on whether frog should go fully remote going forward! Even though I am very vocal about remote working, one thing that keeps me awake is the fear of hardware failure. I am continuing to keep my fingers crossed and working with IT support to try and figure what would be a good back-up in case we face this situation.

Rahul: Talking about hardware, there was a need in our program months ago to validate our work on actual devices. So, our client had sent us some new iPhones, iPads and other devices of different form factors and screen sizes for testing purposes. Due to the travel restrictions and limited staff in courier services and airports, our devices are still stuck in customs! We had to use alternate methods to complete our testing. That’s just one example of an unexpected challenge we’ve faced on programs. Throughout this pandemic, managing client expectations has been very important to us. What are your thoughts on this?

Rhish: Well, I feel clients are very aware of the situation we are in. It’s a global pandemic after all. What has worked for my programs is a daily sync-up with the PM on the client side—even if it is only for 15 minutes. Weekly share-outs is something else we’ve started, even between major program milestones, just to offer a view of what’s been brewing. We’ve gotten feedback that aligning throughout the process has been enjoyable for our clients, too.

“Adapting to this new remote context has pushed us all to learn more and acquire new skills, which has lasting value.”
Learning from Each Other as PMs

Rhish: I would actually like to take a moment to congratulate the entire PM community here at frog. 

Rahul: Absolutely. No one better than the PM community to understand the other PM’s pain points as well as to appreciate the efforts and work delivered through this discipline. We definitely need to continue to grow and improve while learning not only from each other’s mistakes, but also achievements. Since the PM role balances the team, client and the organization’s goals together, this would benefit each one of us in some way or the other.

Rhish: We have been multitasking like crazy and ensuring the machine is well-oiled. I feel our PM calls with our Executive Program Director and our GM is a great place to address our concerns and get direction. We have also learned so much from each other.

Rahul: For me, my biggest lesson is that distances don’t really matter anymore. A good wifi connection and a comfortable chair is all you need. I’ve also learned that when working from home, children may cry or dogs may bark during calls. We all understand! Now more than ever, It is essential to respect and value each other’s time by showing awareness of other team members’ locations, time zones, home situations, etc.

Rhish: I’d say for me, one of the top things I’ve learned is that rituals are very important for higher productivity. Stand-ups, coffee time and celebrations are more important now than ever before. I’ve also seen that adapting to this new remote context has pushed us all to learn more and acquire new skills, which has lasting value. I’m encouraged by how much remote collaboration is leading to us becoming one global community in its purest sense.

Authors
Rhishiraj Neog
Senior Program Manager
Rhishiraj Neog
Rhishiraj Neog
Senior Program Manager

Rhish is a former lawyer who continues to follow his passion for creative problem solving, now as a design consultant. As a design program manager, he is always striving to hit the sweet spot where design, technology, business and environment intersect to create delightful sustainable experiences for individuals, organizations, and the planet.

Rahul Gill
Principal Program Manager
Rahul Gill
Rahul Gill
Principal Program Manager

Rahul has led a number of projects including large and complex programs involving global teams from frog. He has an analytical bent of mind and enjoys brainstorming and strategizing about complex issues within and outside of the programs. He is passionate about DesignOps and product management and the processes involved in it, to bridge the working models of design, development and product delivery to promote consistent results. He is a certified Agile and Scrum master.