Building Remote Trust

How to Supercharge Distributed Work.

As I write this, COVID-19 news dominates the headlines. The virus continues to spread, with more than several hundreds of thousands of people going back home to work. Overnight, remote work has become the new normal. It takes some adjusting, but working remotely can be an incredibly productive and enjoyable experience. For years, I’ve seen great products that were built 100% remotely. As a product manager who uses Gigster, that’s what I (and our team of ninja developers) do. The key to success is simple to explain, but takes some practice to master. Build trust remotely. That’s it. Build trust with people whose hands you may never shake, including your clients. Here are a few ways you can do this.

1. Visualize leading a great team

Building trust takes time; there’s no shortcut to it. Getting there takes one step at a time, and you need to start with a strong foundation. At the beginning of any client relationship, visualize starting your project as part of an elite team. Use whatever team metaphor you need – be it sports, e-sports, or on a dev team – you are the captain of a team of high performers. You have chemistry. You visualize winning as the natural outcome of your skills and preparation, but don’t take it for granted. Stay humble. You know what your team is capable of, because you know their skills and trust them. And they are an elite team.

2. Build momentum from Day One

Prepare, do your homework, then go. For the product manager, the right mindset is crucial in listening to your client and the problems they face. Be relatable, confident, empathetic. Make it clear that you and your team understand the finish line, and how to get there (even if there is some uncertainty near-term).

3. Read your stakeholders’ minds

Mind-reading isn’t really a skill. But there is a proxy for it – emotional intelligence (EQ) –  which you can use to better understand the hopes, doubts, and expectations of your clients and team members, from far away.  Think of this (an “adaptive” form of EQ) as a state of being able to empathize, read, and act on nonverbal communication cues and context (“between the lines”). Remember the time when you could finish your friend’s sentence, before they completed it? It’s like that from a state-of-mind standpoint. The key to this is informed anticipation. As your project progresses, you will learn about the client and their needs. Anticipate and act on the information you have. Be proactive so you can share the strategy with the client and own the solution together (even if there is one clear, superior choice). 

4. Define clear paths and offer choices

On the way to the finish line, if you encounter major headwinds in the current direction – potentially jeopardizing your glorious project victory – embrace the challenge! Be proactive in thinking through different scenarios of solutions and their tradeoffs. This will demonstrate that you are forward-thinking, solution-oriented, and respect the client’s time as well as their intelligence. Doing this – thinking through and offering multiple solutions – takes more time, but pays itself in dividends towards long term trust-building. It’s also good for business. Even if you have a clear favorite, it’s smarter to offer three viable options, and recommend the best. This makes everyone feel better than “my way or the highway.”

5. Make progress crystal clear

Progress is the fuel that powers the day-to-day building of trust. As documented in The Progress Principle, managers generally misunderstand what motivates workers. Typically, they cite social recognition and other extrinsic factors. But when workers were asked directly (through over 12,000 diary entries), they named the single, most influential factor that motivated them: visible progress in their work.

This holds true for remote work relationships, throughout the entire remote team ecosystem: from clients to account managers, the product manager, and the development team. The key is full transparency. Provide measurements of success against goals, visibility of effort, lessons learned along the way,  and product outcomes. When combined with the other success factors — setting a strong start, reading your client, and collaborating on strategy —  visible progress is incredibly powerful. It will answer any concerns about remote work efficacy. From my experience, it’s the way to go when you need to remotely build trust.

Anthony Doe
A Philadelphia-based Product Manager, and veteran Game Producer and Game Designer of over 15 years. He leads world-class development teams remotely and also teaches a course in Gamification 2.0 at the University of the Arts.

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