Offline coaching for remote companies – can it work?

Jane Belenkaya Sep 4 Article

So, a coach and a software engineer walk into the bar… Three months ago, hiring a professional business trainer did sound like a total anecdote to us — we are hardcore tech guys, busy with coding the code and selling what we coded.

At a certain point, we realized though, that there might be gaps in processes between product managers and tech leads.

It was hard to tell whether these were purely communication gaps or trust issues. Rather than making assumptions, but to solve this, we decided to get them all into one room and solve those issues together face-to-face.

As an experiment, we decided to ask professional facilitators (aka coaches or business trainers) to help in identifying and addressing communication issues. So, there we were, beginning of July, all our team leads and product managers locked in a hotel room in Minsk, Belarus for 2 days 9 am to 9 pm.

We are not here to tell you if it is a good idea or not to work with business trainers — this is solely your decision to make. Below, is a reflection of our own experience as a remote company experimenting with a mixture of offline and online formats and share it with our readers.

Why companies might need a facilitator?

As we are 100% remote — people inside one single team might work from 8 different time zones — there must be something else behind missed deadlines or wrong business presumption. Below is the story of how we prepared for the workshop, chose the trainers and if it really worked for us.

To find out issues within teams, we decided to do an offline meet-up, which grew into 2-days-long communication workshop in Minsk, moderated by 2 professional coaches.

First, we sat together with our C-Team and set meet-up goals:

  1. Build trust between two teams
  2. Define and agree on processes while working on a new product
  3. Define and agree on the roles and responsibilities of each team member
  4. Document all of the above as a call-to-action and used as guidelines for future teams.

Then, we started to look for a business trainer or coach, which turned out to be a real treasure hunt. We interviewed many coaches before we found the right ones (and only now we realize that choosing someone else would turn into a total disaster and waste of funds).

We asked our team for referrals and finally limited our search to interviewing 6 finalists, as we had peculiar requirements, like being bilingual (Russian and English), having experience with tech teams and remote companies and understanding product management challenges. We ended up with 2 coaches ( that allowed us to work in teams and cover everything in only 2 days). Both of them are certified Agile and Kanban trainers, which made working with technical people more effective — thus, they all shared a common language.

Outcomes — did it really work?

Dmitry Shkolnikov, CTO:

“We elaborated on how Product and Tech teams should work together and came back with better understanding of each role’s responsibility and accountability, like Business Unit Manager is responsible for answering WHY we have a certain goal. Product manager is responsible for answering WHAT we need to do in order to achieve this goal. Tech Lead is responsible for answering HOW we’ll do WHAT.

Also, we’ve learned a tool for describing the business-processes named RACI matrix, we found it very visual and useful and definitely will use it in future.”

For us, only time will tell, but participants were really open and willing to discuss and listen. It took coaches some time to calibrate the training flow, but in the end, everyone was super-positive with the outcome and aligned on most of the things. Overall, it was a great workshop, we learned a lot and are now more aligned on how things should be done. There are still some miles to go before we will be in perfect synergy, and we are definitely in the right direction.


Useful Tips

  1. Feasible results. Things you do must have an impact and a plausible result. As the workshop was dedicated to communications and roles inside teams, for us it turned into a well-articulated document, that describes roles and communication flows between technical and product teams. Don’t be shy to push this document to be brought back by a team manager.
  2. Location. Improvize with destinations — if you can’t afford getting everyone to London, look around. Minsk turned out to be an amazing destination for workshops — no visas needed, good and cheap travel hub, world hotel chains, nice and friendly staff and very reasonable pricing for all of the above.
  3. Choosing a facilitator. We talked about values in our previous post— your coach is like a dentist — not only you have to trust him, but he needs to share your attitude:
  • Interview as many coaches as needed until you find the right one — there are lots of amazing professionals, techniques and programs out there. What worked for us, was previous experience in agile and product management
  • People in coaching and business training industry are, first of all, excellent salespeople with a combination of NLP and psychological tricks — just don’t get under their charm easily. Chose carefully — look for feedback from customers in the same field/industry as yours, etc. For us, working through the recommended agency helped a lot — they offered various candidates, arranged interviews (ALWAYS use video to see your future partner face to face at least virtually) and did all paperwork
  • Make sure coaches talk to leaders and teams before the sessions — private and honest feedback helps to shape the program better

4. Timing. Two days passed super fast, and even while staying in the room from 9am-9pm we did not finish everything that was planned — if you can, plan 1 extra day to finish without a hurry.

5. Feedback. It was the first experience for us, so we asked for feedback from all parties involved. It helps us tremendously in planning our next meet-ups:

  • we talked to a hotel to make sure everything went smooth with timing, room size, quality of video and internet (yep, we even had one team member on a video call from a maternity wing);
  • we talked to managers to see if the coaches met their expectations;
  • we talked to the team to see if they liked the ideas of coached sessions and how can we use it for their professional development in future;
  • finally, we talked to our coaches (don’t ask them to provide personal feedback on team members — this is marginally ethical) — to discuss if they finished everything they planned (the schedule was really tight), to see if the format fits and what can be next steps.

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