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Do Product Teams Have an Apathy Problem?

Written by 
Shauna Ward
 and 
  —  
August 9, 2022

Are PDE teams apathetic — or just burnt out?

If your Product, Design, and Engineering teams' productivity has been suffering lately, you’re not alone. Chances are, you've heard someone at work or in the media lament the fact that "no one wants to work these days." It's a common refrain, but it simply isn't true.

What looks like apathy is actually burnout.

The truth is, 2+ years of working through a pandemic, adapting to remote/hybrid work, and dealing with a a volatile economy is taking a toll on even the brightest, most hardworking employees. People want to be invested in their work, but they need the right support from leadership — and in today’s hybrid workplace, that support looks a little different than it used to.

Disconnection is the #1 cause of employee burnout

A 2021 Glint report found that disconnection was the single largest contributor to employee burnout, followed by workload and work-life balance.

Disconnection is a global problem, and it's a bigger issue than you may expect. In 2020, 56% of people felt disconnected from their colleagues because of remote work.

Feeling disconnected at work is a worldwide problem.

But returning to the office full-time (or even adopting a hybrid work model) isn't a panacea for workplace disconnection woes. Because while remote/hybrid work brings its own set of challenges, it also offers a wealth of opportunities for Product, Design, and Engineering teams. Benefits include:

  • Unlocking a wider and more diverse talent pool
  • Supporting different ways of working: solo work vs live collaboration, visual thinking vs verbal communication, etc.
  • More people can contribute, even if they're not the loudest ones in the room

These benefits cannot be realized, however, if teams are disconnected or unengaged. Ultimately, it's up to PDE team leaders to help their teams become more engaged, connected, and invested in the work they do.

5 practical ways to boost engagement among PDE teams

We've established that what looks like apathy is really burnout, and burnout is caused largely by disconnection. So, what can Product, Design, and Engineering team leaders do to combat disconnection and increase engagement among their teams?

Read on to learn about five areas where PDE teams sometimes fall short, from meetings to team building. We'll explain how to increase connection and engagement within each area and share templates for putting these tips into action with your team.

1. Establish a team charter with norms and ground rules for meetings.

At first brush, establishing ground rules for meetings might seem like an unnecessary barrier to engagement, but it's actually the opposite.

Picture this scenario: Your team gets dropped on a sports field with a variety of balls and equipment, and you're told to play a match. The whistle blows, and you're expected to get to it with no discussion — without even agreeing on which sport you're playing. It's not going to be very productive, is it?

The same is true for team meetings. Even if you have a clear goal in mind, people need ground rules in order to reach that goal. Otherwise, they end up bumbling around the metaphorical field and failing to work together. Some people eventually end up drifting toward the sidelines, while others take over the field and play by their own rules. This can be confusing and discouraging, not to mention a barrier to equity and inclusion.

One way to set ground rules that take everyone's needs into account is by creating a team charter. Team charters establish norms, rules, and expectations for how your team collaborates in meetings and beyond.

Team Charter Template
Communication is an integral part of building a connected team. Use this template to establish ground rules for how your team works together.

2. Use pre-work to get everyone aligned in meetings.

Here's an example of how setting ground rules play out in real life. In a recent webinar, MURAL's senior VP of engineering, Kirby Frugia, shared the story of an engineer who was quiet in meetings, but he knew from their one-on-one conversations that she had a lot to say. Sometimes, people just need a little encouragement to speak up, so Kirby asked her privately if he could call on her during meetings. Her advice was illuminating. "She told me that in order to feel comfortable speaking or being called on, she would really like to be able to prepare better for meetings," Kirby explained. While some people thrive when they're put on the spot, others need to take time to process and think before they speak up. This can be especially true in a meeting where you may have strong personalities.

Now, Kirby and his team assign pre-work that allows everyone to prepare for meetings. This goes beyond just setting an agenda; it gives people the resources they need to collect their thoughts, think through key topics, and come prepared to contribute.

Meeting Pre-Work Template
Getting a remote team on the same page from the beginning can help your session be valuable and productive. Use this template to make sure every member has the same level of background knowledge and correct expectations for the meeting.

3. Create team member user manuals to support onboarding.

Onboarding is a critical time for both new team members and for the existing members of your team. This is an opportunity to set expectations and ensure people feel included right from the beginning.

It's a given that you should provide team members with an onboarding guide that outlines your team charter. Your team charter serves as a guide to your team values, norms, and working agreements. But what about a guide to working with individual team members? This is an area of opportunity that most PDE teams miss.

The solution is to have your team members create create their own person "user manuals" that let people know what matters to them.

When new folks are joining the team, you can emphasize how excited you are that they're going to be helping add to your team's culture. You hired them for a reason, and it's not just about their skills, but also about who they are as individuals. That's where the user manuals come in. They should outline an individual's working style, online hours, and other key information about them. Onboarding employees will also have access to their colleague's user manuals, so they can provide the best support possible to one another.

Team Member User Manual Template
Use this template to tell your team members about you, your role, and your preferred ways of working.

4. Use warmups, icebreakers, and energizers to boost engagement in team meetings.

When you make space for your employees to build healthy relationships with each other, they’re less likely to feel isolated. One way to do this is by hosting regular warmups, energizers, and icebreakers in your team meetings.

It's no secret that some people roll their eyes at icebreakers, but when done right, they're a great way to build rapport and start meetings off on the right foot. The key is to make them low-pressure and fun. Instead of asking everyone to share a "fun fact" (yawn), host a more structured activity that asks folks to share how they're feeling that day or answer a specific question about themselves. Don't expect your team members to get too personal in a large group, and don't drag your warmups out too long — they should be engaging and low-stakes, not dull or stressful.

Visual Check-Ins Template
Use this simple template to kick off your next team meeting with a visual check-in.

5. Be intentional about team building.

Deliberate, thoughtful team building must be a priority for remote and hybrid Product teams. This looks different for each team, but it's usually best to forego awkward virtual happy hours in favor of something more inclusive and tailored to your team.

For example, your Engineering team could participate in a hackathon for a nonprofit that aligns with your company mission. Hackathons are low-risk opportunities to be creative and collaborate in new ways. Alternately, you could host a virtual game night, a team lunch with breakout groups, or a hands-on workshop. Just remember: If you can't get everyone together in person, your team building activities should be digital-first to accommodate folks who are joining remotely.

About the author

About the authors

Shauna Ward

Shauna Ward is a content marketing manager at MURAL. As a former remote work skeptic, she enjoys creating resources that help distributed teams make collaboration fun, easy, and effective.