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How empathy and experimentation drive Hotjar's product team rituals

How much time do you spend a week in recurring meetings? How many of those are actually useful to you? If you’re like most product teams, I’m sure you’ve got your remote rituals pretty much nailed by now. Right? Sure.

At Hotjar, we’ve been doing this fully remote work thing since 2014. Yes, way before the pandemic hit. And to be honest, we still haven’t nailed it. But we have learned some things along the way that have helped.

Remote teams

Last updated

1 Feb 2022

One key: knowing that you never really nail anything, at least not for good. You just get better at reinventing the process along the way through shared vision, openness to feedback, and empathy for your teammates.

We reached out to people in different roles across our product teams at Hotjar to get their take on:

  • Remote rituals that work, and don’t work

  • When to sync up on live calls vs. when async makes sense

  • How to balance work efficiency with a human-focused remote culture

They had plenty to share on making remote meetings more efficient while keeping our remote culture human. And it turns out that focusing on the human side is one of the biggest keys for building effective rituals.

Here are 7 ways that empathy-driven experimentation drives our remote work culture.

1. Set an agenda and clear outcome

This one should be obvious by now, but our PMs still feel the need to remind us:

“Having a clear meeting agenda + desired outcomes at the start of a meeting gives structure and purpose. Defining clear next steps + action items at the end of a meeting gives shared expectations for how people should move forward."

– Andrei Beno, Product Manager

An agenda doesn’t have to be hyper-detailed, but it should clearly answer the question: What is the desired outcome? If you can’t clarify what should be learned, decided, or agreed by the end of the meeting, you shouldn’t be booking a meeting. 

Stating your plan lets everyone know ahead of time why they’re invited, and provides guardrails for when a meeting veers off course.

Experiment from empathy: If a recurring meeting doesn’t have a clear agenda one week, cancel the meeting and use some of the saved time for async communication. And if someone truly doesn’t feel they can contribute to a meeting’s outcome, give them the option to skip. It’s about respecting people’s time.

2. Save (the right) time for small-talk

Nearly everyone agrees that some small talk at the start of a meeting is important, especially at the beginning of the week. But this doesn’t mean that Monday meetings should be overrun with weekend party details and travel tips for that new city you visited. 

Most people said they try to keep a 5-minute small-talk limit so meetings stay on target and efficient. One of our PMs framed it like this:

“We always allow some small talk at the beginning. But if the agenda is tight, we keep it very short, 1-2 minutes tops. Just like in real life I guess…”

– Martina Pérez, Senior Product Designer

Context matters online, just like in real life. So you don’t need casual chat on every call, like one of our designers put it:

“After Tuesday, I jump straight into the agenda, especially with people I’ve already had meetings with.”

– Jonathan Vella, Co-founder & Principal Product Designer

Makes sense. Often we feel that if we skip the small talk, we’re not being human. But if we’re really being empathetic with others’ needs, we might realize just the opposite is true. Here’s why:

“I like a bit of small talk in the beginning, but I find it harder when I have a meeting-marathon day.”

– Iason Rados, Senior Product Designer

Another way to keep meetings efficient without sacrificing the social grease is to book separate sessions for casual chat. Here are some ways people do this in our teams:

  • Monthly team lunch (no work talk allowed)

  • Periodic PM happy hour

  • Spontaneously planned last minute drinks (especially around the holidays)

  • Serendipitously scheduled virtual coffee, or “Donut” time, with coworkers you don’t know so well. Fridays are good for these. 

And another under-acknowledged way to build connections:

“I try to do (brief) small talk in Slack from time to time, using emojis or gifs for fun. But only in certain moments, or it can turn into a distraction. I try to do this in the early morning and around the end of the day to let people know I’m thinking of them.”

– Emma Argentieri, Product Manager

This is a good point. A brief, thoughtful interaction from time to time reduces the need to connect on the calls.

Experiment with empathy: Book casual team time to talk about things other than work. Also be aware that even well-intended initiatives lose steam over time. So take a periodic pulse to check on any initiative’s value. For some people, it might feel like another unnecessary call, so consider making it optional. And if these sessions are hard for you, remember that small talk isn’t just about socializing, it’s also about building relationships.

3. Respect the clock

Do you have an agenda, but find you’re running out of time? Here’s a tip from one of our product designers:

“Start with the most important topics first, not the quick ones. So if time runs out, the most important items were covered. Smaller topics can be covered async.”

– Jonathan Vella, Co-founder & Principal Product Designer

We’ve also noticed that a lot of time gets eaten up by questions—and that’s a good thing. It means that people are engaged and have lots to talk about. But it can also be an agenda killer. To help:

  • Build question time into your agenda. And remind people that, although their curiosity is valued, you can't spend half of a meeting deep-diving into the first of five topics.

Here’s something else to try if you often find meetings wandering off track:

  • Dedicate a timekeeper who's not shy about jumping in and cutting someone off, politely of course. Agile coaches often fill this role. 

And one last thing. We try to keep meetings to a maximum of 1 hour. But just because you have it, doesn’t mean you need to use the whole hour. If you find you’re finishing ahead of time, pat yourself on the back, close the call, and get back to work.

Experiment from empathy: Remote work requires discipline, so keep tabs on your talking time and be aware of the clock. If everyone is conscientious of time, no one needs to be the enforcer.

4. Balance real-time vs. async meetings

What do people feel is best done in real-time? Our Product teams feel pretty strongly about these ones:

  • Planning, grooming, and retrospectives

  • Brainstorms and co-creation sessions

  • 1:1 coaching session

  • When a decision needs to be made 

There was also a unanimous chorus on what doesn’t need to be done in real-time: status updates, especially in large groups. 

Status updates can easily creep into the calendar in the name of “transparency.” But often it’s because no one has proposed another option. That’s why we have Slack, Miro, and other tools for remote teams. 

We found one recurring session that may be ripe for async experimentation: company-wide meetings, which could possibly be done though Loom. 

We also have squads successfully experimenting with a hybrid standup system: half-sync, half-async via text. It can be as easy as starting a Slack thread where everyone adds their “Updates”, “Blockers”, and “Needs.” It’s transparent, async, and people know who to follow up with if they need more info.

The ideal solution may depend on the maturity of the team. As one PM put it: “More mature, more async.”

Experiment from empathy: Honestly ask yourself and the team: do we really need this meeting? If so, do we really all need to be a call at the same time, or would async work? Remember the goal isn’t to have meetings. The goal is to get things done.

5. Keep an eye on under-engaged meetings

Here’s an example of something we realized: in some of our recurring review meetings, people don’t always have much to share.

You might jump to conclusions and assume this means people are working too slowly. And that may be the case. But there are other explanations.

Do people have adequate time in between sessions to prepare? If not, is it because people are spending too much time in other meetings? 

Or maybe some people are shy or lack the confidence to share things that aren't well polished? Is your team culture one where people don’t feel overly judged by imperfect work-in-progress, where feedback is directed at the work rather than the person?

In other sessions, people may stay quiet for different reasons. A remedy:

“Make sure everyone has the space to speak up and contribute. It’s easy for a meeting to be dominated by the loudest voices in the call, so encourage quieter voices to share their thoughts too.”

– Andrei Beno, Product Manager

One thing is for sure: if you have a recurring meeting where people are routinely under-engaged, then something needs to be adjusted. 

Experiment from empathy: If people aren’t contributing what you expect, find out why. Some people need to be nudged that their views are important and welcomed. Sometimes meetings are too frequent. And some days meeting marathons wear people out. Don’t guess, ask.

6. Look curiously from the other perspective

Another status update? Is he really asking for clarification again? We’ve all been stuck in meetings that feel like they drag on forever, or repeat info we’ve heard a thousand times.

It’s easy to become frustrated and disconnected when this happens. You might not care what that designer is working on, or you might feel that you already answered someone’s question in the slideshow you shared. 

But remember, people don’t intentionally try to waste time. Someone in our team put it like this:

“Certain status meetings or PM syncs are not always the most efficient but they are necessary to keep an idea of what's happening and what other teams are working on.”

– Sofia Michili, Senior Product Manager

As mentioned above, a lot of status updates are great candidates for async. But they do matter to someone. And a lot of these syncs are good for building rapport. Meetings aren’t just about optimizing each moment for productive output—it’s also about creating connections. 

So before tuning out, or turning to Slack to complain, try to look from others’ eyes. And be curious. You can learn a lot by listening to things that might not seem immediately relevant to you. 

Experiment from empathy: Next time you’re in a meeting that doesn’t seem directly relevant to you, try to understand where the host or question-asker is coming from. If you have doubts about the value, ask. And if you’re taking your time to show up, give yourself the chance to be open and learn.

7. Focus on continuous improvement

Like I said at the start, we still haven’t fully nailed this remote thing. And I’m not sure it’s even possible in practice, at least not for long. Instead, we focus on continuous improvement. 

One of our PMs put it best:

“My suggestion is to have regular check-ins on each specific ritual—especially those involving many people—to make sure that they're still relevant. Brainstorm improvements or alternatives, and adapt. Repeat as needed.”

– Andrei Beno, Product Manager

This came up in a number of ways, like several people mentioning that the end-of-week retro is the most important ritual. Why? It's all about continuous improvement. 

It’s also why this article is full of tips, not rules. What works for one team may not work for another. What works in Q1 might not work in Q3. 

Experiment from empathy: Just because you’ve always done something, doesn’t mean you need to keep doing it. Get feedback, adjust, repeat.

Why empathy is one of the biggest keys for efficiency

Finding the right balance between running an efficient remote team and keeping a human-feeling culture is the golden teeter-totter for remote teams.

At the end of the day, it really boils down to empathy and experimentation. 

Sure, some people regularly dive a bit too far into their personal stories. And other people often seem cold and robotic by skipping "hello" and  jumping into every call with “today’s meeting is about…” If you’re on one end of the spectrum, it can be hard to understand the other. 

It takes empathy for different perspectives. It also takes self-awareness, which is basically empathy for your own point of view.

No one wants to waste time. Everyone feels they have too much to do, and most people would rather be doing any number of things other than working. 

But keeping things human isn’t just about smiley, fluffy feelings. When you like the people you work with, you enjoy being at work more. And when you enjoy what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with, you’re going to work harder for the team. 

So maintaining an empathy-driven work environment isn’t separate from efficiency. It’s what drives experimentation toward rituals that really work.