Best Practices

Remote Work and Product Management

As the COVID-19 situation evolves across the globe, we are entering unprecedented times. In the past 15 days, much of the tech world has rapidly transitioned to mandatory remote work. We’re fortunate to have this option when others can no longer work at all. It goes without saying that this is a privilege we should be grateful for. However, we are being asked to adjust to a reality that poses many new professional and personal challenges. I’d like to share my experiences encountering some of these struggles in the context of product management and offer some tips that may help you adjust as well. 

Around eight months ago, I packed up my things and left NYC for Boston. I was a bit over a year into my role as a PM at Google and I luckily had the option of not having to switch teams or roles. My entire extended team (engineering, UXD/UXR, and other PMs except for my immediate manager) was still based in NYC. However, everyone was supportive of my move and determined to make it work with me being a “remote PM.” I decided to commute to the Cambridge office every day even though I spent pretty much most of my time in empty conference rooms on video conference calls. I also incorporated some semi-regular travel back to NYC for face-to-face time. Otherwise, I was fully acting as a remote/video-based product manager. 

As the rest of my team also falls into a similar situation due to  COVID-19, I find myself feeling relatively prepared for this new world of working professionally. It has taken me time to adjust and I’m definitely still changing habits and behaviors along the way. Being a remote PM is a constant learning process. However, here are five things I’ve learned that may be helpful as you make the transition.

No. 1: Remote PMing is not the same as in-person PMing

In your first few days and weeks of remote product management, you may find yourself trying to recreate all your best habits. What worked for you before should still work, right?

Not necessarily. 

Being a remote PM will require you to adapt your style and flex yourself in subtle ways. For example, my natural style of PMing is very relationship-driven. As a result, I index heavily on creating strong ties with the people who are critical to both my own effectiveness and the product’s ultimate success. I like to set up informal and formal touchpoints, foster trust and credibility with my team, and eventually get to a place of shared understanding with my colleagues. I embrace the philosophy that product management in tech is about knowing how to work effectively with people.

So even in the context of remote PMing, I look for ways to be intentional about building and maintaining trust. You no longer have many opportunities for casual facetime, so you have to be deliberate in your effort. Spend time rebuilding this space with your colleagues and teammates before you jump straight into delivery, execution, and the other motions of product management.

No. 2: Over-communication is key

In the first few months of remote PMing, I found myself frustrated that people weren’t remembering what I had said. I would think, “Didn’t I explicitly say that in the meeting?” or “Was I not clear in my ask over email last week?” I realized over time that the effectiveness of my natural communication took a big hit after becoming remote.

My presence was no longer top-of-mind to my team, so my requests and comments sometimes fall through the cracks. 

I learned to develop small habits of saying the same thing in different ways: in a video call, then in a follow-up email right after, maybe over chat a few days after, and in-person the next time I was visiting the office. This might sound like overkill, but make no mistake about it: over-communicating will make or break you as a remote PM. Repetition is critical to conveying priority in a way that sticks with your team.

No. 3: Pay careful attention to your written communication

Even more than before, your hygiene around written communication will matter. Most PMs tend to have strong habits here regardless. I had certain basic routines, like setting clear agendas and sending them out before meetings, taking notes during a meeting to facilitate, and sending follow up comments/AIs/etc. But in the same vein as over-communication, it’s now even more important to create a paper trail.

As the rest of your team moves to a remote work environment, they’ll look for more written communication to compensate for the lack of face-to-face. Video and phone calls won’t completely fill the communication gap, so we still have to rely on emails/chat/docs/etc to a certain extent. Know this and employ it as another tool at your disposal. 

No. 4: Develop your virtual presence

If you have the option, try to have most of your meetings involve both video and audio. All of the calls I do are still video-based, but I’ve worked at companies where the culture was to join meetings only over audio. If video is an option, be deliberate about how you present yourself. Try to be easily visible in a centered position and close enough to the camera. Talk clearly and audibly. 

The most effective thing you can do is actively read the room for other people’s body language and interject when you notice something. Someone looking to speak but can’t get a word in? Someone falling out of the conversation or seeming distracted? A colleague getting agitated or shifting around visibly? Say something. Find a graceful way to invite that person back into the conversation and to lean back in. Don’t be forceful about it. Find your own style here and be authentic. Having this kind of presence in a video call gives you an awesome opportunity to be a leader for your team. This will only help you elsewhere in your role. 

No. 5: Understand how decisions get made

In a co-located work environment, there are hundreds of questions and answers covered in the day-to-day of building product. Not all of these are posed as key decisions that PMs need to weigh in on. Good PMs often are able to build a culture of ownership on their teams, which empowers everyone to make decisions that ultimately move the product forward. Effective PMs don’t need to be involved in every single decision. And when you’re a remote PM, you’ll find that momentum may also leave you out of some decisions.

It is imperative that you figure out where you are most effective for the team. You want to build checkpoints to ensure the team is marching forward, but you don’t want to create extra processes that put additional strain on the team. However, you do have to be part of the team’s working cycles. Whether your team is entirely remote as well or all co-located, that is a key role you have to play as the PM.

You also need to teach your team to intentionally include you, in a way that may feel awkward at first, especially compared to in-person PMing. Ask them to ping you with questions, be available, set up extra 1:1s, syncs, etc. And then cancel them or wind them down if you feel like they’re overkill. The important thing is to rebuild the trust and dynamic of you PMing the team. So this comes full circle to my philosophy on product management: it all starts with a foundation of strong relationships with key partners. This base level of trust is critical for you playing at the right altitude. That is how others will exercise good judgment on when to pull you in as a remote PM.

Salt to taste

Ultimately, this period of us having to work from home will inevitably be linked to the uncertainty and anxiety of a global pandemic. Many people will realize they much prefer working in the office where they’re face-to-face with their team. Others will enjoy it and love how it brings focus to their craft. And this spectrum of sentiment is absolutely fine. Remote work is not going to be for everyone. 

At the very least, I encourage everyone in this position to go in open-minded and embrace change. Use this time as an opportunity to learn more about your own strengths and weaknesses as a product manager. Use it as a chance to grow your style and flex skills you don’t otherwise get to exercise. Take the time to improve yourself. Share what works and what doesn’t work for you. We’re all in this together!