Right now, as of April 2020, I’ve personally witnessed thousands of product managers make the shift to remote product management, all due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Transitioning from co-located product management to remote product management can be incredibly difficult, especially if you and your teammates have never done it before.
I can personally attest to how tough it is—while I’ve had experience working with remote teams before, I’ve never been a remote product manager myself.
As I work through this transition to remote product management, I’ve learned a handful of best practices that I’d love to share, so that your own transitions are much smoother as well. I hope you’ll learn from my mistakes and gain inspiration from my own patterns.
There's a lot of general advice for building remote teams, but below, I’ll discuss three areas of focus specifically for the newly-remote product manager:
- How to work with customers remotely?
- How to work with teammates remotely?
- How to work with yourself under these new circumstance?
Let’s dive in.
Working with Customers In Remote Product Management
Working with customers has never been harder than it is right now. Due to significant shifts in macroeconomic trends, your customers’ priorities and their habits have shifted. It’s no longer as easy as it used to be to get feedback about your product.
But, it’s even more important than ever to work alongside your customers and deliver them value. They’re struggling, and you’re well-positioned to alleviate their pain. So, let’s discuss how to best work with your customers when you’re no longer their top priority.
First, stay empathetic. Realize that they’re busy and that you’re no longer top-of-mind.
Reach out to ask how you can help, regardless of whether it’s through your current product or not. Ask what’s truly top of mind for them, even if it’s not you. Do so with genuine compassion and curiosity.
Here’s an example message that I’ve sent my customers:
“Hey James, hope you and your loved ones are staying safe and healthy. I recognize it’s a bit crazy right now and I realize that you’re busy. I’m sure your priorities have changed, and I want to support those priorities. I’d love to know more about what kinds of fires you’re tackling right now. Drop me a line if you have a chance!”
Don’t be offended if they don’t respond at all—again, it’s likely that you’re not the priority right now, and that they’ve got other fires to fight.
But, say that your customers respond to your message.
You’ll get one of two types of responses. Either they’ll be fighting a fire that you can’t help with, or they’ll be tackling a new challenge that you can help with.
What If Your Customers Don’t Need You Right Now?
Say that across your customers, you are no longer able to help.
That’s okay. Take a step back and prepare for the future.
Invest in paying back a lot of the technical debt that might have accrued in your product. For example, maybe you built a couple of features in a non-scalable way. Well, now’s the time to make them scalable!
Similarly, you can start investing in future-facing platform capabilities that will benefit all of your products. For example, now is a good time to start opening up your APIs so that in the future, others can integrate with you. Now is a good time to invest in more robust data tracking and instrumentation. Now is a good time to attack your backlog of important-but-not-urgent items, whether it’s cleaning up your documentation or realigning all of your front-end React components for consistency.
What If Your Customers Do Need You Right Now?
Let’s address the reverse scenario. Say that your customer responds with a new priority that you can tackle. When I say “something you can tackle”, this might be something that’s a bit out of your wheelhouse, where you’ll need to stretch to be able to address the need.
For example, Gillette is a blades and razors manufacturer. But, there’s a huge demand out there for face shields. Gillette has pivoted to making face shields and sanitizer instead, to be able to support the communities that they’re a part of. They’re leveraging their manufacturing capabilities, supply chain, and distribution capabilities to unlock impact in a way that they weren’t focused on before.
Similarly, look for ways to step up to the plate. You’ll have to stretch, and it’s painful, but it’s worth it. Dive in and demonstrate that you’re there to fight fires alongside your customers.
One challenge that you’ll face is that your customers may not be clear about what their problems are. They might be so stressed or distracted by their current situation that they can’t share many details with you.
You’ll have to be proactive. Don’t expect people to answer your surveys or to pick up your phone calls. Don’t expect customers to let you come onsite to shadow their users anymore.
One way to be proactive is to pivot your user research team away from new research initiatives and staff them onto the customer support team instead. They might find huge volumes of inbound pain that they haven’t seen before, and they can help unlock new insights and new directions for your product to go.
Once you’ve identified the new pain, it’s time to attack it. Rather than trying to treat it as a full-blown product, treat it like a hackathon instead.
Time is of the essence, and the faster you can ship something that’s usable for your struggling customers, the more impact you’ll unlock in the world. For example, fintech companies like PayPal and Square have pivoted to disbursing stimulus checks from the U.S. government.
As another example, multiple companies have started compiling lists of open jobs and recently laid-off employees. The lists aren’t pretty and they’re not automated, but they address the need.
As yet another example of a relevant pivot, the social media app SocialMama pivoted towards a new feature called Expert Program, and it enables mothers to reach out to doctors, dentists, and other health experts.
What is your unique core competency, and how can you use it in a different light to unlock impact for your customer base? What is the fastest way you can deliver value?
It’ll feel weird throwing out a lot of your norms. But that’s the thing—it’s not a normal time anymore.
You might start shipping functionality with no spec and no designs. You may not have robust statistics that back up the ROI of your product. You might have shipped without running any automated test cases or any data tracking or any A/B testing.
That’s okay. Just focus on getting your customers through this fire.
Grow your customers right now, in this time of trouble, and they’ll be sure to grow your business for many years to come.
Working with Teammates In Remote Product Management
Product managers live and die by their teams, and it’s crucial for product managers to stay tightly aligned with each of their teammates. But, remote product management is particularly difficult because communication loops are significantly weaker than they used to be.
You can no longer walk over to someone’s desk to chat, and you can no longer talk through a problem over lunch. You can no longer quickly pull in other people to existing group conversations.
Even though video conferencing and virtual coworking exists, you’ll still miss out on lots of the nuance and the cues that matter to a product manager: people’s body language, people’s attention, people’s gazes in the room.
To tackle the problem of remote coordination, start first with empathy.
Connecting Personally with Teammates
Everyone is struggling through trauma and grief because we’ve all lost our sense of normalcy and stability.
We wish we were back in the office, working side by side, but that’s no longer possible. We long for our past habits that we can no longer access. Work feels less vibrant because you can no longer hang out with close colleagues.
Help soothe the emotional wounds of your teammates by being genuine and vulnerable.
Reach out to teammates proactively to check in regularly on them as human beings, and not as resources. Ask about their health and about what worries them day to day.
Make sure that their spirits are in good shape and that they still understand the mission of your company and your product. Dig into the pains that they’re facing, and see how you can help unblock them.
As a product manager, you’re the beating heart of your team. It’s crucial that you invest the emotional labor now to keep people motivated and invested.
Of course, personal connections help, but it’s not a perfect cure-all. You’ll need to step up your coordinator soft skills as well.
Effective Remote Team Communications
Remove people’s mental overhead by being a proactive communicator, to the point where you might feel that you’re being repetitive. Drive effective meetings by sharing the agenda before the meeting, then restating the agenda at the start of the meeting, and recapping with the agenda at the end of the meeting.
It might feel repetitive, but repetition will help drive normalcy and consistency. Repeat yourself over and over again. If you feel like you have too many messages to share, then you’re probably overloading the team—so think deeply about the one or two messages that really matter, and hammer those messages home.
Speaking of meetings, make sure that you document the meeting notes. As soon as the meeting is over, send them out right after each meeting, with a set of action items: who’s doing what, and by when. Then, store a copy of the meeting notes in a publicly accessible place, so that everyone has a shared reference point.
The challenge with remote product management is that it’s easy for people to become misaligned without you noticing that they’ve become misaligned. Keep in mind that your teammates will naturally drift away from alignment because that’s human nature. Your teammates aren’t doing it on purpose, and they’re not being malicious. It’s just a genuinely tough time to work right now, and it’s easy to drift away from alignment.
So, do what you can to document your thoughts and your decisions.
When you share out a message, make sure that the message is repeated multiple times. Use Zoom, Slack, and email to communicate deadlines and priorities.
Sharing Priorities Remotely
Remote product management isn’t just about making sure that the day-to-day mechanisms are running smoothly. Right now, many product managers are engaged in quarterly planning, and that means that we’re on point to pull together roadmaps and strategy documents.
As we work through these turbulent times, our priorities will shift very quickly. In uncertain times like these, it’s far more important for you to be transparent and communicative than it is for you to be polished. Share your early thoughts even if they’re not ready so that others know what direction you’re headed in.
I’ll confess that I used to be somewhat uncomfortable sharing my roadmap until I got all of the inputs that I needed from Sales, Account Management, Deployments, Support, Engineering, and Design.
But we don’t have that sort of luxury anymore. Everyone’s holding onto different information, and we don’t have time for standard processes to kick in.
So, I recently shared a very rough roadmap.
It didn’t look very polished at al—it didn’t have our company branding, it wasn’t in a gorgeous slide deck, it didn’t have a clear estimate of upside or costs.
Rather, each line item had an honest assessment of how confident (or not confident) I was, and the rationale for why I thought we should tackle that line item. It provided people with the space to fill me in on the gaps in my knowledge so that we could jointly determine where to focus our efforts.
Here’s a link to that template. It’s not gorgeous, but it kicked off a lot of great conversations internally and helped me find blind spots that I didn’t know about before.
As another example of how to share strategic directions early and often: one of my colleagues now runs virtual weekly office hours, where anyone can drop in to ask about existing functionality and about the future of her products.
Open forums for communication and debate are crucial because one of your teammates might be holding onto a crucial new context that you didn’t have before.
Be open to having your roadmap challenged. We’re all in it together.
Working with Yourself As A Remote Product Manager
Don’t forget to take care of yourself amidst all of this change! You’re the most crucial resource that you can leverage right now. I’ll discuss the following ways to take care of yourself:
- Schedule personal time
- Protect your working self
- Take care of your body and mind
- Stay connected with loved ones
- Stay thoughtful, reflective, and proactive
Schedule Personal Time
First, make sure that you’re carving out time for yourself.
Just because your home is also your office doesn’t mean that you’re supposed to work endlessly. Create rituals to draw the boundaries between work and non-work times, and stick to them.
Your rituals can be as simple as taking a walk when starting work, and taking another walk when ending work. It can be as complex as a workout routine, plus tea, plus meditation, plus journaling. Whatever ritual works for you, make sure that you create two sets: one to mark the transition from non-work to work, and one to mark the transition from work to non-work.
Here’s my morning ritual. I wake up at 7:30 AM and make two cups of coffee—one for myself and one for my girlfriend. We both make breakfast together and eat in silence. I then wash the cups and dishes, because it’s a calming ritual for me. She reads the news out loud for me to listen to while I do the dishes. Then, we change into work clothes (yes, even though we’re still at home!) and get started with our work.
My evening ritual runs this way. I set my Slack to “away” and “mute notifications”, then I go for a walk with my girlfriend. Once we come back, we change back into pajamas, then we make dinner. After dinner, we’re not allowed to start any of our work stuff anymore—we’re in personal mode, and we keep each other honest about staying work-free until we reach the next morning’s ritual.
Rituals are important to help your brain realize that it’s time to get started, or it’s time to call it a day. Without the physical markers of the office and without being surrounded by our colleagues, we can be easily trapped by our computers to stay indefinitely in work mode. Don’t fall for that trap!
Here’s a quick picture of what that looks like on my calendar.
Here are my calendar settings.
And below are my Slack settings.
Protect Your Working Self
Second, when you’re tackling work, make sure that you protect your working self.
Ensure that you have a setup that works for you. If you have others who live with you (e.g. housemates, partners, spouses, children, etc.), ensure that you have some sort of boundary that enables you to focus. Go through ground rules together to ensure that you don’t go nuts.
Don’t forget to have an ergonomic setup! Since lots of us are working from home for the first time, it’s easy to forget to have a properly adjusted monitor height and chair height.
Also, ensure that you have time for deep work. It’s too easy to be caught up in infinite emails and Slack messages or to have a never-ending set of Zoom calls. After all, we’re product managers; we’re almost always in meetings.
But you still need to be strategic, and you need to be thoughtful. Ensure that you have blocks of deep work. Remember that every time you context switch, you lose significant momentum. Where possible, cancel meetings that don’t advance your initiatives forward. If you have to take meetings, try to consolidate them into a particular time of day or a particular day of the week so that you have time to focus outside of that meeting block.
Take Care of Your Body and Mind
Third, take care of your personal health. My goal here isn’t to act like a scolding mother, but rather to gently remind you that your brain doesn’t work if your body isn’t tuned up—and it’s harder than ever to maintain your physical health.
Try to find healthy food when you can. Find enjoyable ways to exercise, even within your current constraints. Find time to meditate.
Don’t let the news cycle take over your brain, regardless of whether it’s about coronavirus, or your economy, or your industry.
I manage to stay informed while feeling somewhat distant by keeping my information curated. I’ve unsubscribed from 99% of my newsletters, and I’ve unfollowed every politician on social media. The only news I get is from my morning ritual, from my parents, and from my brother.
Stay Connected with Loved Ones
Speaking of family —my fourth suggestion is that you take care of your social self.
While physical isolation is important, it’s crucial that you stay connected to the people that you care about. Find time to regularly meet up with family, even if it’s over Zoom. For example, I have a regular Skype call with my family every Sunday night at 9 PM, and that’s incredibly comforting. I have a regular Google Hangouts call with a particular group of friends every two weeks.
Now is also a great time to reconnect with people who you haven’t spoken to in a while. We’re all around anyways!
And, lean in with your colleagues, too. Part of remote product management is creating space to set up new team rituals such as virtual happy hours and virtual kitchenettes.
For example, my engineering team has a “water cooler” Zoom meeting every other day, so that we can shoot the breeze. My fellow product managers and I have a rotating coffee chat every week so that we can get to know one another better. My product team has a “question of the week” and a “word of the week” ritual for us to connect and to talk about something that isn’t work-related.
Stay Thoughtful, Reflective, and Proactive
And finally, be thoughtful and deliberate about your new behaviors.
Rigorously evaluate how you operate in this new environment and run retrospectives against yourself every day. You want to be able to discover answers to questions like these:
- Are you a morning person or an evening person?
- Do you work in bursts or long stretches?
- Do you need more socialization or less?
- Are you self-motivated or do you need an accountability partner?
It’s all tough work, but being thoughtful will ensure that you’re taking care of yourself, your loved ones, your teammates, and your customers.
While this is an incredibly difficult time to be a product manager, we all have so much to learn and to make our products and teams more resilient.
By being empathetic, proactive, and thoughtful, we can level up ourselves in this time of great stress.
And, once we make it through—because yes, there is an end to this!—we’ll come out the other side with better patterns and behaviors.
Hang in there, stay strong, and know that we’re all in this together!