Although more and more companies become comfortable with employing remote workers, folks in product management still seem to resent the idea of working with location-independent teams. The overarching conclusion is that product managers cannot influence their team members if separated by distance.
So the question becomes: can a field focused on collaboration, such as product management, succeed when its members are location independent? Like most things in life, we cannot answer such a complex question in a binary yes-or-no manner. Understanding the challenges is therefore a first step in understanding how we can work together as a remote product team.
Remote Product Management – The Challenges
Hands down the biggest challenge when working together remotely is sustaining a sufficient level of communication. Making sure that everybody stays aligned and up to date becomes THE most crucial task of a remote product manager.
This often leads to product managers not being able to stay on track with regards to their product roadmap. And at worst, the product will end up failing.
Now unfortunately, this is not the only challenge we encounter as remote product managers.
Employee Assessment: When you don’t get the chance to see someone performing in action (and the only thing you can measure is his or her outcome), it becomes harder to assess other crucial employee qualities. Aspects such as teamwork or the ability to learn from past mistakes are extremely difficult to gauge.
New Hires: In line with correct employee assessment and development comes the challenge of hiring the right person in the first place. Sure, one’s past work and interview results do give a good picture of a candidate, but never seeing them in person can seriously hamper your ability to hire the right employees.
“Me vs. Them” Mentality: When all you do is work on your own and barely see your team members, feelings of isolation and resentment may emerge. If you never interact with your teammates, it can be very hard to gain this common understanding – especially when paired product managers who want to maximize the product, but not the team output necessarily.
Cultural Differences: If you ever travelled the world, it becomes apparent that people do share certain commonalities based on their heritage. Whether it is a different style of communication (along with eventual language barriers), understanding of quality of deliverables, or even something simple as the level of punctuality – people can be very different in how they approach work.
Operational woes: Aspects such as time differences, reliability of internet connections, or access to certain hardware can be hindering factors when working together remotely. Additionally, when working together with constantly travelling employees (i.e. digital nomads), you may experience sudden unavailability.
Now although remote product management does have its challenges, all hope isn’t lost. Here are five tips and recommendations on how you as a remote PM can improve your team’s chances at success.
1. Meet up annually and connect regularly
The upmost crucial thing is to ensure communication on a regular basis. If you work under Scrum principles, having a daily standup meeting helps to stay on track with current developments. Furthermore, set up time dedicated time slots where team members can speak openly about roadblocks they observe. Proactively offering your support will build trust and show your team members the willingness to go the extra mile.
Even if you are continents apart, ensuring that you get together from time to time can go a long way in building togetherness and team morale. Set up a location which everybody is comfortable with and ensure both working and fun activities for team building purposes. Additionally, make sure to speak with each team member personally to not only get to know them better, but get a feeling for any potential roadblocks they are feeling.
If applicable, it can help to have a man or woman on the inside who checks in with the local team members on your behalf. I have seen this often in companies separated by a headquarter and dedicated development offices (Careem, for instance, has its HQ in Dubai while maintaining a tech office in Berlin).
2. Agree on the basics
We do our best work when we are comfortable with the environment we are operating in. Hence, it becomes important that you and your team agree on a common set of tools and processes. Examples include:
- Slack for chatting
- JIRA or Trello for ticketing
- Confluence for your documentation
- Google Hangouts, Skype or Zoom for video calls
- InVision for rapid prototyping
Furthermore, we have to ensure that everybody is up to speed with the development processes we follow. Examples include having a common Definition of Done or an understanding of the (Agile) framework we operate in.
Side note: it is generally advised not to be too many time zones apart (we use +- 5 hours as a rule of thumb). You don’t want to be just waking up while your team members are almost done with their working day.
3. Create and maintain a shared knowledge base
This ties back into the previous point, but its importance cannot be overstated. Given that team members are not always available for immediate answers, creating a shared knowledge base can help in answering basic and repetitive questions.
It furthermore allows team members to stay up to date with current developments, thus relieving the PM from being available 24/7.
Additionally, make sure to involve your team members in maintaining your knowledge base and hold them accountable for a lack of cooperation.
4. Celebrate your wins
When you are being consumed by work and tight deadlines, it becomes hard to take a step back and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Being remote, these things take an even bigger role.
Ideas for showing your appreciation could be:
- Celebrate closing all the Sprints tickets and show your appreciation towards the team
- Talk to your colleagues not only about work and appreciate them for the person they are
- Give shout outs when folks go the extra mile and/or complete especially difficult tasks
- It’s ok to be emotional and dorky at times, so GIPHY’s and Emoji’s are your best friends 😉
- When meeting face to face, a drink or two won’t hurt
Is remote product management the right fit for me?
While it is advised that you bring some previous on-site PM experience to the table, coming to this with a fresh perspective can help both you and your team finding itself.
Being a remote PM is certainly not without its challenges. However, if you do find a way to overcome these roadblocks, you tend to gain not only a completely new perspective on what is achievable in this field, but so much more flexibility to focus on what really matters.