Note to readers: I originally wrote this post for CodeControl’s Future of Work blog in 2018. But, a lot has changed since then, and for the last 6 months most of the world has been working remotely. Therefore, I decided to revise and republish my advice for successfully navigating remote work as a product manager. I hope the tips help you and your team win!
I’ve been working with distributed teams for nearly 15 years, but my most challenging setup (yes, even when considering the pandemic) was in 2012. At the time I was in NYC working for a local tabloid. The people I worked most closely with were based in Seattle, France, Sweden, and India. Each group had its own time zone, ways of working, tech stack nuances, collaboration tools and styles, and comfort with English. In spite of these challenges, we were able to build 4 great mobile products and create lasting professional relationships — remotely.
Conditions for remote teams have drastically improved since 2012, and further progress has been made since many companies transitioned to remote work in March 2020 with ‘rona lockdowns. Additionally, a new breed of collaboration tools have transformed and streamlined how technical and non-technical team members work together to build products.
In this new era of remote work, how can product managers continue to add value and lead teams successfully?
With the right tools, attitudes, and processes remote teams can be even more productive than colocated ones. These are the strategies I employ when my team is remote:
- Make a social contract
- Set ways of working
- Make decisions, quickly
- Don’t forget to celebrate
Make a social contract 🤝
Having a team working agreement helps to set expectations and ensures the team members are committed to each other. It also (hopefully) prevents miscommunication, frustration, and bloodshed. I like to use a team canvas to run an interactive brainstorming session.
Even without brightly colored post-its and markers, I promise you can run a lively and effective workshop online. Miro or Confluence’s collaborative editing will help you facilitate.
I’ve worked alongside a number of PMs who get it wrong with their teams. They attempt to motivate by setting ambitious deadlines and micromanaging tasks — but this approach doesn’t work. Instead, use the team canvas to help the team establish and live shared values. When they commit to each other (rather than to deadlines or features), they’re much more likely to hit their milestones and achieve their goals.
Set ways of working 👩💻
Start by agreeing on the basics:
- When you’re going to work (main time zone, working hours, ‘on call’ times)
- How you’re going to work (tools, frameworks, ceremonies)
- Process for escalation when something goes wrong
Design your processes to enable asynchronous work. Especially during the pandemic, your team members are managing unprecedented challenges. Not everyone will be able to consistently work 9–5 like they did before. Additionally, long, crowded video meetings are exhausting! Shifting to written, async methods of collaboration is a more inclusive and flexible approach.
As the PM, this will put extra pressure on you to redesign how your team collaborates — trust me, the investment is worth it. It’s important to find a way of working that suits your team’s specific context and gives everyone an equal opportunity to contribute.
Lean on your tools as much as possible. I like:
- Slack for chatting (make sure to install Giphy and upload custom emojis!)
- JIRA or Asana for ticketing
- Confluence for wiki / documentation
- Miro for diagramming, wireframing, or facilitating ceremonies and workshops
- Meet or Whereby for voice and video calls
- Figma for design-dev collaboration
- Scatterspoke for retros
- GDrive for file sharing
The first sprint following significant changes (like suddenly transitioning to remote work during a pandemic) is like the first pancake. If your ways of working aren’t working, use the retro to call out what went well and what needs improvement. Continue to refine and add until everyone is smashing tickets and doing their best work. I’ve found that, after implementing new tools or processes, it takes 1–2 sprints to figure out how to best work together.
Over-communicate information. When in doubt, communicate more. I’ve found that it’s helpful to include the same info via different tools, as team members may check one more than the others.
I have a channel in Slack specifically for #announcements. Once we’ve finished a particular discussion, I re-post a summary in the channel (as well as in Confluence or JIRA when appropriate). This (hopefully) ensures that everyone sees the info.
Communicate visually as well. Just because you’re not sitting next to a whiteboard doesn’t mean you can’t draw together. Draw stuff, snap a pic, and send it to team members. Use tools like Miro or draw.io for creating digital sketches. When in doubt, screen share, screen record, or annotate. I like the Chrome plugin Awesome Screenshot for videos and annotating.
Make decisions, quickly ⏳
The best way to keep the team unblocked is to make speedy decisions. Especially in a remote context, a decision is better than no decision. Use the information you have at the time to make the best decision you can, and encourage your team members to do the same. Sure, you’re going to get it wrong occasionally and have to refactor. But, favoring quick decisions will keep your team moving forward.
Once a decision is made, document it. (Remember that tip about over-communicating?!) Post the what and why of the decision in Slack, Confluence, relevant JIRA tickets, etc. Ensure the whole team is across what was decided in real time and also accessible in a place they can refer to in future.
Don’t forget to celebrate 🎉
When you sit next to your team members, social interactions happen organically throughout the day, week, and project. It’s easy to remember to say ‘good morning’ to the team member sitting next to you or to organize team lunches or Friday beers. When your team is remote, it’s even more important to consciously create opportunities for personal, micro interactions and celebrate the small wins.
Here are some of the ways you can celebrate remotely with your teams:
- Ask about someone’s day while waiting for the others to join a video meeting
- Pause the discussion to call out the team’s 100th PR
- Send a GIPHY to the #watercooler channel when it’s time for the weekend
- Ping team members individually to check in
- Give a shout out for help with a tough ticket
- Cheers when all of the tickets in the sprint are closed out
- Invite team members for a virtual coffee
- Add emoji reactions to show you agree (or disagree) with what’s been said
One of my teams (working a few time zones ahead) used to Skype me in for Friday afternoon beers at their office. Sure, I still had a handful of hours to go before I quit for the weekend, but it was awesome to be included in a virtual ‘cheers’ after a hard week.
In light of COVID-19, remote product management isn’t going anywhere. So, how can PMs embrace the challenges of remote work?
I read an article early in my career where the author called product managers ‘janitors’, and in a remote context there’s even more cleanup that will fall in your lap. You’ll still have to juggle leading the team, championing culture, and promoting the product vision. Plus, you’ll also need to pick up any tasks that don’t obviously fall within someone’s remit — this is one of the biggest challenges of a remote PM. If you’re feeling overloaded, ask your team members for help! There’s no shame in putting a hand up and delegating.
For those who skimmed to the bottom, here’s the tl;dr:
- Repeat yourself until your team mocks you; assume info needs to be posted in at least 3 places before everyone’s seen it
- A happy team is a productive team; social contracts, async processes, and swift decisions keep everyone working
- Don’t aim for perfect; instead, aim to do it better every single day (hashtag kaizen)
One final pro tip: Monthly health checks are a savior for teams that are struggling to find their rhythm. Atlassian even provides templates for download!
About the author
Hi, I’m Merissa. I have 10+ years of experience in digital product management in the US, Australia, and Germany. I specialize in new concept validation using Lean UX, and I love working with small, fast-moving cross-functional teams.