Remote work exploded during the pandemic, with 35% of US workers having the option of working fully remotely in 2022 according to McKinsey. Formerly office-based companies have had to shift their ways of collaborating and working to deal with this new normal, with varying degrees of success and hand-wringing. Some companies have given up on this whole remote work thing and are demanding a return to the office… and many of the product managers I know are celebrating this.
Product people have had a particularly hard time making the adjustment to being suddenly remote.
Product management is about leading through influence, making it a communication-heavy role where building relationships and driving alignment is key.
We spend our time understanding our users, translating the company’s vision into actionable strategies, and representing the customer in the decisions our teams make while building the product. For the typical PM, that responsibility has historically resulted in meetings – meetings with their devs, design, the field, other PMs, customers and users… all day, every day.
Defaulting to meetings as your primary communication method is a PM antipattern that has been laid bare thanks to the rise of remote work. Trying to replicate the all-day-wall-of-meetings approach in an office-free company is like playing product management on hard mode. Besides being a recipe for the dreaded Zoom fatigue and eventual burnout, it’s a missed opportunity to unlock the full potential and flexibility of being on a remote dev team. Add in any kind of geographic complexity, like a team spread across multiple time zones, and your insistence on getting everyone onto a video call will result in bottlenecks, irritated engineers, and someone – perhaps the same someone, repeatedly – having to join meetings outside of their working hours if they want to be included in the process. But what if I told you that there are product managers out there working on fully remote teams and loving it?
As a PM at Upbound, I’m helping platform teams around the world to build internal cloud platforms that help them deliver amazing experiences to their own end users. We’re a global remote-first company – as of the writing of this post, Upbounders work fully remotely from 10 countries on five continents.
A huge advantage to working in a fully remote company is that you can form the best team around the problems you’re trying to solve and the value you’re going to deliver to your customers. For my squad, optimizing for skills and experience rather than location has resulted in a team spanning 4 countries from the Pacific (UTC-8) to Central Europe (UTC+1) time zones. Collaborating successfully with such a wide geographic spread is impossible if you’re a PM with a meeting addiction. If you’re stuck in the PM meeting trap, read on!
Tips for getting out of the remote PM meeting trap
Getting out of the meeting trap as a PM means rethinking the role that meetings play in your communication. It requires you to do the up-front work of establishing trust and working relationships remotely, being empathetic to ensure flexibility is distributed fairly within the team, and determining the right balance between asynchronous and synchronous collaboration for your context.
Establish your foundation of trust
Building up relationships based on trust and mutual respect is essential in any PM role, but requires a more intentional approach in a fully remote setting than you might have taken as an office worker.
My tips for building trust with your team as a remote PM:
- Be sure you can fulfill your role as the “voice of the customer” on-demand and asynchronously through documentation
- Create clear and transparent records of the decisions you make and rationale behind them
- Dedicate time for casual one-on-one conversations with your teammates and peers
Trust as a PM is earned by being a reliable subject matter expert on your customers and their problems as well as the data surrounding usage of your products. The classic approach for sharing that knowledge might involve throwing together some slides and spreadsheets that you walk people through (perhaps more than once) to make the customer problem and priority understandable. In a fully remote setting, it’s essential that you document that customer knowledge in a way that is more digestible and discoverable so that your squad can self-service access to the insights and understanding that you’ve developed by talking to users and researching the market. One lo-fi way to accomplish this is to put together a “cheat sheet” before kicking off feature work that lays out who you’re building for, what problem they’re trying to solve, why solving that problem is important to users and the business, and your supporting evidence (i.e. hard data and research snippets).
Related to this is being explicit and clear with the criteria you’re using to make product decisions – and getting that documented in a way that’s visible to the team async. This can be as simple as commenting on a Github issue with the rationale for a decision that was made live during daily standup, or as complex as building out a scorecard for prioritizing feature work. If product decisions are a black box for your team, async collaboration falls apart.
For me, building up trust is also rooted in dedicating time to get to know my teammates as whole people. Developing camaraderie in a fully remote setting can be tricky if your schedule as a PM is 100% dedicated to “official” meetings – the office apologists are onto something when they mourn the loss of hallway chats and coffee machine banter. I make a habit of throwing 20-minute casual coffee chats on people’s calendars once a month or so, being clear in the invitation that the goal is to get to know one another better rather than discuss a specific agenda. I’m lucky at Upbound to have regular opportunities to meet up IRL with others from the company – be it by traveling to a conference like KubeCon or a company event. If you have similar travel opportunities in your remote PM role, be sure to take full advantage of them!
Strive for fairly-distributed flexibility and an economy of meetings
Flexibility is one of the biggest reasons I choose to work in a fully remote organization – from the flexibility to choose where I live, to avoiding time wasted on commutes, to setting custom work hours based on my needs. As a PM on a global remote team, it’s especially important to me that the decisions I make do not result in my teammates being unable to enjoy that same flexibility. In other words, if I am scheduling a meeting, I stop to consider how it will impact the people I am inviting and their own work-life balance. This might seem obvious, but in other companies, I’ve had colleagues consistently have to decide whether to join meetings outside of their working hours or risk being excluded from important discussions and decisions (especially when someone’s time zone or schedule made them the “odd one out”).
Our squad’s budget for synchronous communication with the full team hovers around 10 hours per 2-week sprint due to time zone differences. Having such an explicit limit on the amount of time we can all sit together on a call is a healthy mechanism for preventing meeting sprawl. Just like we prioritize our backlog of issues, we prioritize our backlog of conversations and collaboration points to try to ensure meeting time is spent wisely. Rather than defaulting to a meeting, communication and alignment might happen around a document, a Github issue, or an online whiteboard.
In a typical sprint, we spend 5 hours on squad rituals – daily standups, story writing/tech breakdowns, retros, and sprint planning. These timeboxed touchpoints form the heart of our squad operations and keep the tactical day-to-day work flowing when combined with all of the async communication happening within Github or Slack. The remaining budget, if we decide to spend it, is available for group discussions to brainstorm and share ideas for the future, align design and engineering approaches in a dynamic way, and so on. Our meetings are intentional, with a specific agenda and outcome expected, and we record them to share with others whenever possible.
In the end, working remotely will make you a better, more empowered product manager
Succeeding as a product manager in a fully remote company means breaking free of the PM meeting trap. Working on a remote team opens up new possibilities to build amazing software together with teammates and users from around the world, but it requires a different mindset than the one that served you well back in your office days. From recording product walkthroughs to creating self-serve knowledge bases of customer insights, remote product people are forever finding ways to serve as the voice of the customer even when they can’t be present for every discussion. Whether your foray into remote product management is temporary or permanent, reducing your meeting footprint creates new opportunities to build up your communication muscles while freeing up valuable time for strategic thinking and learning from your users.