Remote product management strategies are no longer a “niche” topic. The importance of working effectively from afar has become paramount for many organizations. But the challenge of filling such a cross-functional role remotely is particularly tricky.
So much of product management is about the relationships we form with our coworkers and customers, as well as effectively communicating complex subjects and building consensus. When impromptu in-person interactions aren’t an option, product managers must find alternative methods for building that rapport.
Remote Product Management Strategies to Implement for the Long-Term
How can a product manager in a fully remote environment set the team up for success? Here are six ways to close the virtual gap.
1. Replacing in-person interactions
Just because everyone isn’t in the same office doesn’t mean you can’t recreate some of the same dynamics. It only takes a little intentionality and a can-do attitude.
Routines must be reinvented in a remote world, and one of the easiest and most valuable ones is the daily standup. Remote life means everyone can set their own schedule to some degree. Still, a daily convening of teams both makes important information transparent and make everyone feel like they’re part of an organization.
Virtual standups come in two flavors: actual meetings and asynchronous updates. For an actual meeting, having everyone hop on the same audio or video call at a set time each day really helps set a tone and unifies the team. Everyone gets a chance to provide an update, and leadership can emphasize priorities or answer burning questions for the group.
If time zones or other logistical factors prevent a “real-time” standup, use a Slack channel, wiki, or another platform. It creates a forum for everyone to post what they did, are doing, and any blockers they’re experiencing. While this won’t build camaraderie, it does get the information flowing and ensures you hear from everyone at least once per workday.
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Building a rapport with key stakeholders is a secret weapon for many product managers. Instead of trying to win folks over during large meetings or presentations, they build relationships over time, earning their trust and getting a better understanding of their personal concerns and motivations.
When you’re all working remotely, those interactions won’t happen by running into each other at the water cooler or popping into their office for a few minutes. You need to make them happen.
Try scheduling regular catch-up sessions with key power brokers in the company, as well as customer-facing staff. You don’t need a set agenda, just set aside fifteen or thirty minutes to see what’s on their mind, share a few interesting anecdotes, or ask for some clarity and guidance on a particular matter.
Maintaining healthy working relationships with a broad cross-section of the company takes some effort. But it will pay dividends by giving you a better view of what’s happening around the company.
Regular roadmap reviews
If there’s one single thing to keep a remote team aligned, it’s a well-made and maintained product roadmap. Reviewing the current product roadmap on a regular basis with as many coworkers as possible serves two key purposes.
First, it keeps the product vision front-and-center. Product roadmap reviews remind everyone who’s working on what, and what the team can expect in the near term.
Just as important, the product roadmap’s ability keeps remote workers engaged, energized, and enthusiastic about the product you’re building. A product roadmap structured around themes and key organizational goals puts everything in context. It connects the dots between the daily tasks and projects people work on with the big picture vision for the product and the company.
A visual product roadmap has several advantages in this department, as it places a stronger emphasis on strategy than tactics. Plus, when it’s delivered using a purpose-built product roadmapping tool with real-time views, everyone knows they’re seeing the most up-to-date version and get automatically notified anytime something changes.
2. Stock your toolbox
We live in the golden age of remote work. With high-speed Internet, laptops, and webcams, you can work from almost anywhere. Additionally, because so many have opted for a remote or distributed workforce, many solutions are popping up to fill those needs.
Asynchronous messaging is the killer app for remote work. Since you can no longer look over the wall of your cubicle or check to see whether a coworker’s office door is open or closed, you need a way to initiate conversations with colleagues that is both expedient and respectful of their time. Using a solution like Slack or Microsoft Teams lets you ask and answer questions when it’s convenient.
They allow for rapid back-and-forth dialogue when the parties are present and unoccupied, but messages can also sit patiently until folks are ready to respond. Unlike email, they’re far more informal and interactive. You can easily invite others into a conversation, or you can set up a channel for ongoing updates on different topics.
Sometimes text chat isn’t sufficient, and it’s time to break out into a virtual meeting. Every solution in this category will feature audio (usually with a dial-in number for those that don’t want to rely on their computer’s microphone and speakers). Some offer screen sharing, which is fantastic for demos and collaboration, while others include videoconferencing.
Although reading body language over a video chat isn’t the same as doing it in person, it’s still a nice way to feel like everyone’s in the same “room” for a while. Zoom, GoToMeeting, and Join.me are some popular options for this type of communication. Make it a house rule that unless there are extenuating circumstances, everyone turns on their video for these interactions.
Other tools that make remote product management easier include document sharing, project planning, and shared whiteboarding apps. They make collaborating together on documents and ideas much easier than emailing each other attachments all day long, not to mention minimizing version control issues. We like to use a running Google Doc so everyone can contribute talking points and refer back to the document for the meeting’s action items.
3. Maintaining focus at home
Offices can be distracting. Coworkers interrupt you whenever they feel like it. There’s plenty of background noise, there are conversations you’re trying not to overhear but can’t avoid, and there’s often the allure of coffee and munchies in the breakroom beckoning to your belly.
When you’re working at home, there’s even more potential for non-work things to compete for your attention. Dirty dishes pile up, laundry needs folding, the dog could always use an extra walk, and who’d ever know if you relocated to the couch and fired up Netflix for a while?
Creating a dedicated workspace helps construct an environment better suited to maintaining your train of thought. Keeping it a work-only area limits temptations and communicates to everyone else in the household that you’re actively working. Plus, it’s nice to look semi-professional when you’re joining a videoconference.
In that case, your own appearance matters as well. While you don’t need to wear a tie or a cardigan every day to show you’re serious, it’s also probably advisable not to show up in the same T-shirt a few days in a row.
Not only does it make you seem less serious and professional, but it also doesn’t mentally prepare you for your workday. Find a balance between super casual and weirdly formal for a home-office look projecting the job you want and not just whatever was at the top of your drawer.
Improve your concentration with some noise-canceling headphones and maybe a playlist or two that locks you into the zone. Whether it’s the cat meowing or a leaf blower next door, minimizing noise pollution helps keep you on task.
4. Prioritization is key
Prioritizing potential candidates for the product roadmap is a huge part of product management. But when everyone’s remote, some prioritization frameworks and methods for reaching a consensus will work better than others.
It’s hard recreating the fun, frenetic feeling of everyone running around putting sticky notes on the wall, but going remote doesn’t mean prioritization can’t still be participatory. While some frameworks can be relatively easy to use via videoconferencing, you might find methods that work well asynchronously are a better fit.
These tend to be frameworks emphasizing scoring with each individual getting a vote rather than some of the more interactive flavors. For example, RICE and MoSCoW work well with everyone going off and coming to their own conclusions before submitting their scores.
However, there should still be a “live” component when using these methods. Hold a virtual kickoff meeting setting the ground rules and agreeing on scoring criteria since people won’t be as comfortable asking questions once everyone splits off to rank things.
Likewise, once the scores are submitted and tabulated, hold another live session to review the results to be sure everyone knows how things shook out and allowing them to voice any concerns or issues.
5. Working with customers
Most product companies rarely have customers come into the office anyway. But a remote setup further limits your opportunities for customer interactions. It places the onus on you to make them happen.
You must proactively create opportunities to interact with customers and get out of your bubble more often. Start by engaging the sales team to include you on customer calls, as well as plugging into the customer service pipeline. If possible, tag along if sales or account management is holding an in-person meeting with customers. Alternatively, you can even schedule some of your own. The more time you spend on “ride alongs”, the more you’ll know what people inside and outside the firm are saying about your product.
Beyond that, creating a customer advisory board makes tons of sense for a remote organization. Those sessions, be they virtual or in person, will give you a treasure trove of customer insights.
6. Setting a schedule
Many companies worry employees working from home get less done and will waste time. However, the opposite is far more common. Without physical boundaries between home and the office, dedicated employees end up spending even more hours on the job.
That’s why formalizing a work schedule is essential for both your own mental health as well as for maintaining good relationships with your colleagues. This schedule shouldn’t account for 100% of your waking life or every single moment you might spend on the job. It should, however, clearly carve out times you’re available for meetings and phone calls, along with when you are not.
Dedicating time for yourself during the workday is essential. It’s far too easy to sit down, start working, then realize it’s two in the afternoon, and you haven’t gotten any fresh air or eaten lunch yet. Give yourself a lunch break, exercise breaks, and time to run essential errands or pick up your kids.
Putting it in your calendar helps you both remember to do it and avoids having people book inconvenient time slots. The entire remote team should have a shared, standardized calendar solution that lets everyone know when you’re free or busy.
The team should also all agree on common, overlapping hours. Knowing everyone is available from 1 pm to 3 pm Eastern, for example enables the organization to schedule meetings with maximum attendance.
It’s also a good idea to think ahead about any meetings or conversations required to move forward on something. Getting in touch with people can be a little trickier when you’re all remote. Try to get something on their calendar ahead of time, making sure you’re not stuck waiting around for input.
Thriving as a product manager in a remote working environment is possible. But product teams must be more vigilant. Ensure everyone working on or with the product remains engaged and on the same page. There’s no such thing as over-communicating when you’re remote. Establish as many opportunities as possible to give people a chance to listen and be heard.
Product retrospectives and lunch and learns might feel optional in a traditional workplace, but don’t skip these forums in this scenario. And don’t think you’re immune from office politics just because there’s no office. Egos and power moves will happen even when everyone’s making their coffee at home.