Navigating the Challenges of a Hybrid Work Environment as a Product Manager

Remote work and hybrid teams existed before COVID-19. But, the pandemic gave just about everyone the first-hand experience of working with remote colleagues and customers. Businesses have realized their workers can be productive when given flexibility. So the concern has shifted from “when” people will come back to the office to “if” they’ll come back. And, if so, how often?

Many technology jobs were always well-suited for infrequent in-person attendance. But product managers rely heavily on interpersonal communication and interactions with coworkers. From regional sales reps working their territories to coders clicking away at their keyboards. However, is that sustainable and viable in a hybrid world?

Remote Work Isn’t Going Away

While face masks and hand sanitizer may soon be out of fashion, working outside the typical office environment appears to be more than a passing fancy. Major firms such as Citigroup, Ford, and Target are shifting to hybrid work for many positions that allow for it.

On the technology side of the house, companies such as Quora and Dropbox are shifting to “remote-first” models, Spotify has gone “work from anywhere,” and Twitter says employees can work from home forever if they’d like. To accommodate this shift, 72% of companies invested in tools for virtual collaboration. We’ve seen 30% of product management budgets allocated to tools in the product stack

Who wants to work remotely?

According to our 2021 product management report, 42% of product people view having flexible work hours as the most attractive compensation outside of salary. And, if forced to choose, 67% of product managers would be remote every day versus coming into the office every day. One year ago, 70% of product managers preferred working in the office, which shows a dynamic shift. 

Older product managers were more likely to prefer remote work than their younger counterparts. The rate is nearly 80% for product managers aged 60 and up. Established product managers have already built out a professional network and honed the core skills learned on the job. They’re more likely to hold senior roles and don’t worry as much about having to overcome imposter syndrome from afar.

Hybrid work brings its own challenges.

But while remote work may be increasingly attractive, the number one challenge product managers face is getting consensus on product direction (26%), according to our 2021 product management report. Our report also concluded that working with other departments (14%) and communicating product strategy (10%) were other frequently noted challenges. When colleagues work from different locations, problems can arise and get exacerbated. 

Navigating office politics was most commonly cited as the least favorite part of their job. And this can also be trickier when missing out on face-to-face interactions and the group dynamics of in-person meetings.


What Remote Work Means for Your Organization

With remote workers and hybrid teams becoming the norm versus the exception, it’s time to unpack the full slate of ramifications for product management. We can start by crossing off several assumptions:

  • Colleagues are communicating with each other—While communication breakdowns are nothing new, there’s an increased likelihood of their occurrence in a hybrid environment. Coworkers who prefer to stay heads down and work might go hours or days without speaking to a colleague, which leads to mixed messages and undelivered orders. 
  • You have their full attention—While remote workers are more productive in many cases than their office-bound counterparts, the flexibility hybrid environments provide comes with its share of interruptions. Remote workers may have children to attend to, noisy lawnmowers and leaf blowers in the background, and spotty internet connections. They also may not be working for hours and hours on end during typical working times. It’s not that they’re not working. But they may not be able to give you 100% at the exact moment you happen to contact them.
  • You can get everyone in the same room—Often, the best way to force a decision and create consensus was to gather all the stakeholders together in one place. The ambiance of being assembled in one spot for a single purpose often greased the skids and created more urgency to get on the same page and move forward. Once there’s no expectation that everyone is in the office at the same time (or at all), that’s no longer an option.
  • Everyone is in the same time zone—Once a company fully embraces remote work, current employees can pack their bags and head for wherever, while hiring managers can now pluck candidates from around the globe. It’s also no longer a safe bet that employees will stay put. Some may adopt a more nomadic lifestyle or split up their year across multiple locations with their gained flexibility.

Since you can’t take any of the above for granted, savvy product managers need to develop a management strategy.
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4 Ways to Adapt to a Hybrid Work Environment

Optimizing for a hybrid work environment requires some holistic thinking and some tactical execution. First and foremost, product managers must continually remind themselves that everyone isn’t in the room at all times. For better or worse, many have acclimated over the past year to that reality.

But as some people return to the office (or are already there), it’s easy to forget that not everyone is in the same situation. If you’re in the office yourself, you may occasionally forget about your remote brethren. And, on the flip side, if you’re the one working from home, you might discount the in-person interactions occurring in your absence.

1.) Operate with remote-first in mind in a hybrid work environment.

This brings us to our first key item on the to-do list—act like everyone is remote, but remember not everyone is. In practice, this means conducting meetings and distributing information as if no one is in the office. Couple this with videoconference details in the meeting invites, sharing screens for presentations, and digitally distributing materials well in advance. 

However, it also means that in-person colleagues should all get in the same room when possible for these meetings. Having a fraction of the team together will improve the dynamics of the exchanges and make it feel more organic. That said, whoever is facilitating should ensure remote participants are given their turn to chime in and not get bulldozed by those in person.

2.) Improve your meeting etiquette.

Another wise move is to be considerate when scheduling meetings. Whether it’s because your colleague is in another time zone or has to pick up their kid from school, you want to make things convenient for every participant. To make this work, everyone should keep their calendars fully up to date. That includes blocking out any times that aren’t fair game for a session.

As a product manager in a hybrid setting, busting down silos and creating open channels for communication is paramount. But that doesn’t happen without a little intentionality. While “office hours” or an “open-door policy” might sound good in theory, there’s little likelihood a remote coworker will take you up on that offer. So be sure to schedule regular 1:1 meetings with stakeholders and colleagues you don’t see in person

This can even extend to engineers and account managers you only interact with infrequently. Having that regular check-in opportunity can keep a lingering issue from festering and make everyone feel more included. And if there’s not much to talk about, no one says the meeting has to last very long.

Product leaders managing remote teams should also be extra considerate when offering up promotions and recognizing achievement. All too often, remote workers often get overlooked or passed over, undermining the entire team effort and hurting morale for those not there every day.

3.) Adjust your processes to accommodate hybrid work.

If your company uses Agile for product development, hybrid work only reinforces the importance of rituals. Interactions are essential to strategic and tactical alignment for the different teams, from daily standups to sprint retrospectives. This creates more incentive than ever to establish and maintain regular Agile routines.

Artifacts also increase their value in a hybrid setting. This happens because colleagues are more likely to refer to these than pester with chats and phone calls for clarification. So make sure artifacts are clear, comprehensive, and readily available. There needs to be a reliable and consistent repository the teams can easily access.

But despite best intentions and efforts, there is almost always variation and room for interpretation when someone is reviewing an Epic or plotting out a Sprint. This further necessitates a single source of truth that guides all other activities and supporting materials. And there is no better Rosetta Stone for the team than an accurate product roadmap.

4.) Roadmaps are critical to successful hybrid work.

The product roadmap is the ultimate tool for fostering a common understanding and strategic alignment across multiple teams and stakeholders. It conveys the product strategy, execution priorities, and expected outcomes for current and future work. Quite simply, it tells everyone not just what they should do but why they’re doing it. This is invaluable information for those carrying out the tasks.

So for any product manager dealing with remote teams and hybrid work should create and maintain an accurate visual product roadmap. Using a purpose-built tool such as ProductPlan, the roadmap can be easily shared with stakeholders and customized for their particular needs and interests. And all without having to constantly update multiple versions to be sure they stay in sync.
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Remote Work is Here to Stay

We’ve all been hearing about how remote work was the future. Some of us were already living that experience for years. But now that we’ve all had a taste, many people and companies won’t be going back to the old way of doing things.

Successful product managers will have to contend with hybrid and fully remote work environments in the years and decades to come. Even if your company doesn’t go down that path, many of your partners and customers will.

So be considerate, be intentional, and don’t leave anything up to chance. Use your product roadmap as the beacon for your teammates to focus on wherever they may be.