Updated: April 5, 2023 - 12 min read
Editor’s note: this article was first written before 2020, when remote work wasn’t the norm. We’ve kept it as-is because it gives a perspective on remote work that isn’t closely tied to a global pandemic, something that will become more relevant as we start coming out the other side of it.
Do you feel sometimes like you are physically tied to your seat? Even though product managers are supposed to engage various teams during the day, chances are you are not moving that much. Worse: you might even be stuck in a “presenteeism” vicious circle.
Presenteeism can happen for a variety of reasons, not just the obvious negative one that you are forced to stay by external pressures. Your own passion for the job and desire to show leadership, the feeling of being irreplaceable; these can be strong arguments to hang around way after you are truly needed. But in some companies, management can just be too adamant: they would prefer to see all employees, in their seats, at all times.
No surprise, these are the old-fashioned ways, and the old-fashioned businesses. Because a new trend is quickly gaining traction in tech and product management: remote work. And not just for freelancers. Many tech companies are open to hiring remote talent.
Keep reading to see how you can work remotely as a product manager.
Reasons For NOT Working Remotely
OK, let’s be honest for a second. Most job descriptions assume that you’ll be sharing physical space with your peers and colleagues. Do you know why this is? There is a historical, and a practical reason. Before the internet age, work was much more physical. Writing needed to happen on paper, communication was more often in person
At least on paper, now we could work from anywhere. Thanks to 2020, many people find themselves in a new work from home situation. Many companies are discovering the benefits of remote jobs, even within cross functional teams.
At the same time, there are other, more practical reasons that emphasize working in the same spot. Let’s look at four.
First, besides a few experiments, most companies still have hierarchies. And, while we are all good professionals, we sometimes require supervision. Whether you are a manager or you are being managed, being side-by-side is the quickest way to answer a question or reformulate a task.
Secondly, while there are many workflow methodologies, all of them involve gathering as a team at a certain point. Obviously, team meetings are much simpler when sharing the same room, even if we rely on the best software out there. The most creative companies even rely on the kind of bonding that takes place in a busy room full of brilliant people. Hard to transmit that energy over a fiber optic cable!
Thirdly: presence is simply faster. Until we all have implanted chips helping us communicate via hive mind, speaking to a colleague next to you will be much quicker than setting up a conference call, Skype meeting or hitting send on Slack.
And, finally, you cannot overlook the informality bonus. Sharing the office, the kitchen… and even the parking lot! This is something that, while it might not build friendships, it can lead to professional camaraderie and greatly increase productivity.
The particularities of product management can make these problems even more acute. You need to address stakeholders, solve technical problems and deal with commercial requirements can actually make you feel “irreplaceable”. This is often tied with the issue of “presenteeism” discussed above: if you or your managers feel that everything collapses if you are not there, how are they going to give you the opportunity of working remotely!
Not to worry. The role of product manager does translate to a remote role! Keep reading.
Making the distance insignificant: remote tools and techniques
Considering these limitations to remote work, there are plenty of solutions that can be applied that limit the problems caused by distance to 0.01%. You can be a PM and work remotely, no doubt.
Does it make any difference that you are working in Barcelona or Boulder when you are dealing with digital products? No! Steering development, smoothing user experience and optimizing sales are three tasks that are not necessarily conducted at different stages. In fact, in-person PMs will be juggling them and dividing their time as well as they can.
Below, we will look at how the different weight of product management responsibilities can affect remote work. Thus, remotely or not remotely, you need to divide your efforts between different aspects of the job.
Of course, work never comes in neatly separated categories; there are often many overlaps. However, being methodical and dividing your tasks into groups can greatly facilitate your day-to-day efforts. Any product person who is able to neatly allocate duties across time is more than ready to work remotely.In fact, even if you were working at HQ, this is very good advice!
What you need to do is to design workflows that avoid bottlenecks. A bottleneck is any point where your input is an exclusive requirement to push things forward. There are plenty of roadmap models that limit these type of situations, eschewing uni-linear progressions for an alternative, more networked frameworks.
In this sense, if you are able to collapse most of the “useless meetings” into a few engagements at every sprint, you will save a lot of time and ease things. Basically, because everybody loves having fewer but more significant meetings, and this is something that even non-remote team members will appreciate.
What about your team? Some tools to bridge the gap will be listed below, but let’s think again about the process.
Many bosses believe that they need to micromanage their teams in order to get the best out of them. If you are a perceptive employee or manager, you will know this is a mistake. In fact, delegating is often a productive method and is particularly important in the changing world of tech: you can basically run a constant training programme by renewing team tasks across time.
If it is complex when you are physically present, delegating can be tough at a distance. How can you avoid the common pitfalls? Hiring the right professionals will save you from disaster. Again, proper recruitment is fundamental across ALL environments, but it is essential when you are absent.
As for your superiors (and when you act like one!), you must set up the boundaries before accepting the job. Some tragic job stories involve either side overstepping their boundaries: mobile phones allow 24h access to our daily lives, including weekends! So make sure that both sides understand how contact schedules are to be set, through agreeing beforehand. Now, to your users
PMs should know the market top to bottom, along with the particular needs of users. Your User Experience and User Interface work is supposed to be guided by these insights. One general principle, whether you are working on a B2B or a B2C product, is that your customers are “out there”.
Digital businesses, unlike traditional shops, are not in direct physical contact with their clients. So the same technological solutions (email, CRM systems, etc.) in place for in-person PMs should do the job for you!
In fact, your out-of-town location could actually help you reach out to different audiences and travel to conferences more easily, which is something not to be overlooked.
All in all, there are plenty of methods to limit the consequences of remote PMing.
Remote Product Management Work Tools
As we reviewed above, the forward march of technology has allowed saving distance gaps. Today, more companies than ever can have their processes spread out across continents.
How can different tools make it easier for you?
Where can you plan your work? There are plenty of project management tools out there. From Trello to Asana, any of these will make your life easier. In fact, the standard road-mapping tool your colleagues use at HQ also works for you.
All you need to do is add some extra details, so those in different locations feel like they are in the loop. Certain engineer and designer tools have become a standard.
GithHub for coding and InVision for prototype-building are perfect examples: they both have team integrations. The industry standard is quickly accommodating to the provision of tools which store information on the cloud, so it can be accessed by anybody. Do you think all engineers at Google Campus work in the same room? They all use these tools!
When it comes to communication, Slack is king. This nifty chat system divides conversations by channels, which have different privacy levels. Slack also adds a “fun” component, letting you design your own emojis or add GIFs to the conversation. It’s the perfect way to create that community feel!
On a secondary note, you might also need ways of communicating out of time. That is, non-live. Recording a “webinar” on YouTube is an easy solution, for instance, when you need to have an induction for a hire in a different timezone.
File sharing can be tricky. Here, if you are favorable toward the G Suite, Google Drive is your friend. There are others like Dropbox and Box. These tools are also often offered in combination with others (project management, chat), so keep an eye on the market.
Make sure that you are covering your needs: do you exchange large videos often? Or is it just some photos from time to time? You don’t have to overdo it if there are really no large files to transfer between teams!
With regard to meetings, there are several services you can use. Google Hangouts and Zoom seem to be the most popular: the essential thing is that they work for you. Try different alternatives!
Remote Product Management Work Attitudes
Let’s finish off with the most overlooked but fundamental change: the mental switch.
Think of long-term relationships. You might know a few failed experiments, but what about the ones that worked? What was their secret?
It is all in your brain. If you start any non-physical relationship (either personal or professional) thinking that it is going to fail, then you are going to fail. Worse, if you inadvertently apply the standards of a physical relationship, you are also doomed.
Rather, apply different parameters. Here are some suggestions.
Be creative with your techniques and tools.
Deploy extra sympathy over the phone.
Be aware of the gravity and ambiguity of written text, which has added seriousness in comparison with water-cooler chats.
Make an effort to know your people, send physical reminders of your ties to the company.
Travel! Make some visits from time to time.
Avoid unnecessary conflict: never let misunderstandings escalate.
Show the benefits of your location: attend nearby conferences, network with the community, be the ‘paratrooper’ for your company in foreign territories!
Remote PM work is possible. You just need to make an effort!
Which Profiles Are More Likely to Work Remotely?
A brief point to exemplify the changing factors which will influence your ability to work remotely.
Certain PMs are involved in everything. That is development, marketing, and user advocacy. However, most are more necessary or experienced in one of the three broad skill-sets.
For PMs focused on the technical side, like for physical PMs, they must ensure an effective channel of communication with their engineers. If misunderstandings often arise in person, imagine how difficult it can be online! Weeks of work can be rendered useless if targets are not clear; frustrations can build up; in short: it can be a disaster.
So Technical PMs should live and breathe programming. Adopt your engineers’ favorite tools. Learn with and about them. Make sure to dedicate individual moments to each member of your team.
Are you particularly limited by location? Yes and no. You cannot really correct real-time problems, as it were. There is a time delay.
At the same time, with the growing toolbox of online development tools, you should not have any additional challenges that a normal PM would face.
Regarding marketing-oriented PMs, the differences are even smaller. Why? Most sales operations today are heavily decentralized; marketing is rootless and public relations take place across social media platforms. Building a brand is not something affected by where you are.
In fact, as we said above, you should act smart and engage whichever communities are around you. While your colleagues at HQ might be sharing the same ‘tunnel vision’, you are likely to be influenced by different experiences. This will make your engagement ideas original while offering a correction to the ones you receive from the office. There are no substantial challenges to marketing-focused remote PMs.
Finally, user-centered PMs stand in the middle. While it really is very rare to meet your users in person, there is a particular way of working by trial-and-error that fits User Experience and Interface teams. This type of immediate course correction is impossible at a distance.
Probably, you want to deploy the tools above to the fullest extent. Data gathering and sharing are of the upmost importance, as every decision you make must count with solid backing. After all, you cannot have the same easiness in building internal influence as a sedentary PM!
All in all, perhaps being outside of the office ‘bubble’ will make you think horizontally and come up with unexpected product solutions. Or at least that’s what you should argue!
A PM Is a PM No Matter Where You Are
The evolution of tools and methods across history has made it increasingly easy to work at a distance from the office. Product Management is no stranger to this trend, and there is a selection of free and premium services you can use to bridge the gaps your absence can open.
In any case, the biggest change you and your employer have to make is in your minds. A remote Product Management position needs careful consideration and planning. This will allow you to establish priorities, limits, and ways of working. In fact, if you play your cards right, a remote PM can develop advantages which are impossible for one that comes to the office every day.
Updated: April 5, 2023