One Tumultuous Year Later: The State of Product in 2021

As we leave another March behind us, it’s hard to believe that it’s been over a year since the world…kind of fell to pieces a little bit!

We’ve already touched on some of the things that the tech world learned from last year’s crisis. But now that we’re a whole year out, and it’s starting to feel for many like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s time to look at where we’ve arrived and where we’re going next.

Tech in the Pandemic, A Snapshot: March 2020 – March 2021

In case you’ve been living under a rock, here’s a quick look at the most influential moments in tech:

🎥 In March, the EU asked streaming services to reduce the bitrate of video streams to countries in strict lockdowns, as the demand for content was too high for providers to cope with.

🖥️ Zoom made serious upgrades to its safety and privacy features as it went from being a business app to a household name.

🇨🇳 Speculation over 5G continued to spread, with several countries banning the Chinese-owned Huawei.

😷 Telehealth becomes a priority, with companies like Cisco and AWS making large contributions towards tech and research to battle the virus.

💻 Apple released the first Macs with the M1 chip, a landmark moment for the company.

📱Companies scrambled to build government-backed apps to track and trace virus outbreaks.

⚖️ Lawsuits, lawsuits, everywhere! The global pandemic, military uprisings, divisive elections, and social issues have shone a new light on how social networks impact our beliefs and affiliations.

😟 The legal lines around facial recognition technology continue to be drawn, with Sundar Pichai calling for regulation and a ban on deepfake tech.

🏠 Swarths of companies announce a new remote-first or remote-only policy, including Pinterest, Slack, Dropbox, Upwork, and Shopify. Many have promised employees that the changes will be permanent beyond the scope of the pandemic.

Looking at what happened to the tech industry this past year, it’s not hard to see that the biggest news stories were challenges rather than celebrations. But while 2020 presented us with plenty to overcome, 2021 seems to be the optimistic year of overcoming.

Now that we’ve sat with these problems for months on end, solutions are starting to emerge, and it feels like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s far away, but it’s there.

So let’s look at the state of tech, from a product management perspective, to understand where we’re at and where we should go from here.

Leadership has become more human

There’s always been that unspoken agreement between colleagues and employees that, in general, we’ll leave our personal lives at home. Once you walk through the door to the office, you’re no longer dealing with whatever you’re dealing with. You’re there to work. (This attitude obviously varies from company to company, and from team to team.)

But what leadership has started to recognize is that the lines between Person and Employee are not as clearly defined as we once thought. We used to be able to think about Lauren the UX Designer and Lauren the Who Pays Her Family’s Rent as two different people, with the personal life carefully hidden behind the professional one.

But the rules about personal and professional crossover have been pretty blurred, if not erased in 2020/21. Thanks to this shared experience, (some may call it a shared trauma), relationships at work have inescapably become more human.

There’s no way for leaders to reasonably tell their employees to ignore everything that’s happening around them and ‘get back to work.’ Empathy has become the main order of the day, with leaders now being even more responsible for their team’s emotional and mental wellbeing in the workplace.

You might also be interested in: Leadership in Tumultuous Times

Leaders have also had to find new ways to help their teams to connect to each other. Great innovation comes from those ‘water cooler’ moments, but employees will rarely take it upon themselves to organize these virtually. Especially as we’re now over a year into WFH life, many are finding themselves joining new remote companies, only to find that most of the online socialization happens between those who knew each other from the office.

Product teams, especially, are built on great team relationships. In order for a product manager to influence without authority, they need to have great working relationships with everyone on the team.

It’s a problem that doesn’t have a perfect solution right now, but product leaders across the board are finding themselves having to make the time to invest in nurturing team relationships on a human level, and finding the time to check in with how their employees are doing as people. Not just how their to-do lists are doing.

girl in white and black shirt holding baby in white onesie

Diversity sits at the top of the agenda

Speaking of leadership becoming more human, it’d be wrong to talk about the changes made in the product world in 2020/21 without touching on diversity.

Last year’s Black Lives Matter protests shone a new light on an age-old problem, one which the tech industry had previously been slow to respond to. Diversity and inclusion have been on the ‘things we care about’ bingo cards of FAANG companies for years, but 2020 was finally the catalyst for real, actionable changes.

In 2021, it’s anticipated (and hoped) that the momentum won’t disappear, and that the trend of making diversity a top priority in hiring practices will continue well into the future.

In the product management world, diversity is especially important because it takes diversity to build great products. Biases are scarily easy to be written into the products we build, and it’s the responsibility of product leadership to ensure that as many different voices are heard in the room. Products built for everyone need to be built by everyone.

Catch this talk on how to hire and retain diverse talent from #ProductCon February 2021:

Digital events are a hot place to be

People have been looking for ways to connect over the internet since the birth of the internet, so that’s nothing new. But finding online connections has gone from being an added bonus to an IRL social life, to something that many people absolutely depend on.

It wasn’t difficult to predict that online events would become big, as we all saw what happened with Zoom in the summer of 2020. But what we’re seeing now is a shift in how digital social and events spaces are designed.

At the moment, digital events try to mimic the experience of being in-person as much as possible. For example, Clubhouse launched with a boom not too long ago, because people miss the simple act of just talking to each other in real time.

Hopin, the online events platform and current home of #ProductCon mimics the in-person experience of a conference as much as possible, by breaking the event down into different rooms (eg, a sponsor booth ‘hall’, a face-to-face networking room, a main stage, a general chat lounge, and a VIP Q&A room).

And with Hopin reaching a $5.65 billion valuation, events tech is quite clearly the place to be right now!

Check out: Marketing Lessons for Product Managers in 2021

Data has shifted from big to wide

Imagine historical data as a huge pile of papers on your desk. Hundreds of sheets of user behaviour, insights collected from every trackable point within the organization, and research conducted by hundreds of employees over thousands of hours.

2020 is the gust of wind that just blew them all out of the window!

According to Gartner, companies realized in 2020 that despite previously having focused on big, historical data, much of that no longer applied. Markets had shifted, or ground to a halt entirely, and customer habits had changed drastically across a huge number of verticals. For many companies, huge swathes of data just didn’t apply anymore.

In response, companies have found that making the switch to small, but more varied data, helps them to react quickly and stay agile as situations remain in flux. 

The questions that companies are now having to ask, especially when those questions relate to AI, are becoming increasingly complex. Thanks to smaller, wider data sets, allows them to deal with many more varied problems.

The slow rush back to the office

While many countries are not yet at the point of reasonably going back to the office, the urgency to stay home is slowly slipping away in many parts of the world.

The business world seems to be divided in two camps. The ‘Stay At Home’ camp have found a new sense of balance thanks to remote working, with more time to spend with family and friends, not having an early morning commute, and cheaper food bills. The added bonus of being able to work in your pyjamas is nothing to be sniffed at!

The ‘Back to The Office’ camp are feeling the claustrophobia of working in the same place they sleep. With many city-dwellers living in cramped apartments, or working from their kitchen tables instead of a swanky home office, WFH isn’t as easy for some as it is for others.

For product managers, remote work is entirely possible, but it’s the in-person interaction that adds a certain je ne sais quoi to the role. The magic of product management lies in interpersonal relationships.

So while online collaboration tools have made remote working viable, many product managers are hoping for at least a partial return to the office, allowing teams to choose for themselves when they join the run IRL and when they stick to their sofas.

When we asked our community of product managers “who’s ready to go back to the office, and who is happy with WFH?” the responses were understandably mixed.

Like the rest of the tech industry, product people are able to see the advantages and disadvantages of both office life and WFH. The one thing that almost everyone agrees on, is that full-time mandatory office hours no longer seem appealing or even necessary. Whether companies listen to their employees and offer a home/office hybrid, or go full remote, remains to be seen. But working life has shifted dramatically and it’s safe to say that a pivot back to The Old Ways is highly unlikely.

people sitting on escalator inside building

What’s Next?

The big question on everyone’s mind at the start of the crisis was “what now?!” as we looked at eachother, baffled, and wondering what the heck was going on!

One year later, we’re ready to ask “what next?”

That also remains to be seen. But if there are two things that product people love, it’s challenges and change. And we all know we’ve still got plenty of both left to come!

Want to know what the future holds? There’s a report for that! Check out The Future of Product Management Report, updated for 2021.

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