Product-ivity: Staying Focused as a Hybrid PM

Although some of us are now slowly trickling back into the office, remote and hybrid work will be important elements of work culture moving forward, so it’s not a bad idea to keep honing those WFH skills. For hybrid workers, read on for tips to maximize your productivity for those days when you’re not in the office.

In this blog post, Raiza Abubakar talks about what it means to be a productive Product Manager in a remote climate, what productivity looks like in this new normal, how to set up goals that empower you and make you feel good about getting the job done, and how to influence teams and people even when we’re not seeing each other in real life. 

Meet Raiza

Raiza Abubakar, Product Manager at Google

Raiza is currently a Product Manager at Google. Previous to this she had only ever worked at startups, including one she built herself—an Amazon business called Ma Mere Skincare. 

Her professional history is rooted in connecting users and products, and developing new growth and user experience solutions. Raiza is a rare leader, dedicated, and extremely customer-centric. She graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Business and Economics from Harvard University. 

Becoming a Productive Remote Product Manager

Outside of work I take care of two kids, a puppy, and many plants, so it’s become insanely important for me to balance wellness, productivity, and positivity. I feel the pains of remote work particularly because I actually worked fully remote several years ago and I hated it. 

It was super difficult for many reasons, including the fact that I was unprepared, undisciplined, and not realistic about how I approached my role in remote work. So today I’m here to help avoid the mistakes I made so you can enjoy your job more despite recent changes to our work environments. 

Before we jump into tips and solutions, let’s talk about the problem.

compilation of headlines describing increased hours due to work from home

So you’ve seen these headlines, right? Somehow, not only are we dealing with the realities of a pandemic upon us, but we’re also now on average working three hours longer than we did pre-COVID. Is that you? Does this ring a bell? And why do you think that is? 

This new normal that we’re in is unprecedented. This isn’t just about work anymore. It’s a convergence of stressful global events plus work, and we’re in the middle of it all. It’s only natural that we feel like we’re not doing enough in our roles to get things done. 

Read next: Product Planning in a Post-COVID-19 World: The Product Strategy Survival Toolkit

I know that Product Managers are insane: achievers, perfectionists, and our desire to get things done is off the charts. So especially now it can feel like we really have to pull our weight as we see layoffs and unemployment happening around us. 

On top of all of this, it’s become pretty difficult to measure objectively whether or not we’re being productive. I find myself beating myself up for not getting things done, or feeling like I could have done more when it was absolutely unreasonable to have that expectation. It can lead to a debilitating spiral of negativity that not only feels terrible, but affects how you approach work on a daily basis.

The Role of a Remote Product Manager

Here’s a quick tip to crush that negative mindset in its tracks. Ask yourself the following question: What is the job of a remote Product Manager? And I’ll tell you the answer: it’s not any different from your job as an in-person or hybrid PM. You are here to bring the team together to ship incredible Products. 

When you look at your calendar and what you have lined up for the day, use this simple filter: 

  1. Are you bringing the team together with this meeting? (Or the doc or presentation you’re working on?) 
  2. Is it something that gets you closer to shipping your incredible product? 

If the answer to these questions is no, you’re going to have to cut that down. Your job as a PM is to be laser-focused on the outcomes of your team and yourself in both the macro and micro sense of both.

view through glasses of ships on the ocean in the distance

And to that end, I give you this tip: be ruthless, but be kind. Especially to yourself. You get to set the terms of your own productivity. It means that you determine what the victory conditions are, because that’s what it means to have a healthy relationship with your time. 

Check out: How to Make Time for Individual Work as a Product Manager

Don’t let things deter you from your focus—and not just from work-related tasks, but also your free time. Guard your free time just like you would with a key deliverable at work, because it’s this balance that keeps you going and will help you persevere through mental and emotional hardship. 

And be realistic. I know that you are going to set that bar (attainably) high, but you also need to do the work to identify what it will take to get there. And make sure that you’re bringing your stakeholders along for the journey.

That brings me to my next point: let’s think about a framework for how we approach our goals and how we plan to exceed them. Setting goals is a future guessing exercise. Where do you want to be in a year, or by the end of the year? What does that success look like? 

In the simplest example ever, let’s pretend your goal is to help your team sell a thousand dollars worth of product in a year. That means that when we break that down by halves, and quarters, and months, and weeks, and days, while it can seem like a tedious exercise, the goal is to come up with a clear, measurable milestone that helps to keep us on track in the example where we’re aiming to sell a thousand dollars worth of product. 

By the end of the year, we can break down these milestones in terms of meeting the $500 mark by mid-year or $250 by quarter. But remember that this is also a highly iterative and collaborative process that needs your manager or CEO and your team to be on board ahead of time. Consider this your contract or agreement for what your charter is. 

This is what will keep, not just you, but your entire team focused on these goals, and will help reduce the bloat that normally contributes to us working three or more hours a day than we ordinarily would. 

Setting and Meeting Remote Work Goals

Let’s talk about some practical tips to make sure we’re able to translate this into real life. There are three key parts to setting goals and making sure that we meet them first. 

woman on elliptical staring into distance

The first is, we want to make sure that everyone has bought into the model, like the one we just discussed, or whatever model works for you. You want to make sure your team is bought into this model and that everyone can see the biggest and smallest picture possible at all times. As a PM, you’re 50% an artist painting the vision and getting everyone excited about the future you’re building, but you’re also 50% a scientist and the most tactical of the bunch, always helping the team to find the correct combination of detailed work that will get us to launching an incredible product.

Read next: Building Products Remotely: 12 Companies That Make it Happen

Second, keep everyone accountable and aligned, including yourself. If we have a big vision, it means that each person on the team is accountable for a chunk of the work that it takes to deliver on this promise. You want to make sure that each person knows what work they’re responsible for, why, and that progress is clear across the board. 

And finally, possibly the most important one, is to celebrate wins. When we have real milestones, it’s easier to know when you’ve hit them. And when you do take the time to recognize that. Pause, celebrate your team. And honestly, if it took a heroic effort to get there, especially in this remote climate, give that individual praise because it’s even more important than ever to build this positive impact.

Sharing the Model

Let’s talk about how we can help get everyone bought into the model. The easiest way is to share a battle-tested model, whether that’s in the form of Epics or OKRs. It’s easier to start the conversation when there are case studies and research to support your proposal. From here, have a direct conversation with your team about before and after scenarios. 

group of men and women seating and standing around tables, interacting

But keep in mind that this isn’t about telling your team about what’s wrong and pointing out everything on your own. Think about taking the approach of asking your team for feedback. First, ask these questions: What do you think could be better about our process/what do you think we’re currently struggling with as a team? Typically, if your team is struggling from overwork or feeling stressed out, you could have everybody chiming in, or you have the opposite. Nobody says anything, and they’re just waiting for that first person to volunteer themselves.

This is a great opportunity to use your emotional intelligence to help move the conversation along. Don’t let the conversation stall. If you think it might work better for your team to have a presentation ahead of time, use it. Lead the charge by building an environment of trust that is focused on outcomes. And make sure that each step of the way you’re doing it as a team. 

Once you have a sense of what isn’t working well, think about what model can work well for improving the sentiments. I can tell you just from my experience that clear stories or OKRs can really improve feelings of low morale. The clearer you are with your expectations from each other and from your product, the better you will be able to balance work and how we all feel about success.

Staying Accountable and Aligned

For a PM especially, you want to make sure you’re bringing your team along on the journey. This means something as simple as a daily standup taking five to 10 minutes a day to state what progress we’re making as individuals to meet the milestones we’ve set. 

a hand set to push down a row of dominoes

Once we’ve agreed on our goals, we want to keep everyone accountable. Not just so we can call them out, but so we can identify if they need help. This isn’t an exercise just to make sure that we’re meeting the goals. It’s also about being realistic when we see that it’s just not possible to do. Especially today, the best organizations know when things aren’t working and they pivot quickly to restrategize and they make that work for them.

More on remote Product Management: Is It Possible to Work Remotely as a Product Manager?

Celebrating Your Wins

Celebrating isn’t necessarily having a Zoom party, and it’s not just about hitting milestones. It’s about recognizing effort. Wins aren’t just tied to deliverables, they’re also tied to boosting morale. When you see a member of your team undertaking efforts to get to your goal, recognize that it can be as simple as a ping or a quick email to say, Hey, I see you. Let me know if I can help, but it looks like you’ve got a great handle on this. 

Also, wins don’t just mean you’re helping in order to get the team unblocked. I sometimes think we don’t get enough credit for blocking for the right reasons. This is a great chance to share positive feedback, like, Hey, you came up with a great argument for why we shouldn’t build a feature X way, or why we shouldn’t launch this quarter. And I think that really helped us avoid a ton of negative feedback from our users. This can really bring into perspective a person’s impact on your team. 

Build Your Remote Sphere of Influence

On our final topic, here are some tips on how to build your remote sphere of influence, especially when we’re not in person. This is my personal favorite because I love meeting and hanging out with my team in person. It’s the best part of my job, and really the biggest reason why I joined Google. 

two reflective spheres side by side. the one on the left is bigger than the one on the right. they both reflect a matrix of red and blue colors

So here are my tips in the form of rules. 

Rule #1: Never underestimate the power of genuine human connection. Now, this isn’t a rule for PMs as much as it is a rule that helps make life better, no matter what your role. Especially during this pandemic, we’re all going through something, your engineers, your marketing team, your researchers, your designers, these are all real people who could benefit from you reaching out and checking in on them. 

When I said “bring the team together” earlier, this is what I meant. If you are so inclined to schedule one-on-one coffee chats or virtual group coffees or lunches or game days, where the rule is not to talk about work, but really to build solid connections. This is what it takes to really get to know the folks on your team and show that you’re there for them.

Read next: Leadership In Tumultuous Times

Rule #2: Ask, with good reasons, and ask nicely. More often than not, us PMs have to ask for something, whether it’s to tweak designs or make changes to help center articles. We’re almost always asking someone for something. And in these times, it’s even more important to be clear about why we’re asking. 

So state the benefit to the product, the team, and of course, to your user, and then ask nicely with a clear regard for the other person’s time. This is also an opportunity to let your teammate state when they can deliver, instead of demanding. 

Rule #3: Take the time to understand and care about what your team cares about. Your team is not a monolithic entity. Your team is comprised of people of various interests, inclinations, aspirations, and goals. Your job as a PM is to inspire, aspire, and achieve. You can’t do that if you don’t know how to get everyone on board with your mission, and truly the only way to get people to care about what you care about is to show them first that you can do the same. 

So take time to break down what’s important to each role. First maybe on a generic level, but then spend the time learning about how each person views their role and their aspirations. This rule is my favorite one because it applies not just to being a PM or even just at work, but really it applies to be a good friend and partner.

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