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Product management is a hard enough job when working in an office. But holding a product management job on a remote team makes the job even more difficult.
Many remote product management teams are learning to adapt to the new realities of full-time remote work brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
This guide breaks down how to set up remote product management teams for success.
What does a remote product manager do?
Everything that a product manager working in the office would do. The responsibilities are the same with an added level of complexity of maintaining close collaboration with stakeholders using primarily digital tools.
Not all remote teams are created equal
Product management teams in a remote world can be vastly different. Each team setup has pros and cons that you should consider when evaluating your next product job.
Co-located product management teams
Co-located teams are traditional teams that work together in the same office or location. Everyone works close physically so collaboration is easy, but distractions are high.
Hybrid product teams
Hybrid teams can take a few different forms. A hybrid team might have some days in the office and other days from home. Other hybrid teams may have some members working remotely and some members working from the office.
The latter option can be the most challenging working format for product managers. It requires additional overhead to ensure that the remote team members are included in key discussions, decisions, and changes.
Split office product and development teams
Some product teams are split across offices where team members are in various office locations and even some from home.
Fully remote and remote-first product management teams
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, this team setup is exploding in popularity.
Prior to the pandemic, nearly all product management jobs were required to be in the office. It was assumed that product management was a nearly impossible role to do remotely.
But remote product management jobs are growing rapidly.
Remote product manager jobs create unique challenges
Many product managers have learned that this job has some unique challenges when trying to do the work remotely.
We are always on
There aren’t many other roles within a team that has so many different types of stakeholders to interact with daily. On any given day a product manager might talk with
Executive leaders (including in the C suite)
Each stakeholder has unique needs and questions. A product manager must be able to respond to any of the stakeholders at the drop of a Slack message.
We sit at the center of many discussions
Product management is often the glue that keeps the train moving in the same direction. We communicate a similar message using different languages depending on the situation.
This creates a constant state of context switching.
Keeping track of all conversations
Product managers must keep track of many threads of conversations at a time.
In a remote world, this looks like being part of tens to hundreds of Slack (or other chat) channels. It looks like constant notifications.
Any of those channels can ding and send a product manager’s day into a tailspin.
Meetings are a killer for product makers
For many teams, remote product management results in many meetings. Some are collaborative, some are status updates, and others are ad-hoc support requests.
These meetings, while necessary for many, can kill the creative energy that product managers need and crave.
What are the best tools for remote product management?
Tools are a remote product manager’s best friend and Achilles heel. Tools help us be more productive and cope with a stressful job.
But we are product makers. We love novelty and trying out new products. We love trying all the bells and whistles.
But alas, we must find what works and get back to work.
This is an obvious category. We are very familiar with Zoom and probably a few other video conferencing solutions.
You probably already have a favorite and know the quirks you hate about it.
Our pick is Zoom. Primarily because it just works (most of the time).
In our hyper collaborative world, every product team needs a way to keep track of the product operations. Nobody has time to be fiddling with PowerPoint or Google Slides-based roadmaps.
That is so 2015.
They help you keep track of feedback, turn feedback into insights, create a product strategy from those insights, and execute the strategy. All while making it incredibly easy to share and visualize your team’s roadmap.
Let’s face it, product management uses whiteboards like we’re high school teachers. Except we’re not teaching, we are ideating.
Sometimes you need an unbounded canvas to explore ideas into a mindmap, sticky notes, or user journey map.
It’s sometimes necessary to coordinate cross-functional projects and releases. And coordinating a product launch with key stakeholders such as marketing, support, and customer success can be challenging.
And we all know that JIRA probably isn’t going to make the cut.
So enter generic project management tools like Asana to help. Asana is quite flexible so you might find other use cases too like enhancement requests.
Async communication tools
This may be uncomfortable at first, but trust us, it will change the game.
These 5-minute recordings can help avoid 30 minute or hour-long meetings. If you want to go even further, you could check out ZipMessage which creates threads of back and forth recorded feedback.
Remote product management best practices
Tools alone can’t alleviate the challenges that come with remote product manager jobs. In fact, tools can make it all worse.
That’s why there are some best practices you should implement to help you be the most effective product manager you can be.
Leverage asynchronous communication
Using Loom, Slack, or ZipMessage try to introduce async communication to your team. It’s quick and mostly painless.
The best-case scenario is that a 5-minute Loom recording eliminates a meeting from your calendar. Worst case scenario you still have to have the meeting but there is context already going into the meeting.
That’s a win-win.
Find ways to meet with colleagues
Being on a remote team doesn’t mean that you should never meet up. It just means we don’t have to commute every day.
Try to create ways to meet up with colleagues for meetups. Many remote teams set aside a budget every year for 1 or 2 meetups for the team.
But sometimes there isn’t room in the budget for travel.
Non-work activities are still critical to our working relationships. So if there is no budget, try arranging a coffee chat or similar virtual gathering. Airbnb offers online experiences that are very fun and unique.
Get out of the office
Working from home can become too routine. Being in the office provides novel experiences and encounters with others every day.
Even as an introvert you may find that the mid-day fetch and cat-straction is not quite enough novelty.
Try working from a different location for a day or even a few hours. A coffee shop, the porch, or even the library are all great options.
Sometimes this is just enough to shake off the same-ness of your daily routine.
Block out maker time on your calendar
Remote product management jobs require a lot of meetings. There’s no way around it.
But product management also requires deep focus time too.
You may find yourself with only 30 or 60-minute pockets of time for deep focus work.
This just isn’t enough time.
The solution is to schedule blocks of time on your calendar. Two or three hours at least. Set yourself as busy so others can’t drop any new meetings on the calendar.
But make sure to guard these time blocks. Move them if needed, but don’t interrupt them.
Build and maintain strong relationships
Relationships are key to your success as a product manager. Working virtually means you must be intentional about your work relationships.
Make time to build relationships of trust with your colleagues.
Ask your colleagues about things going on in their lives (within reason, of course). Did a colleague recently adopt a puppy? Ask about it.
This may be obvious and natural to many. But in a busy schedule filled with virtual meetings, these moments of bonding are often missed.
Overcommunicate with leaders and peers
Nobody likes to be caught off guard. The easiest way to avoid this is to overcommunicate.
Slack and other chat tools create silos that can leave people in the dark. Report out important decisions in multiple channels and tailor the messaging to each audience.
Many teams use a tracking document that tracks key initiatives, statuses, and key updates. This document is updated and shared out weekly so that everyone is in the loop.
Create systems for routine work
Over time product managers pick up various admin activities that just need to happen on a regular basis.
The list goes on…
Create simple systems to make these painless and as quick as possible.
Here’s a simple method to use to make these as painless as possible:
- Add them to your calendar or other task tracker on their regular schedule. You no longer have to think about when the work needs to be done.
- Create a simple check-list for each task.
- Each time you complete the check-list, try to improve the process slightly so that it takes you less time.
- Use the tools you have to automate as much of the process as you can. Do you code? Write a quick script. Are you an excel wizard? Use formulas and pivots.
Beware of burnout
Even with all these tips, you may still find yourself burning out. Overwhelmed to the point of exhaustion and feeling like you can’t keep up.
What does burnout look like for a product manager?
Burnout is not unique to product managers. It looks similar to other roles.
But for product managers burnout can be even more devastating. As product managers, we are keenly aware of all the people and business processes that rely on us.
Burning out can look like:
Withdrawing from work activities
Small projects feel like monumental tasks
Feeling cynical or negative towards new initiatives
Not to mention the physical and psychological signs:
Anxiety and depression
Lack of focus
How can you avoid or recover from burnout as a remote product manager?
This advice is not meant as a substitute for mental health treatment. If you are experiencing the extremes of burnout, please see a licensed mental health provider.
Self-care is key
You must take care of yourself above all else. Even if this makes things more challenging for others.
Go for a walk outside. Soak up some Vitamin D and smell the fresh air. This is a great reset during a stressful day or week.
Set working hours. Boundaries are critical for your self-care. A challenge for many global product teams is the tendency to be always available. Set your working hours and stick to them the best you can.
Remove Slack and Email from your phone. Chat and email notifications are just impromptu meetings that anyone can place on your calendar any time day or night. Unless absolutely necessary, remove work email and chat apps from your phone. This helps reinforce the boundaries between work and home.
Take a vacation. You deserve it. Don’t let an “unlimited” vacation policy trick you into believing that you shouldn’t take a vacation. Take the break you need when you need it.
Create dedicated space. Create a dedicated workspace in your home. Try to avoid working and living in the exact same physical space. If you work from the living room, you might find it hard to relax in the same living room later in the evening.
When all else fails, start a job hunt. If you’ve hit the end of your rope and it is time for a change, start looking for a new product manager job. A new job alone won’t fix extreme burnout, but it can create a necessary shake-up to reinspire the work you love.
How can managers and leaders help product managers avoid burnout?
The single most effective thing a leader or manager can do to help a product management team avoid burnout is to model self-care and healthy boundaries.
A team that sees their leaders and managers overworking, being always on, and working nights and weekends will feel that as an expectation for themselves.