Remote Product Management: Setting Up The Right Remote Culture

Product Management
Mitchell KimMitchell KimLast updated

As cases of COVID-19 are increasing exponentially and companies are urging employees to stay at home, we are experiencing an unprecedented surge in remote work globally. At Exponent, we've been operating as a remote team for most of the past year, with engineers, designers, and PMs spread across several time zones—not to mention thousands of users around the world who are part of our Slack community and Interview Practice forum.

As a follow-up on our recent post about our three essential remote working tools, we would like to share some tips on how to build a remote work culture from the ground-up for those product managers who found themselves in a situation where working from home is not an option anymore but a must.

Remote PMs: Building a Remote Culture Ground Up

Face-to-face social interactions gave us language, taught our ancestors to collaborate and equipped humanity with insurmountable evolutionary benefits. But when it comes to remote collaboration through digital tools, these evolved benefits can quickly turn into disadvantages.

In the digital environment, we can no longer navigate work relationships intuitively based on subtle social cues: facial expressions, office banter, gossip, bad jokes, and other office politics. And without these social cues, our psychological safety, or “the confidence that team members wouldn’t embarrass or punish individuals for speaking up” is compromised. As Derek Thompson writes for the Atlantic:

Almost everything that doesn’t feel like work at the office is what makes the most creative, most productive work at the office possible.”

This is why managers have to be conscious about building a new team culture when switching to remote work from the ground up: stripping collaboration from office politics, creating an inclusive environment with carefully curated communication channels, while still leaving enough space for serendipitous encounters.

Product managers are translators, processors, and conduits of information. They navigate the messy tangle of product development, coordinating efforts across all teams, making sure goals are aligned and metrics are clear. They are the first point of contact when team leads need direction and they are also the ones responsible for managing customer and stakeholder needs. How can they successfully adapt to a remote setup with a role so heavily reliant on personal contact?

If you are a product manager switching to remote work for the first time, start by preparing your team that work will not continue ‘as usual’ and that building an inclusive remote work culture will require a conscious effort from all of them. Explain that distributed teams require a radically different style of communication, conducted through channels that have their own benefits and limitations.

Don’t Hit Send Unless it’s Constructive

Remote work creates a bigger distance between what you feel and what you communicate and through this, offers a great opportunity to eliminate unnecessary politics and drama.  One of the perks of working from home is that you can always count to 10 before formulating a reply and no one will ever notice. Be the one who leads by example and start practicing constructive communication with those you manage.

If your team is distributed across different time-zones, asynchronous communication will be a big part of your day-to-day workflow. Simply put, asynchronous communication is when you send a message that you don’t expect an immediate response to. When team members are away and not available to chat, flagging heavy issues will create a persistent state of anxiety until you can connect in real-time. If possible, wait until they are back. If you decide to schedule a time to chat with them anyway, don’t be vague about your reasons and intention when reaching out.

Work-Life Balance

Think twice before communicating outside work hours. Assume that people will read what you send to them, feel pressured to respond and won’t be getting the space they need away from work to recharge.

Don’t underestimate the difficulty of keeping a healthy work-life balance when the spaces of work, play and sleep overlap. You will require some extra discipline to stick to your work hours yourself, especially in the period of transitioning to remote work. It helps if you block out time for specific tasks. This way you will procrastinate less and feel less urge to make up for the lost time at the end of the day.

It also helps to have a separate room or at least a corner with a desk that you only use for work. Having a dedicated work-space will help you differentiate between work-time and off-work-time better. It will make it easier to avoid cleaning the house and running “urgent” errands. Make your desk face the wall so you don’t see the pile of laundry in the other corner. You’ll feel better at 6 pm if you worked a full day and you have the night to yourself without having to work overtime.

Additionally, establish and communicate the times you will be online with your team, especially if you are working with people in different time zones. Make sure everyone knows how to reach you and when you will be available. Make sure your team knows when you are going heads down or need to step away. There should be no guessing if someone is coming back that day or how long they'd be gone for.

But most importantly, don’t give yourself a hard time if your productivity is faltering. Switching to remote work is a big challenge to tackle on its own, and don’t expect to continue work as usual in times of a global health emergency.

Real-time and Async Communication Channels

Remote work comes in as many flavors as there are personality types. People have different preferences when it comes to frequency and style of communication. Some prefer chat apps, some prefer email, some prefer product management apps. Some prefer real-time, some daily and some weekly updates.

Try to invest in making information available on channels that resonate and don’t let people feel left out because they can’t keep themselves in the loop. Remote work requires developing a whole range of new habits and team members will need active support from you to adapt.

Use a team chat app to connect with your colleagues in real-time, but don’t let it replace your long-form planning notes. As Matt Mullenweg, founder of the fully distributed company Automattic, writes:

“Create an etiquette that doesn’t force people to become chained to it all day and all night. When you ask a question in DM, do not expect that person to respond immediately, and ask your question upfront. Never write “got a sec?” and let it hang there.”

All team chat apps (like Slack or Discord) have the feature to create different channels for different topics/teams. Create channels that are not strictly work-related: life updates, links to books. Use these channels yourself so your team knows you're serious about fun. Remote spaces can be really dry if you don't water them.

When it comes to long-term planning or project-related updates, asynchronous, domain-specific tools are the ones that work the best. Many of these tools support commenting, threads, assigning people to tasks, supporting decision making and marking things done. A few examples include:

Ultimately you have to recognize and accommodate different preferences for communications channels between your team members. And most importantly if you find yourself in a conflict or misunderstanding, don’t hesitate to jump on a call to hash things out. Better resolve everything face-to-face right away.

Remote Team Meetings

According to agile ethicist and entrepreneur Alix Dunn, remote meetings can be way better or way worse than in person.

“Good ones leverage parallel contributions in shared docs, shared review of content, and built-in excellent documentation. Bad ones rely on caucus formats (loudest and surest speak most) and people check out.”

Creating an agenda will keep the meeting actionable and productive. Decide on the agenda together with the team, share the first version and encourage everyone to contribute to it. Don’t use meetings for status updates, only for things that really need team-level input. This will make sure the meeting is a conversation and not reporting.

If you are not looking for a long-term setup or want to conduct a meeting with clients rather than team-members; browser-based, no sign-in required apps will work best. Some examples are:

Jitsi - encrypted, open-source video app, no sign-in required, can manage a bunch of users. But sometimes it can be a little buggy. Whereby (FKA -  proprietary software and free version only allows up to 4 users.

If you're planning on meeting with more than four people, it’s better to use Zoom or Mumble. These tools need some initial setup but they are more reliable and allow more flexibility, like calling into the meeting from a mobile or landline.

Before and during the video call:

  • Make sure to check all tech before actually starting the conversation. Ask everyone to join the call five minutes earlier to see if there is anything to troubleshoot.
  • Ask everyone to join the call from somewhere calm and quiet if possible, as background noise can be very disruptive.
  • For better audio quality, encourage the use of headphones and practice using the mute button when not speaking.
  • If you want to add listening cues, some responses like emojis, <3, LOL, etc. can signal to the room that you are present and engaged.
  • Additionally, if all participants have broad bandwidth, encourage people to use video. It will completely change the dynamics of the meeting.

Another great advice from researcher and activist Jac sm Kee:

“Distribute roles - facilitator, note taker(s), time checker, and I also kinda like where possible, energy checker. If this is a rotating meeting, then have the roles rotate too. At my previous team, we just did this by alphabetical order.”

The facilitator is responsible for following the agenda, holding space and pace of the conversation and making sure that most of the agenda gets covered.

Notetakers take notes on a shared pad or Google docs, which  also helps others follow the conversation. Make sure to clean up and transfer the notes to your preferred documentation app after the meeting.

The timekeeper keeps track of the time and announces breaks if meetings run longer than 45 min.

The energy checker helps to pay attention to the energy in the space. So if it’s getting a bit low, they can bring it up by suggesting a disruption in the flow, whether in the format or in the topic.

Wrapping Up

PMs working from home for the first time have to face the fact that remote work involves adopting new habits: working towards clear goals, learning how to document and share information rigorously, and judging progress through performance metrics, rather than using the proxy of attendance. A team culture based on in-person socializing will not accommodate such changes without extra effort. Prepare yourself and your team for making this effort before expecting them to perform well in this new environment.

But most of all, please keep in mind: in our present predicament, "how to work from home" is not the real question. The real question is how to work during a catastrophic global pandemic. So don’t give yourself a hard time if the transition is bumpy. As Mullenweg writes:

“The truth is, there are a thousand ways to do remote work, but it starts with committing to it at all levels of the company. If you assume positive intent and place trust in your coworkers and employees—knowing that if they do great work in an office they can do great work anywhere—then you will all succeed.”

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