The New Normal For Tech PMs Navigating COVID-19

Product Management
Lindsey ParkerLindsey ParkerLast updated

Don’t let the cool exterior of a Product Manager fool you. They might be efficient and calm -- but they love chaos.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, you may have only caught a glimpse of this trait in a PM. Chaos is an opportunity for growth and good PMs know how to take advantage of stormy weather. But the goal is always to steer the ship back to safety. Afterall, storms end.

Or do they? Chaos has become the new normal. We’re settling in for a protracted battle against COVID-19 and the adrenaline has worn off. Organizations everywhere are facing the reality that this isn’t some Q2 blip. Remote workers are shopping for ergonomic desk chairs after months at the kitchen table. Parents are burnt out. Everyone’s uncertain.

How are PMs handling the changing landscape? We surveyed 60+ tech PMs from all industries, levels of experience, and regions of the world to find out exactly what’s changed.

Here’s what we found.

A Changing Environment

Switching to Remote Work

Tech companies adopted remote work more readily than other industries, but the pace of change was a challenge. The biggest complaints are lost face-to-face interaction with both customers and internal teams.

“Hallway conversations, brainstorming sessions, live customer interactions are key to succeed in [a] PM role.”

Others agreed that collaboration had slowed and/or become inefficient. Because PM success depends heavily on reading the room, the lack of travel opportunities and client meetings has meant that there’s less understanding of client pain points exactly when pain is greatest.

Some PMs are liking the flexibility of remote work. “Working from home initially reduced productivity but has since actually increased it.” said one respondent. “[WFH] helps you in saving time and keeping focused” said another.

Breaking In a New Toolbox

A surprising number of respondents reported no change, as the most popular tools (Slack, Zoom, MS Teams, GSuite, etc.) were all in use in some capacity before COVID-19. JIRA, Miro, Trello are on the rise, and a few PMs mentioned proprietary internal tools had been developed.

These are the winners based on our survey.

PMs surveyed were happy with their tools for the most part. There have even been some unexpected advantages -- a Microsoft PM is using Teams more than before, which is helpful -- as they own the product.

Still, there’s a sense that technology hasn’t made up for what’s been lost in the switch to remote work.

Getting Less Out of More

If you’re noticing an uptick in Zoom meeting frequency without a boost in productivity, you’re not alone. 80% of PMs polled reported spending as many or more hours in meetings. 35% reported spending 5-10+ more hours in meetings per week than before COVID. And PMs are feeling it.

More than a few mentioned Zoom fatigue -- the consequence of “over-emoting” on video calls to make up for missing non-verbal cues. On video calls we sustain eye contact for longer amounts of time, nod more frequently, alter our tone of voice - often while watching ourselves in the corner (does my hair always do that?) It’s all very unnatural, and very taxing.

Product Managers, who lead diverse groups without direct control, rely more than most on these non-verbal cues to understand stakeholders. Vibes matter, and no remote tool can transmit those. A survey respondent sums it up nicely:

“Brainstorming is most effective in an in-person setting, and encourages diverse opinions. Remote collaboration either has silence, or a bunch of people speaking at the same time, disrupting the organic flow of ideas.”

A Changing Assignment

Long-term Roadmaps Become Obsolete Overnight

A product roadmap is “a high-level visual summary that maps out the vision and direction of a product over time.” Developed through countless meetings with engineering, marketing, sales, and clients, it’s the single most important document PMs refer to when planning, executing, and explaining decisions.

COVID-19 has caused them to throw these out the window.

At the very least, PMs are making radical changes based on wildly different assumptions about the future. “We threw out our entire roadmap to focus on improving our infrastructure to accelerate development so that we can pivot more quickly… Months of product discovery and backlog prioritization was scrapped to embrace a short term plan” writes on PM.

Companies that are lucky enough to maintain their customer base are pivoting to address shifting priorities. “We are planning a lot more, spend[ing] more time on the product roadmap than usual. Security and compliance projects are getting higher priority.”

Resource Reallocation, Reassignment, and Restructuring

All of this is happening at a time of high executive churn and low job security. PMs cite leadership exits, furloughs, and team reassignments as additional destabilizing factors as they attempt to strategize an unknown future. Some PMs in industries nimble enough to move online have seen unexpected growth, but the majority of our respondents have seen business drop.

And then there are the layoffs. In calmer times, there was a dreaded regularity to the process. It’d be hell to go through one, but you’d know what to expect if you had to. Now, everything is different. The functional groups supporting PMs are being laid off or reallocated to cover gaps, leaving PMs without the resources to get their work done. Without complex inputs to organize, some PMs feel that their jobs are becoming superfluous.

“[I was] laid off with my last day [coming up] in August. I’ll be interviewing again in coming months.”

At the time of publishing, Candor’s live COVID-19 hiring/firing tracker looked like this:

Several survey respondents reported massive restructuring. Entire teams are being let go, or broken up to support higher priorities elsewhere. Many teams were told to focus on retention, cost reduction, and infrastructure issues. Big strategic programs have been put on hold or cancelled.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel.

What the Future Looks Like

We don’t know what the macroeconomic implications of the pandemic will be. We have no idea when, if ever, business will be “back to normal” for tech PMs. But we’ve been in it long enough to have uncovered some valuable lessons on working through a truly shocking time.

As we wrap up, here are a few major takeaways from our survey, and actions you can take today to address them.

PMs, who thrive on collaboration, miss working creatively with others. They specifically cite brainstorming sessions, collaboration with engineers, UX testing, and whiteboarding as critical activities that can’t be moved online without a decline in quality.

What should you do? Brainstorming sessions don’t work on video. There’s always a new “flavor of the month” in collaboration software, but it may be worth going in a new direction. Embrace the additional quiet time remote work offers. Ask your teammates to 1) keep an individual brain dump of their ideas, and 2) contribute one idea daily/weekly/biweekly to a collaborative doc. Don’t force them to all meet at once to discuss - let your colleagues riff on one another in their own time. You might be surprised at how much “distributed creativity” can pay off.

It’s hard to build trust remotely. PM’s who’ve been working with their peers for a few years feel comfortable with remote work, because they’ve already built cohesive teams already. New PMs are far less comfortable, and many say they would not start a new role as a remote worker.

What should you do? First, understand that building trust takes time. Life is hectic right now - kids aren’t at school, partners are being laid off… the last thing your team wants is to spend their evening in a mandated “bonding session” on Zoom. Check in often, but do it empathically and privately. Offer help and a listening ear. Feel free to be goofy and casual with your team -- we encourage it -- but do it at the beginning or the end of scheduled meetings.

It’s becoming harder and harder to separate work and personal time. Many survey respondents agonized over the loss of their personal lives due to COVID. They’re working more hours with less support and stability and it’s taking a toll on morale.

What should you do? First, be cognizant of coworkers’ time and drop all unnecessary meetings. Of course. More importantly, think about setting a good example yourself. This can be hard if you’re new to the job, but we urge you to give it a try. Sign off at a reasonable time each day and don’t respond to email in the middle of the night. Let your teammates know when you’re picking up the kids and won’t be available. Don’t apologize or offer to catch up in the evening. Obviously, you’ll need to get your work done and this isn’t to say you CAN’T come back later… but set your status as “away” on Slack. Healthy boundaries are not unreasonable, and your bravery (yes, bravery! We know this is hard!) could really make a difference to someone who’s struggling.

We all want our work to have meaning. Personal priorities are shifting as quickly as business priorities, and an increasing number of people are re-evaluating their choices. A respondent put it eloquently:

“I'm of the Ray Dalio school of thought for work: I want to pursue meaningful work and meaningful relationships. This [situation] severely hampers both.”

What should you do? Don’t shy away from this question, even if it’s coming at an inconvenient time. If you’re unhappy, it may be time for a change. Invest in yourself -- take that class, pick up a healthy hobby, and spend time with the people you love. Pay attention to your emotions and desires, and you’ll figure out what you want and how to get there.

In Summary:

The world is irrevocably different now, and although we’re starting to adjust, “business as usual” is nowhere in sight. The transition to remote work has been tough. You’ve had to seriously rethink your roadmap. And you’re missing your team.

But times of churn come with opportunities too. Working from home can be hugely liberating. Although many of you are working longer, there’s a consensus that productivity issues can’t be solved with more Zoom sessions… and alternative arrangements are emerging. Maybe your roadmap looks better now than it did in Q1. If we have anything good to say about this pandemic, it’s that it’s made us all stop and think about what’s really important.

In the spirit of positivity and self-improvement:  if you’re ready for a change (or navigating changing circumstances) and thinking about pursuing product management for yourself, check out Exponent’s interview prep courses for a boost in the right direction. We’ll get through this together!

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