Product Manager working remotely
Mar 23 2020

How Product Managers Can Thrive In A Distributed Work Model

By Jade Bennett.

We’re currently experiencing an unprecedented moment in time with the escalating impact that COVID-19 is having across the world. Our Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called this a “once in a hundred-year event”.

Like many of you, I have experienced a roller-coaster of emotions ranging from stress, fear and sadness for humanity. But instead of feeling hopeless, I’ve been searching for ways to help our community face this challenge.

It’s taken me by surprise how novel an idea remote working is for so many companies and their people. Establishing Middleton Executive three years ago as a remote-first business was risky. The recruitment industry was very traditional and often had a culture of ‘presenteeism’. Working remotely has not hampered our ability to support our candidates and clients to meet their business objectives. In fact, we’ve been able to thrive as a remote-first business.

I’ve found myself thinking about the Product Management community we serve; the impact this way of working might be having. Specifically, Product Managers, both teams and individuals who are not accustomed to the remote working model.

I figure, here is my opportunity to help my Product community!

Words of Product Wisdom

Reaching out to my network of Senior Product Leaders who have experience with distributed teams of Product Managers, I asked for their help in offering advice to our Product Management community on how they can thrive while working remotely. I was blown away by the response I received. Everyone was more than happy to share their wisdom.

Product Management requires exceptionally strong interpersonal skills and typically these interactions come from being in the same room as your colleagues, peers, stakeholders and customers. So, here are the tops tips and expert advice from 3 Senior Product Leaders on how Product Managers can thrive working remotely.

Mark Smith, Chief Product Officer at PredictiveHire

Mark Smith, Chief Product Officer at PredictiveHire

Collaborative product design doesn’t have to die because you’re not face to face. Try using tools that support your process online like or to keep the ability to have brainstorming and facilitated collaborations.

It goes without saying you need video conferencing like Zoom, Webex, etc., but sharing a screen and collaborating over a remote enabled tool will help keep all stakeholders on board and engaged.

The best tools support multiple users in the doc at the same time; Confluence and Google Docs are the leaders in this. Having multiple people in the tool at the same time means it’s easy to keep the productivity up in the team by supporting techniques that otherwise might have been whiteboarded or carded.

Evan Ravensdale, Director-Product at 99Designs

Evan Ravensdale, Director of Product at 99Designs

The top two things for me are:

1. Have the right tools.

Most people have video conferencing like Zoom or Google Hangouts however having other online collaboration tools like Trello, Miro or FIO are essential for collaborating remotely.

Quickly being able to pull together a workshop or run a retro and know what times work for international staff are essential things to have at your fingertips.

2. Speak to each other.

Writing things down in Slack or Confluence is great but you need to
speak with people to get the full context and understand where they are at, particularly in high stress situations as we face now, so having regular rituals with “face to face” calls is important.

One thing we’ve recently started doing at 99designs now that we’re all remote is to have “coffee catch ups”; where anyone in the company can catch up with anyone else, including our CEO.  These are casual conversations that are not work oriented, aimed at mimicking the conversations you would normally have in the kitchen, aimed at bringing a sense of regular office life to a remote world.

Ally Akbarzadeh, Business Owner at TrustCheck

Ally Akbarzadeh, TrustCheck Business Owner at NAB & AusPost

For us, it comes down to creating more opportunities to communicate.

Working remotely can be isolating, but it also means you miss out on all the ambient conversations—both professional and personal—that build connection to your team and its purpose.

We’ve found a few ways to combat this:

1. Make sure your collaboration tech is rock-solid.

A solid platform for group video calls (Zoom), collaborative document editing (Office 365), workflow management (Jira) and general chat (Slack, WhatsApp, MS Teams) have been critical for us.

Once you dig beneath the surface of these tools you’ll be amazed at how rich the collaboration feature sets are.

2. Rethinking your rituals.

In our team we’ve lengthened stand-ups to create more opportunity for banter and knowledge sharing, increased the frequency of our (virtual) showcases to weekly, and combined them with retros on what’s working (or not working!) with our remote arrangements.

3. Personal connection is important.

To make sure we don’t lose the empathy and understanding that comes from face-to-face meetings, we have set an expectation that video must be turned on for all meetings, and everybody must be online for quick conversations during our core team hours.

4. Don’t forget to have fun.

Best costume during stand-up competitions, group happy birthday singing via VC or this afternoon’s inaugural remote drinks session are all important ways we make sure distance doesn’t reduce our relationships to purely professional ones.

Communication is key!

I was inspired by our Product community coming together, albeit at a distance. Thanks to Mark Smith, Evan Ravensdale and Ally Akbarzadeh for sharing their experiences and offering a these great tips to help Product Managers succeed, and even thrive in their career during this challenging time. My takeaway from these fantastic tips is that communication is key.

So, jump on your video calls and maintain your connections. Make sure you’re covering the ground you need to; don’t hold back robust discussions about product strategy, review your product roadmaps and ensure daily progress is being made. And, try to have a little fun along the way. Let’s all allow our inner creative to flourish!

Join our Tech Tribe

Next week, we’ll be sharing more tips and advice from 3 more Senior Product Leaders. Join our #techtribe and follow Middleton Executive on LinkedIn and Facebook for more tips and ideas on how to thrive in the modern tech world.

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