I recently moved across the country from Raleigh to Seattle. Along with my worries about whether my wine glasses would make it there in one piece, I had yet another major concern. As a product manager, would I continue to be successful while working remotely? How much harder would my job be now that I wasn’t onsite?
I’m not the only person with these questions on my mind. The “co-located or distributed” debate that ProductCraft published last week inspired plenty of opinions on where the product team should sit. On the one hand, countless think pieces tell us that remote work is the way of the future. On the other, the reality of product development is that it requires a lot of collaboration. Can the necessary level of team interaction happen without everyone working in the same location?
Like most seemingly “this or that” questions, the real answer lies somewhere in between. During my career as a product manager, I’ve worked both remotely and onsite. And what I’ve found is that remote work is easier for certain roles within the product team. In my current position, I act as both a product owner and a product manager. As a product owner, I’ve felt very successful when working remotely. Being a remote PM, however, has proven a bit more challenging. That doesn’t mean that PMs absolutely must work onsite – it just means it takes some resourcefulness and creativity to make it work.
Balancing Product Ownership and Product Management
After my recent move, I have found remote work very conducive to productivity in my capacity as product owner, anyway. Why? I could multitask easily without distracting others. I had all of my online tools and conversations at hand via multiple screens at my desk. Without the interruptions of a crowded office, I became even more responsive to my engineering team. Resources, documents, calendars, roadmaps, etc. were at my fingertips, making it easier to tackle questions and solve issues quickly.
Product management, on the other hand, was more of a struggle. A PM needs to set strategy and come up with a vision for the product. Without the potential for spontaneous in-person conversation and even inspiration, this part of the job gets a bit harder. Creating a vision for a product is a collaborative effort involving several stakeholders; when the team is distributed, it’s more difficult to align on goals, tasks, and project ownership.
In addition, remote PMs can’t easily identify and/or correct misinformation about their product(s). During a recent visit to HQ, I overheard members of the professional services team giving incorrect product information to a customer. Since I was there, I was able to immediately correct them; had I not been, I may have never known about the miscommunication.
So Is All Hope Lost for Remote PMs?
Absolutely not! Just because product management is a little harder to do remotely than other product roles doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Here are some of my tips for overcoming the challenges of remote product management:
- Spend some time co-located with the rest of the team. In my case, this was the first two years on the job, but your on-site tenure need not be that long. A few months might suffice if your product team is on the small side.
- Have a man or woman on the inside. I have a colleague and peer who works out of our headquarters, where the rest of my team is located. She is the designer for our team and we work closely despite being in different locations.
- Let tools be your friends. Luckily, there are more and more collaboration tools available every day due to the rise of remote work. Two of my favorites include InVision Freehand and Zoom’s annotation feature.
- Cultivate “remote-friendly” professional habits. In my experience, these include self-discipline, organization, and over-communication. Strong multitasking skills can’t hurt, either.
Your Mileage May Vary
Of course, this is just my experience. Yours may be completely different depending on your professional situation.
For example, you may not face as many challenges as a remote PM if you work for a large organization. Enterprise-level companies usually have the technical infrastructure to support remote collaboration, and their headcount tends to be more evenly distributed. With satellite offices having around as many employees as the company HQ, remote workers end up on a more even playing field.
If you’re customer-facing and co-located with your customer base (but remote from the rest of the product team), you might also find your role conducive to remote work. This is especially true if gathering customer feedback is one of your major responsibilities.
Being a successful remote PO/PM is not impossible — I do it every day! Yes, there are challenges, but there also steps you can take to proactively manage them. My advice? Make use of the tools and resources at your disposal, including people like me who’ve been there and done that.