Has working remotely impacted your ability to deliver products?
Not at all - it just changes how I think about product delivery and the tools my teams and I use. In the office, it was common to rally a bunch of teammates together in a "war room"-like setting, heads behind laptops and quickly bouncing status updates or ideas or urgent issues around to move a product forward. Now, we do that over Slack and/or Zoom.
The main opportunity remote work has brought is a critical need for documentation - that is, an easily interpretable and navigable paper trail for decisions made along the product development lifecycle. In the office, decisions could be made in a meeting or a side conversation; if you forgot about a decision, you could always go ask someone in person. In remote work, you could do that (again, via Slack), but the expectation of a response has fundamentally changed. Slack is best used as an asynchronous communication channel, meaning that colleagues can respond when they choose. If you need information quickly, what better way to get what you need from the doc, Confluence page, or Slack thread where that decision was made? Straight from the source. Organizing all that information when building products is hard, and I have yet to find a single tool that is *amazing* at it (Abstract Notebooks was a product I worked on that did a pretty good job at addressing this!), but I do consider it a critical role as a PM to ensure that your partner team has all the context they need to build great things, and in a remote context that involves ensuring easy access to context and decisions that matter.
After 2.5 years into working remotely, the two areas that have been the most challenging for me are 1) cross functional exploration and ideation and 2) user research outside of video interviews.
First, I've found it really challenging to replicate is the ability to get in a room with design, engineering and PMM partners and think through problems and solutions to those problems. Whiteboarding and brainstorming are frequently thought of as startup cliches, but there's something really powerful about getting smart folks in a room to deeply grapple with a challenging problem.
Tools like Figma and Miro can help (I've been so impressed with Figjam and how important it's become to my workflow!) but it's still so challenging to get folks to commit, distraction-free, to online collaborative project time. Slack, emails, pets, kids — it's all a distraction. This challenge most frequently arises during the ideation phase of "how might we address this [agreed upon] job to be done?"
Secondly, and much more tactically for my role at Quizlet in particular, is limitations on observing and interviewing users in the field. My customer is one who works in a particularly challenging environment in COVID world — teachers! Prior to COVID, we used to go into the classroom and see how teachers used Quizlet with their students. I'd make a point to do this activity outside of the Bay Area and visited classrooms in other parts of the U.S., and even internationally. This was an incredibly useful user research activity and I'd regularly learn new things about the problems teachers faced, and where Quizlet could be useful. Due to COVID, we haven't been able to spend time in the classroom and so user research has become much more clinical, with video interviews one-on-one (i.e. no visibility into the student side).
While Quizlet is certainly used directly by students, my focus area has been teachers. For a product where the "buyer" (teachers) may not be the end user (students), solving for only the buyer needs without understanding more about how the buyer and end user interact has been challenging.
Abstracting that out more generally, I'd imagine that for many product managers, not being able to interview and observe users in the field is a big impediment.
Working remotely has impacted each individual and their team differently. For some it has boosted productivity and flexibility. For others, it has impacted morale and connection to the mission. I encourage each and every one of us to reflect deeply on what kind of work set up brings out our best selves: is it remote, hybrid, in-person? How do you want to collaborate and what gives you energy vs. what drains your energy: team offsites, async vs sync communication, time zone alignment?
There are now ample options for each of us to find the work set up to support how we work best. Ultimately our ability to deliver products will depend on our ability to thrive in the environment.
In my experience, real human interactions help in building relationships and trust. There may be other effective ways of achieving this too.
Once you establish those, working remotely does not adversely impact delivering best products. In fact, I have seen hyper productivity working remotely in some instances.
In my experience working even pre-pandemic with hybrid, remote and globally distributed teams, the most important things for product development teams are:
- clear and open communication channels
- written objectives, priorities, and any decisions for all stakeholders
so all parties are clear on overall product direction, priorities, tasks and metrics to optimize for. If everyone involved is on the same page, product delivery can be smooth regardless of remote work.