How Product Managers Can Work Remotely
March 21, 2018

How Product Managers Can Work Remotely

by Ron Yang

The job listing called for an experienced product manager. The opportunity: Work on software built by and for product managers. The location: Anywhere in the United States. At first, I was confused — anywhere? But I was intrigued. So I followed my curiosity. And I am so glad I did.

Since joining the Aha! team, I have learned that product builders can truly be successful from anywhere — no office required.

What you do need are the right skills for remote work. Remote product managers need to be strategic, curious, and ambitious. Most of these skills should be required for any product management role. But there is one more skill that allows product managers to thrive in an entirely distributed company.

If you really want to succeed as a remote product manager, you also need to be a proactive and clear communicator.

You will be working with cross-functional teams across time zones. Communication fails will happen — whether it is a technology snafu or a misinterpreted instant message. Maybe you forget to double check time zones and end up scheduling a meeting with someone for 8 p.m. their time.

Remote product managers need to be extra conscientious. This is something I work towards every day with our Aha! product team. And I have been inspired by the success of our team of experienced (and entirely remote!) product managers.

Here are five tips for being a successful remote product manager:

Show the purpose It is critical to keep the team aligned, especially when you are scattered in various postal codes. (Or in the case of our team at Aha! — around the world.) So you need to ensure that everyone has a clear understanding of the product vision. Knowing why they are doing the work keeps everyone motivated. They will understand exactly how they are contributing to the team — even when they cannot physically be near their teammates.

Share visual plans Once the “why” behind the work is clear — the team needs to focus on “what” they are doing and “when” it needs to happen. You can help hone that focus with accessible product plans. Include clear visuals. For instance, I have a high-level product roadmap that I often share on video meetings. Colored swimlanes showcase upcoming areas of focus and how those areas map to our goals. It keeps everyone on track towards big milestones. And it is a lot easier to see on screen than tiny cells on a spreadsheet.

Respond super fast When you are a remote product manager, you spend a lot of time communicating via instant messages. People are waiting on your responses to move the work forward. So you owe it to the team to be quick. Get back to them as soon as you can — even if the answer is “no” or “not right now.” This works even better if you are a fast typer. I know that sounds a little odd, but one study found that people who type faster can better communicate their thoughts and drive the direction of the team, calling it “key” for virtual leadership.

Jump to video While instant message is great, it is not always the best choice — especially if you are trying to work out a complex issue. If you find that you are sending too many back-and-forth messages (or if the messages are creating more confusion than clarity), transition to a web meeting and use your video camera every time. It is usually more effective to work it out face to face. Check in often with all members of the product team, whether it is a weekly standing meeting or simply a five-minute chat to say hello.

Celebrate the team High-fives on remote teams? There should be lots of virtual ones. Take extra steps to show team spirit and acknowledge how everyone’s contributions impact the work. This might mean sending a public thank you message when a teammate does something great (at Aha! we call this giving “hatitude”) or having a virtual toast to celebrate a major milestone, such as a big launch.

You do not need an office to be a successful product manager — you just need the right mindset and a disciplined approach.

I would even argue that remote work can help you grow those skills faster than if you were in an office. Working on our fully distributed team has taught me how to become a more clear and effective communicator.

This has made me a better product manager. And I like to think it has even made me a better teammate too.

What advice for working remotely would you add to the list?

Ron Yang

Ron Yang

Ron builds lovable products. He was the vice president of product management and UX at Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software. Ron has more than 15 years of experience in entrepreneurship and leading product teams. Previously, Ron founded and sold his own company and has been on the founding team of multiple venture-backed companies.

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