Bryan Lee
Musings about product, growth, and software engineering.

Staying Productive as a Remote Product Manager in the new COVID-19 World

Many tech companies have responded to the coronavirus pandemic by shutting down offices and having employees work from home. Remote work is most likely going to be the new norm for the next few months. We as product managers will have to adapt to this situation and stay productive.

Having a daily routine

This is not exactly a product management specific tip, but it is something very important to me to stay productive so I'd like to share it here too.

Having a daily routine and rituals to officially start and end your day is super critical for me as a PM. There're always new happenings, emails, direct messages etc, and if you're not careful, you can be 'working' all the way until bedtime.

Instead of my usual commute to office, I enjoy a breakfast with my wife and do some home workouts in the morning. After that, I wash up and change into "work clothes". This is my way of signalling to my brain that I'm transitioning from personal to work time.

I do other things to emphasise this difference: separate workspace, no home chores during working hours... Similarly when the day ends, I change out of my work clothes. No more emails, work-related matters anymore.

On days where I broke this rule by still handling work-related matters after work, I've noticed feeling more stressed, more than prior to working from home.

Daily team catch-ups

If you don't already have daily morning stand-ups, you should consider having them. Even if you have, consider adapting the format of the stand-up meetings a little.

Many stand-up meetings are just a round of everyone taking turns to regurgitate what they did yesterday, what they want to do today, and what blockers they have. People attend because they have to.

Instead, relax the format of your stand-ups and make it less formal. We have a casual catch-up call daily in our team where we really just catch-up with each other. We talk about the current project, any updates we want to share, or any blockers we forsee. Sounds familiar? But we also catch up with each other about our evenings, weekends.

A well-jelled team is often a productive one. In this new reality, it is even more important to remember that our teammates are humans too and also have personal lives. Not everything needs to be about work. Showing some care and concern for fellow teammates goes a long way to help everyone feel that they are an equal contributing member of the team.

One-on-ones with team

One-on-ones need not only be between you and your manager. I find them one of my most indispensable tools as a PM, even more when in-person interaction is reduced when working remotely.

Regular one-on-ones with your team members can help surface potential issues in your team before they become a thing. You can use this time to collect feedback, pass feedback, discuss pain points or bring up other issues you normally would not in a public setting.

One-on-ones with stakeholders or other colleagues

Similarly, one-on-ones are great even with other colleagues or stakeholders that you work closely with. Take this time to update each other with what's new or run through new ideas / thoughts before they become public. It is much harder for one to withdraw negative opinions and disagreements publicly. I like to use one-on-ones with other stakeholders to get their feedback on new ideas and plans privately. You should already have buy-in from your stakeholders before you make a proposal public.

When working remote, a lot of the casual encounters you get in normal office life are reduced and these one-on-ones become even more important to maintain friendly working relationships. Disagreements are bound to happen, and when they do, at least you will still have your friendly baseline relationship to fallback on.

Be purposeful with your meetings

I suggested more casual and relaxed catch-ups with the team but that should be the exception and not the norm.

You should make sure that are goals behind your other meetings - deciding which tickets go to the next sprint, how the marketing for the new feature will be carried out etc. Likewise, if someone else wants to have a meeting with you, define the purpose of the meeting and decide on the goal with said colleague. If that can't be done, you should not have the meeting. Explore other alternatives such as Slack or email.

One day before your meeting, get an agenda from your colleague so you have time to prepare. Of course, make sure you prepare for the meeting so that when it finally happens, a decision can be made quickly.

There are definitely a lot of other useful practices out there you can adopt as PM to remain productive while working remotely. Most importantly, we should be more mindful and make up for the fact that a lot of the additional context and cues we used to get 'for free' in a physical office setting are no longer available.

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