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A guide for remote product managers leading distributed teams

As more and more teams across industries embrace distributed and virtual teams, how should product managers adapt? Given their role involves coordinating the innovation process, product managers need to find ways to communicate with their remote team in the most effective way, and get the job done.

We sat down with Job van der Voort, CEO of Remote and former VP Product at GitLab, as well as a member of Cassiopeia’s advisory board, to discuss the challenges remote product managers face when they are leading a distributed team, and what are some of the best practices they can follow to overcome them.

Q. How is the work of remote product managers different now, compared to when they were not working remotely?

The main difference is that you are not together in the same space at the same time. You can set up a Zoom call, or you can use an app for whiteboard brainstorming like Miro, however when you’re working in a distributed team where people might be setting up their own schedule and might be living in completely different time zones, this poses a challenge. A lot of the work that you previously did synchronously like brainstorming in a room together -- you now have to figure out a way to do them asynchronously. There is massive value in collaborating together as a team, and project managers across the board have to find a solution and make this work.

Q: Three challenges that product managers are facing as they work in a distributed team? And how can they overcome them?

  1. Not working in the same room together with the rest of the team. This enables product managers to work with tools that will help them to work together. It’s easy to do this if PMs use tools like Zoom, Miro, or Figma.

  2. Product teams have to work asynchronously because they’re not in the same place. My recommendation for this is to over-communicate. Write more, say more, the usual FYIs that you wouldn’t necessarily mention when you’re in an office space... mention them out loud in a remote workspace.

  3. Time zones: The only way managers can work around distributed time zones is by working asynchronously. If you work in a large company, consider building teams who are closer in terms of time zones so there is some kind of overlap.

Q. What soft skills should remote product managers have when they are working in virtual teams?

High-level, don’t be an a**hole. But overall, I’d say be a great communicator and always, always over communicate. All product managers need to be able to write well, especially when you’re working asynchronously. And always be empathetic. The thing is that none of these things have changed because product managers have needed all this prior to when things went virtual too. I’d say one more thing -- don’t set up too many recurring meetings, as they kill productivity and make your calendar look like cheese with holes. But also don’t shy away from setting ad hoc meetings because they are always useful.

Q. Which tools are most useful for remote product managers?

Actually, I’m going to say none. Tools don’t matter because it depends on how you work. Have the basic tool to manage your products like GitLab, or Asana that we use at Remote, and Figma is magic. Beyond that, it doesn’t really matter because tools won’t make you a better or worse product manager.

Q. Any metrics/insights that product managers can track to demonstrate success?

When tracking metrics should always relate to the goals of the company. Product managers should always aim to measure those, especially if they’re in a position to influence metrics on a department level, as well as a company-wide level.

A product manager should never track a metric that doesn't allow them to directly influence the company goals. I always recommend measuring things that you’re directly working on or plan to be working on -- it can be sign-ups, it can be dollar value, it can be conversions or even how many times someone clicked on a CTA on your app/website. Be intentional about it.

Q. What is one most important takeaway for product managers from this remote workspace?

Being explicitly about the way product managers are communicating right now in a virtual setting. Previously we could rely on walking over or shouting into the room saying “hey guys, this is what we are doing this week” but you can’t do that anymore. Now you have to be explicit and intentional about how you communicate with your team, when you communicate, and which channels you use to communicate with them. This makes remote work potentially harder but also potentially better because you are forced to think about how you do things -- and that tends to be a good thing.

At the start of his career, Job van der Voort went head-first into tech as the founder of a startup, later joining GitLab as VP of Product to help scale it from 5 people to a multi-billion-dollar company with over 1300 employees. He’s now helping the world work remotely as CEO of Remote, and is part of Cassiopeia’s advisory board.

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