Partial remote work is hard
All remote companies (that is, those where the entire workforce is remote) is a relatively new phenomenon, but remote work is not. People working in information jobs (white-collar work, to put it loosely) have been working outside the office for many years, with the internet and modern technology more broadly being a key enabler. Consider these typical scenarios:
- You are hired as an individual contractor/consultant by a client, and they allow you to work remotely, at least partially.
- A company in one country has hired you as an employee because you are in another country, in order to save costs because they pay you local rates. Sometimes this is called offshoring. The company hasn’t invested in an office building in your location, so you work remote.
- You’ve worked for a company in an office for many years, and due to personal reasons have to re-locate. The company offers you to work remote, and you accept.
- Your company permits teams to work remote a few times a week, as a perk.
In all these scenarios, the people and processes are disconnected. In particular, there are at least two classes of people, one in the office, and one remote. And since there isn’t parity, communication and collaboration suffers.
Consider the case of the star employee working from home at a new location because the company didn’t want to lose the great talent. The team has always had spontaneous group huddles in their corner of the office. Now they have to have fixed meetings in a conference room, and struggle with half-working video conferencing technology. The remote employee participates less because it’s harder to speak up through a screen, and the rest of the team often forgets to update the remote worker on crucial ad-hoc decisions, much less even involving them in the decisioning in the first place.
For the case of working remote a few times a week (for example on Fridays) as a perk, it’s a bad idea since the company has introduced an employee benefit at the cost of employee productivity itself. Most perks are direct monetary costs: Free snacks and lunches, health insurance, commuter benefits, etc. When you have employees work remote a few times a week, you are essentially reducing the typical 5 day work week. Folks cannot collaborate and advance their business operations per the efficient and optimized processes that they have developed. So they will “wait until the Monday meeting, since Friday we are all working from home anyways”, slowing down the pace of innovation. Or they might claim that “Friday is when I focus and get my work done without distractions”. If that’s truly the case, there’s already a serious problem if your workforce cannot get work done during the other 4 days of the week.
For product managers specifically, these scenarios are only exacerbated since much of their responsibilities should be focused on communication and collaboration. Good product managers keep technical and business teams aligned and focused. Great product managers leverage stakeholder relationships to advance the product vision and continue shipping customer value.
Towards all remote
So the only truly optimal solution is a fully remote workforce. It may sound counterintuitive because aren’t you essentially taking a tax on collaboration 100% of time, since your teams are always physically separated? It actually isn’t the case because if a company is fully remote, it has made that commitment from the executive level, and as it grows, each process iteration and change has that fundamental assumption in mind, and so your business operations should eventually approach some optimal level. I’ve argued briefly that async communications is a key enabler to make this really work. And in future articles I will dig further into this topic.
Practically, what does this mean for a product manager working in an organization that has no remote, some remote, or is all remote? If the circumstances do not allow you toto realistically effect change, then seriously consider if you choose to remain with the company and if it is for you. With increasingly more companies heading towards remote, there are now more options. If you can effect change, then champion the philosophy internally. However, beware that you don’t get stuck into the scenarios as I’ve laid out above. For example, if you get to work remote on Fridays, experiment with your team on how to make that day even more productive, instead of using it as an excuse as a “focus day” of work. And consider how to even bring some of those successful process changes into the rest of the week. Over time, if you’ve demonstrated that Fridays are actually more productive than the rest of the week, have a serious conversation to see if you can even increase the amount of remote work. In other words, whether you have no remote, some remote, or even all remote, always keep experimenting, and aim to improve your remote work processes, so that you can do more of it.
Champion remote work
Some partially remote organizations have made commitments at the executive level to increase remote work. So if you are fortunate enough to work in such a company, it will only be easier with that senior leadership support. Leverage that support to do more experiments and socialize both your failures and successes so that the entire company can learn together. As a product manager, you should already be good at this type of communication anyways, so be a champion for remote work, just as you are already a champion for your product.