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Product managers' guide to working from home

Updated: Sep 7, 2020

We are now half way through 2020! and the hits just keep on coming. There is no sign to the pandemic coming to an end and all of us are still workiing from home. So since we still have to be great at our jobs and make the best of it here is a guide for you product managers to get things efficiently done from home. The good thing from working from home to some extent is that its giving you a trial run of how life can be as an entrepreneur - your all boxed in, struggling to get face time with co-workers & clients and have to work with the resources you have - typically a laptop, a dozen so apps and the internet.

Your working environment at home

  1. Invest in your internet connection - this is probably the most important thing on the list. If you are operating on low bandwidth go get it bumped up so that you can stream video and audio with reduced latency. Reliability of the connection is another important thing, I find nothing works better that a LAN cable connected to your office computer. If you have have a strong wifi/mesh you may be ok to use wireless. Avoid using your mobile phone data plan to tether to your laptop. Also do take into account how many people are sharing the internet with you concurrently and adjust the bandwidth accordingly.

  2. Improve your ergnomincs - if your operating out of a laptop - depending on your budget get these items - external monitor, keyboard, mouse as the basic to start off with. This will reduce eyestrain and wrist fatigue. Yes the cost could be an issue for the monitor but its going to save you heaps of eye-strain especially if you were working with a monitor in the office. You should be able to get some good deals online, there are plenty to choose from, just make sure its got the correct connection ports to your laptop.

  3. Room lighting - check if your lighting is sufficient. Get a desk lamp or a reading light which will reduce eyestrain. I find that as you work late into the afternoon and evening this help a lot in keeping you focused. You will certainly feel a lot less drained out.

  4. Furniture - if you have a dedicated desk and chair then your one of the lucky ones. Try and carve out a dedicated space for yourself where you dont have to unplug and plug in every day. If you have been using a simple chair go and get a chair with proper backrest. Save your back, you will be thankful. Many companies / governments are allowing rebates and claims for office equipment which have been bought during the pandemic. If you work for a startup they may allow you to expense it.

  5. Audio / Video - web conferencing is the new norm. While you dont have to be crystal clear in 4K, you do need to make sure that you have a working webcam, mic and speaker. You can get by with the cheap gear but if you can claim the costs try and get some better quality mic and a headset as you will be using this for hours and you want to avoid getting that pain around your neck from the compression caused by the headset. If you have the budget go for wireless with sound isolation / noise cancellation. This will help you concentrate if your having to share your workspace with the family.

Using your communication tools effectively

  1. Use what your given - Your company would have already decided on the communication software for your video and audio conferences. Security protocols would have also been defined on how to setup the meetings and have the sessions password protected. Follow the instructions and use the official channels for all work related communication. You can be reprimanded for not following policy, even if this means that parties outside of work may not be able to join your sessions because they have different software. This is the new normal, so let it be.

  2. Know your software - get familiar with the various communication software which the company gives you. Learn how to start a meeting, invite people, close the meeting, record the meeting, mute / unmute participants, split the audience into smaller groups, annotate on the screen. Practice with smaller teams before a big session.

  3. Expect apps to crash - this happens all the time as these communication apps chew up a lot of your memory. Most work machines only have 8GB RAM so that doesnt leave much room with your internet browser open and other office applications. So if your are hosting the meeting you should consider rebooting your machine before a big presentation so that your apps dont crash.

  4. Check configuration settings - windows particularly is bad at configuring apps to use the correct audio devices especially If you have an external mic and headset connected. Within the specific app you should make sure that the correct equipment has been selected. Dont enable more than one mic as you will then end up with that horrible echo sound as you speak. Similarly if your dialing in on your phone and the computer then you should make sure that your only speaking through one device and have the other device audio muted.

  5. Sharing your screen - this is probably the trickiest part for most people, even so more if you are using a multiple monitor setup. You can get confused on what screens are being shared. Your communication app like webex, zoom, gotomeeting, skype and teams all have the ability to only share a specific app or the whole desktop. Be careful which option you use as you may not want your audience to see your entire desktop. Learn to also stop sharing your screen and handing the presentation over to another person.

Manage your etiquette for greater impact

  1. Start your meeting on time - if your hosting a meeting get to your virtual conference room atleast 5 minutes earlier and keep the lines open so that people dont have to wait to enter. Getting in there early also gives you the time to make sure you can connect to the server and login remotely without any hiccups. If you are hosting the meeting then give people a couple of minutes to get in.

  2. Put up your profile photo - have a clean and energetic profile photo. Bring yourself to the meeting virtually. Nothing better than having a good head shot which makes your audience feel that your really present in front of them. You should also put up your profile photo in your email client so that others can see your photo when they read your emails. Its important these days to stay top of mind given the absence of face to face meetings.

  3. Video on or off? - It doesnt really matter if you decide to not have your video on. If you do switch it on make yourself presentable. Your online presence is important. So make the decision to switch on/off seriously depending on the type of video conference that you are attending. If your the main speaker then everyone is going to be looking at you for the whole session. Dont be that guy who turns up in a singlet!

  4. Check in when you can - given the pandemic, its okay to spend the first couple of minutes checking in with your team, or even with your customers. Then go on straight into the business agenda and continue.

  5. Schedule your meetings in advance - since people are juggling their work and personal lives all at once at home, it makes sense to plan your meetings well in advance and have it on their calendars. Remember to have these setup up during sociable hours and not when it cuts into familiy time and kids bedtime.

  6. Be gracious and do not impose - in the virtual world its easy for relationships get distant. Be gracious on the calls. Let others finish their sentences and dont cut them off. If you want high level of participation in these meetings you need to moderate and let the voices and opinions be heard. If others have their camera switched off then let it be. They may be juggling things at home.

  7. Have your follow ups - keep your meetings timeboxed and do not over run these meetings if the issues at hand dont get competely discussed during the alloted time. You should arrange follow up sessions and keep the audience honest by sendng out the meeting notes, highlighting the follow up actions with names and dates.

  8. Manage the bandwidth - with more people in the conference the more bandwidth is being consumed. Determine before the meeting it will be audio or video. Bear in mind that your participants may not have the best internet connection as well. So be accommodating, dont loose your cool if their connection drops and there is latency. You will end up making it worse for the person as they will loose focus.

Working together with your team and staying on top

  1. Learn to listen more and let others complete their sentences - unlike in person meetings, when you engage your teams over a virtual medium you need to let the other person complete speaking before you start speaking. Its almost impossible to decipher the conversation when the speakers cross over in virtual meetings. This is one of the limitations of technology and its even more painful if there are multiple conversations crossing over. So maintain the house rule in your meetings that there should only be one conversation at a time. Listening is even more crucial as you will have to develop a certain level of patience to let the speaker finish their sentence. In a virtual world when you stop the speaker in their conversation it comes across as being rather harsh. Be mindful of this and be gracious.

  2. Use visuals to get the point across - lengthy conversations get lost in translation. Use other tools like slides, whiteboards and visuals to support your points. It will help the audience and will be useful for those who cant hear your properly. Send these visuals out to the group before the meeting so that everyone has a copy on their computers and tablets so they can just then connect via audio.

  3. Ask questions - learn to ask specific questions to clarify and also be prepared to answer questions if your the one presenting. For the many of the reasons above the audience may not get the points you are making. The cultural gaps in accent and speaking pace come across more strongly in the virtual meetings. So be mindful of this and give speakers the time and space to communicate.

  4. Dont assume you have been understood - if no questiions are being raised dont assumee taken as everyone has understood the points. You should having your own list of questions to raise to the audience or to a particular individual. Remember to link this back to what was the outcome that you were wanting to achieve and raise probing questions to spur the conversation and get a response.

  5. Give guidance - there will be others in the call who will struggle to communicate effectively on these remote sessions. Help them along the way be reparaphrasing what they have said so that the group gets the point. Act like a moderator when you need to help nudge the conversation along. You can also help to summarise the action points and outcomes for the meetings.

  6. Connect & communicate more often - managing your various projects will require that you have regular communications with your teams. Have these meeting scheduled in your calendar and send out the agenda and the meeting outcomes. Keep your management teams updated through frequent product updates and newsletters. Great way to do this is to highlight stories around how customers have bee delighted with your product. These customer success stories will go a long way.

  7. Engage customers online - just because there is social distancing in the physical world it does not mean you cant use the internet and the online tools to be connected with your customers. Engage your marketing teams on how to do your product launches. You can have client demo days online and also use the appropriate social media platform.

  8. Own the issue and drive the outcome - continue to be the remarkable problem solver that you are. Your continued focus and drive to do the right thing for your customers, company and coworkers should be your focus. Everyone is overworked and stressed during these unprecedented times and this is why you as a leader need to BRING YOUR A GAME TO THE PARTY!

Lets ride the journey together

From one product manager to another, we are all in it together regardless of where we work. Having the pleasure of working from home and cross collaborating with co-workers and customers over this year I have noticed the immense pressure product managers are under. We need to maintain our mental health and stay positive. Our work environment at home is important to keep us productive and the way in which we engage teams requires some adaption. As product leaders lets do our best to make the best of the circumstances.

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