Being a remote PM: pros & cons

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In this post I share my experience as a remote PM. Being a remote PM is both a bundle of challenges and a passport to a lot of opportunities.

Working remotely is without doubt a trending topic in the tech world today, but in my observation most remote workers (in long-term remote arrangements) are engineers. In that sense my experience is a bit unique: for the past 2 years I worked as a remote PM in Microsoft Vancouver, and for the foreseeable future, I will continue doing that at Microsoft’s HQ in Redmond, Washington.

Let me start with my definitions of “remote PM”.

3 definitions of “remote PM”

The first one is obvious: remote from feature team, when the PM doesn’t work in the same location with the rest of the feature team, including engineers, designers, security consultants, etc.

The second one is being remote from the PM team, where your manager, mentor or fellow PMs are not in the same location as you.

The third definition I propose is being remote from your PM community. What constitutes a ‘community’ varies by each individual, but generally it is a group of people that offers each other opportunities in career paths, peer support and shared interests.

The challenges of being a remote PM

Since we discussed the three different definitions of “remote PM”, it’s logical to hone in on the pros and cons for each one of these three definitions. Here I’ll start with the challenges.

Being remote from your feature team naturally imposes the challenge of communication. The role of a PM is largely a communicator one, and because of that, when you are remote, you will need to rely much more on written communication. You no longer have the luxury of tapping your dev friends on the shoulder and ask for a technical consult, nor can you show them a “napkin spec” and ask for feedback. Sometimes you may need to even schedule meetings to discuss items that otherwise could be discussed over a 2-minute in-person chat. Naturally, this implies slower turnarounds in product development, although easy to mitigate with proper written communication schedule.

The challenges related to being remote from your PM team are different. While you generally communicate with your PM team less frequently than with feature team, you will need to work extra hard to have visibility of your work. In a sizable company — Microsoft being one of them — teams need to understand where their members are spending resources and efforts, on a shared priority at the leam level. This means, it is your responsibility to let your team know what have you been up to. A very real obligation that is often overlooked by some (especially earlier in-career) folks, this is crucial to keep your team aligned, and make sure your impact is understood. When you are remote, you need to work extra hard to have that visibility. Besides, you may also find yourself missing out occasionally on the small, fun stuff, such as a mini morale event, team lunch, or funny hall way banters.

Finally, the risk of being remote from your community is also obvious. When you don’t have a community of people in the same practice as you, you generally receive less peer support. Without people who understand your tools of the trade and your bread and butter, it is more difficult to have access to mentors or career opportunities.

The opportunities

Of course, challenges and opportunities are usually the two sides of the same coin, and being a remote PM is no exception. Again, let me follow the 3 definitions above.

While not working in the same office with your feature team imposes a challenge on your communication skills, it is also an opportunity to cut down defocused communication, and force your syncs to be crisp and to-the-point. When we have the luxury to talk with our partners in person, we tend to vamp more, sometimes spending a lot of time before arriving at the core of intended topic. When that luxury is taken away, we have to practice focus and brevity, which in the long term is a great skill to have in our inventory. Another plus is you’ll have more “PM focus mode”, where you can spend larger chunks of time deep-diving into customer scenarios, market data or design choices, without it being frequently pulled into technical or other discussions (although this is more of a challenge when in open workspace, less so when you have your own office).

On the topic of being remote from your PM team, the challenge of building visibility translates into the opportunity to more efficient meetings. When you don’t have the chance to share project updates or personal efforts in your manager’s office, near the water cooler or in the copy room, you have to do that over 1:1 or team calls. In my opinion, this is a great chance to practice communication efficiency. You will be forced to be more planful of your time remotely with your team, and will gradually develop a habit of planning meeting agenda ahead of time, which facilitates all communication and collaboration.

Last but not least, while it’s certainly demoralizing to not have access to your professional community, it’s frees up your time to engage with other communities around you. When I was in Vancouver, I didn’t have a huge group of PMs at work to hang out with, so I spent time going to a lot of different networking occasions and it really felt like my horizon was broadened when engaging with people from all around the tech world or even from different industries. Now I had moved it to Redmond, there is a huge community here with amazing peer support, mentorship and career insights, but I feel like I have less time to engage with the other communities I want to be part of, be it alumni, entrepreneurs, or sports leagues.