How are product teams approaching remote work and collaboration in 2021?
Every December, businesses and industry experts publish thousands of blog posts predicting what will happen over the coming year. At the end of 2019, few of those oracles (including us) foresaw a global pandemic that would completely transform our lives and work. While this may suggest that anticipating the future is a fool’s game, the lesson of COVID-19 is that we all need to be more prepared for whatever tomorrow might bring.
This is especially true for product managers whose role grew in prominence during 2020 and will continue to be important in 2021 as businesses become more digital. While the imminent approval of multiple vaccines promises to end the coronavirus era, inoculating everyone will take time.
With 2021 set to be a year of transition between the pandemic and a real return to our old ways, here are six ways this will affect the world of product management:
Let’s dive into each in greater detail.
The year of lockdowns, restrictions, and social distancing pushed more consumers online. The once-gradual growth of digital commerce saw a dramatic spike in 2020 as brick and mortar stores suddenly had to rely on online sales for survival. Other previously physical sectors like banking, healthcare, and education also experienced a new digital dependency.
As businesses everywhere accelerated their digital transformation plans, product managers were elevated to more strategic roles in their organizations. We anticipated this shift last year when we predicted that companies would increasingly understand the importance of digital experiences for consumers and businesses. 2020’s dramatic rate of change was not something we ever imagined, but we expect it to continue at a similar pace in 2021.
Great product managers typically needed a broad range of knowledge across every aspect of the product development process. But with the role increasing in importance and organizations developing larger product teams, we’ll see a growing specialization as product managers begin to focus on dedicated areas. Product-related job ads demonstrate that businesses are already seeking specialists in areas like personalization, platform components, enterprise, growth, mobile, and operations.
The demand for specialists will increase as large, traditionally non-digital businesses expand their product focus, though it’s unlikely that the pipeline of talent is currently enough to fill these newly open roles. Organizations that manage to assemble the right team of complementary product specialists over the coming year will have an edge over their competition.
Of all the new product management specialist roles, one of the most critical will be the product operations manager, a role aimed at overseeing and enhancing how the entire product team works from alignment to communication to processes. Product’s ever-growing specialization makes effective operations ever more important. Product operations managers will need to ensure those newly diverging teams are set up to focus on what they’re best at while collaborating effectively with each other and the rest of the organization.
This will involve defining, creating, and running clear new processes for the entire product team while researching, selecting, and integrating the best tools and services. Product operations will also be responsible for collecting and sharing information with the wider business, as well as establishing and maintaining direct relationships between product teams and customers.
Product operations will be essential to unlocking efficiency from the maturing product management software ecosystem, which already includes hundreds of tools to help with all stages of the product lifecycle. As with the product manager role, these services are becoming increasingly specialized. Think Miro for visual collaboration, Amplitude for customer behavior analytics, and Productboard for capturing deep user insights and strategic planning.
The best of these tools not only enhance existing workflows, they create new opportunities for how teams work together. The next generation of product management tools will need to provide the new breed of specialists with increasing depth and flexibility by integrating with other specialist tools — all while remaining accessible to stakeholders outside the product team, including customers. As they define and design processes for managing their teams, product operations will demand new features and capabilities, which will further accelerate evolution across the entire ecosystem.
2020 was a year of firefighting for the world’s businesses who spent their days responding to ever-changing market conditions and the sudden transition to full remote working. Things are unlikely to change much in 2021. Most realistic assessments of vaccine rollouts suggest that it will be closer to 2022 before we see the return of full offices, regular travel, and face-to-face meetings.
As organizations spend more time on long-term thinking next year, they will require more proactive management and enhancement of existing remote practices. Product managers will need to create strategic planning processes that don’t rely on a never-ending series of intense video meetings. Extending access to tools that facilitate effective asynchronous collaboration will help increase business-wide visibility, encourage contributions from a wider variety of stakeholders, and give everyone more time to get work done.
Over the past few years, product management has gradually expanded from its internal or technology focus to include more external engagement with customers. Having a greater understanding of what users really need helps product teams develop better products and services for more people. But the impact of COVID-19 has made maintaining those connections harder, as face-to-face workshops, discussions, and user testing came to a sudden halt.
New services that democratize access to recorded customer conversations have helped bridge the gap. But 2020 has changed so much about how people behave that product managers must reconnect direct lines to customers in 2021. Making product operations the main point of contact for customers can be an effective way of developing these relationships and ensuring the organization has access to an ever-flowing pipeline of product feedback and insights. In addition, tools like Productboard can help bring customers into the conversation by capturing their insights and sharing progress without relying on face-to-face interactions.
Uncertainty over what tomorrow holds will continue to be part of everyone’s lives in 2021. But one sure thing is that it’s an exciting time to be in product management. Many of the people and businesses who discovered the ease and convenience of digital services during the pandemic will not discard these benefits in the post-COVID era. Product management’s position as a strategic part of a wide range of organizations will continue to grow throughout 2021 and beyond.
What 2021 product management trends did we miss? Join the conversation and let us know your predictions in the comments!