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Shilpa Sarkar explains what a permanent shift to remote means for the future of product management

Shilpa Sarkar explains what a permanent shift to remote means for the future of product management

The pandemic has challenged professionals in every field, and product management is no exception. Shilpa Sarkar, former consumer product leader at Instagram, has spoken with so many burnt-out colleagues that she’s starting a coaching course for executive women who aren’t sure that they want to stay in product. Some may stay, but many will leave. 

Shilpa Sarka, former consumer product lead at Instagram and lecturer at Stanford

That’s the starting point from which product leaders need to approach 2022. It’s fair for product leaders to assume that at least some of their employees are overwhelmed, overworked, and overburdened by seemingly endless Zoom meetings and Slack messages — and so are many other stakeholders that they rely on. 

Of course, the news coming out of the industry isn’t all doom and gloom. On the whole, a lot of the tactical, day-to-day execution of product management can be managed quite well remotely, and product jobs are still “hot” and in high demand. Still, that doesn’t mean that product leaders can sit back and relax. 

Sarkar offered her thoughts on confronting the biggest changes and challenges related to product management in a remote work environment, and also looked further ahead at where the field may be heading in the long term. 

Read on for her thoughts and advice about:

  • Building and maintaining working relationships remotely
  • Having difficult conversations 
  • Recruiting diverse and talented teams in a remote era
  • Making time for deep thinking
  • Preparing for the future of product management 

Building and maintaining working relationships remotely

In many organizations, Sarkar notes, product management is a meeting-heavy, people-heavy role. 

“This is often really energizing when it happens in person: jamming with the team or walking around the office doing one-on-ones. But when you’re remote, reading another person’s emotions and feelings becomes more difficult, and we all know Zoom is draining.”

As the remote work environment becomes an ongoing reality, product leaders must reluctantly admit that Zoom isn’t going away completely. Sarkar offers two approaches to make it a more enjoyable, energizing experience: 

Opt for one-on-one calls 

With remote work, it’s important for product leaders to schedule time to talk with individual team members to “check the pulse” of how team members are feeling. Who’s ready to push harder? Who’s feeling burnt out? It’s important to know and to ask. 

Coffee time

To create an opportunity for casual interactions, one of Sarkar’s teams at Instagram instituted a standing “coffee time” to catch up. The meeting is totally optional, with no agenda and an understanding that employees can come as they are and talk about whatever is on their mind. 

Measures like the above are especially important when it comes to onboarding new product managers, who are faced with the additional challenge of getting to know who’s who in the company and figuring out how to create a bond with someone they’ve never met in person. 

Having difficult conversations remotely

A face-to-face environment allows for a certain level of nuanced disagreement and constructive criticism that can be hard to achieve over e-mail or Zoom. Instead of a vigorous debate after presenting a roadmap, a product leader presenting on a Zoom call may find themselves met with ambiguous silence or tepid concurrence. 

Product leaders in the remote era need to keep a sharp eye out on these signals. For example, if there are certain people on the team who don’t speak up at meetings, make an effort to determine the reason for their silence. Do they have concerns or disagreements that they’re reluctant to voice? Or are they simply more quiet and contemplative? 

For more effective conversations, Sarkar recommends “defaulting to people” instead of “defaulting to solutions.”

For example, instead of immediately trying to find ways for the engineering team to speed up their process, start by sharing that you’re anxious about their pace or explain why it’s so important to meet a particular deadline. 

Recruiting diverse and talented teams in a remote era

Yet another challenge of the remote working environment is figuring out how to recruit and retain diverse, talented teams. 

“In the ‘before’ times when you were interviewing somewhere, you’d walk through the halls and see the collective diversity of the company. When you’re remote, you only see the people you interview with,” Sarkar says. 

Representation matters, and strong candidates will be looking to see if they can see themselves represented in senior leadership during the interview process.

​​”A lot of people in a remote world are going to be looking at proven commitment to diversity — are there senior leaders who are diverse who actually have influence and credibility?” 

Of course, companies that don’t have diverse leadership can’t and shouldn’t try to present as something they’re not. Sarkar recommends that companies in this situation acknowledge their current reality and have an explicit conversation about any changes they’re trying to make. 

In addition, diversity can come in many forms. Sarkar has noticed that as remote work has merged home life and work life, companies are realizing that diversity isn’t just about what employees look like. It’s also about the varied ways in which they live and work and how the company can support that. 

Making time for deep thinking

Product managers aren’t just missing interpersonal relationships, reports Sarkar. They’re also lamenting the fact that innovation is taking a backseat as companies prioritize tangible deliverables. 

“We’re very good at the operational side: running meetings, getting status updates, making sure things are on track, getting them in the spreadsheet. But I think what’s really hard is the creative exploration of product. I think a lot of organizations, frankly, are going to see that suffer.”

How can product leaders encourage the type of deep thinking that inspires innovation, which many PMs feel has all but disappeared during the pandemic crunch? 

“Make space for deep thinking,” Sarkar puts simply.  “A lot of people don’t think product managers necessarily need this time because it’s a role that involves management, coordination, and guiding versus producing something. But it is important — either to do deep work on the product or think about the team and where things are at.”

Encouraging deep thinking isn’t just important for a company’s long-term business, but also for improving retention rates. 

“Smart, talented people want to feel like they have creative autonomy, that they can shape the future of the business,” says Sarkar. 

This space can also mean giving employees the leeway to recharge themselves with something that isn’t work. 

Whether this means actually taking a lunch break or holding to boundaries when it comes to after-hours work, encouraging team members to figure out what they need to do to stay fresh can offer impressive returns. 

Preparing for the future of product management

While pandemic-related factors and remote work understandably dominate any conversation about how product management is changing, Sarkar made sure to point out one dramatic change that isn’t COVID-19-related: the increased prevalence of roles that are product manager-general manager or “PM-GM.” In many of these roles, employees will be accountable for the digital product and for operations and potentially other pieces. 

On the flip side, Sarkar has also noticed that some PM roles are becoming increasingly specialized into subtypes of product leadership like consumer, platform, or monetization. Instead of specializing by industry, employees are specializing by product role. She attributes that increase to the high demand for product management jobs, which allows companies to demand more specialization when seeking the right candidates. 

The tech industry is still growing and changing. As it does, it’s a fair bet that product manager roles will continue to evolve and new challenges will continue to arise. Effective product leaders will be ready to meet them head-on. 

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