Product Management Challenges of Leading a Remote Team (and How to Overcome Them)

Leading a remote product team can be challenging. Here we highlight a few of the biggest product management challenges and how to overcome them.

Like a lot of product teams, you probably hire people from all over the world. Your engineers don’t need to be in the same place to work, and they’re savvy enough to use whatever tools you require, so it makes sense to tap into the global talent pool.

While building a remote product team is simple enough, leading one can be quite challenging. If you treat your remote team like a traditional collected team, you’ll struggle to meet your goals and build the best product possible.

In this article, we’d like to highlight a few of the biggest product management challenges when it comes to leading remote teams. We will also discuss how you can overcome those challenges.

“Me vs. Them” Mentality

A team is more than just a group of people working toward a common goal. Great teams understand and support one another. They accommodate each other, leverage their strengths, and compensate for each person’s deficiencies.

But it’s difficult to really feel like you’re on a team if you never interact with your teammates in-person. After all, 93% of communication comes from nonverbal cues. Your communication loses a lot of its value when it’s sent through email and Slack.

Video calls can help, but they don’t create the kind of strong bonds that come from riding the elevator together, delivering a cup of coffee, or sharing a meal. These activities don’t seem significant, but they’re quite powerful for team building.

So it’s easy for the remote people on your product team to feel and behave like their own little islands. From your employee’s perspective, you’re not a team. You’re just something they have to deal with to do their job. You are “them.”

How to Overcome It

Meet in person occasionally. You don’t have to do this often. Once a year is sufficient. Share meals together and discuss non-work topics. The goal is to see one another as people, not usernames or profile pictures. This will take the anonymity out of the relationship and help sustain the team.

Furthermore, you’ll find it useful to put faces to names whenever possible. Instead of an audio-only meeting, ask everyone to turn on their cameras.

Insufficient Knowledge Transfer

Naturally, everyone who works on the product team needs a comprehensive understanding of the product. This even includes the parts they don’t work on. The systems architect, for instance, needs to understand the front end team’s design philosophy.

In a central office, a lot of this information is usually transferred through osmosis without a formal process. You get face time with your team every day. They see each other’s monitors and documents lying around. Even a simple comment over a cubicle wall can be quite informative (“Wow, users log in from more devices than we expected.”)

With a remote team, however, this casual knowledge transfer isn’t available. You just don’t have enough interactions with your team every day for it to happen on its own.

How to Overcome It

Take active steps to centralize your knowledge. Something as simple as an online wiki that you update regularly can be enough to transfer knowledge to your team. Include screenshots and video to make your documentation robust. For example, you or the product owner could post recorded conversations with users.

Additionally, it’s important to update your team when you learn something substantial. We designed Underway to simplify the process of updating your team. Check it out.

Process Blindness

When you lead a remote team, you don't really know how they work. You know the output (what they produce and you know how long they take to produce it), but you don’t have much knowledge or control over their process.

At some level, this blindness is intentional. In the early stages of a startup, you may not care how your team works. All you care about is the product they build. As your company grows, however, this blindness produces inefficiencies that can affect your product goals and the company’s growth.

For instance, let’s say one of your developers struggles to focus because he works in a distracting environment. The distractions disrupt his concentration, so he routinely fails to complete his sprints on time. His delays prevent you from building the product as fast as you’d like.

In a collected team, you would recognize and eliminate those distractions right away. But with a remote team, you wouldn't have any idea that one of your developers struggles to concentrate unless that developer complained about the issue specifically. This is just one way you would be blind to your remote team’s problems.

How to Overcome It

Communication. Lots of it. Ask questions and prod for details. You have to interact with your team regularly beyond the morning stand up. Create a culture of open communication so they feel comfortable about discussing their problems without the fear of losing their position.

Hiring the Right People

Some people just aren't suited to remote work. They do fine work in a collected office setting, but they lack the right combination of technical ability, discipline, and work ethic to produce the same quality work on a distributed team.

If you have a remote worker who isn't suited to remote work, their ineffectiveness can erode the team's productivity and ultimately the quality of your product. They will also make your life maddeningly difficult.

How to Overcome It

Identifying whether someone is suitable to a remote work position starts during the hiring process. Look for candidates who have a history working remotely. Ask them questions about how they would handle typical remote work challenges. They should be…

  • Proactive and self-regulating.
  • Comfortable working without oversight.
  • Comfortable using communication tools.
  • Willing to over communicate.
  • Easy going. They shouldn’t take miscommunications as personal attacks.
  • Happy to ask questions when they don’t understanding something.
  • Capable of solving their own problems.
  • Comfortable working in isolation.

If there is someone on your remote team who isn't suited to remote work, the best solution is to remove them as soon as possible. There is a strong chance they will never grow into the role without significant investment on your part.

Time Zone Coordination

One of the major advantages of hiring remote workers is having access to the entire world of talent. When location doesn't matter, you can hire the best people for the job.

But this comes with one significant drawback: Some of your people will live and work in different time zones, which can make communication challenging.

In the United States, for example, there are six different time zones. If you hire people in other parts of the world, there’s a good chance some of your team will wake to begin work at the same time others quit for the day.

This arrangement makes something as simple as a morning stand up meeting problematic. A Slack message could take 24 hours to receive a response.

How to Overcome It

First, use collaboration and project management tools. This should go without saying, but we didn’t want to leave it out. Tools as basic as Slack or Trello can go a long way toward keeping remote teams organized and communicating.

Second, insist on some work day overlap. You want the ability to collect the entire team for a 30-minute meeting every day. For some people, the meeting may come at the beginning of the day. For others, it may come at the end of the day. But there should be a time where everyone can meet together.

Third, document everyone's location and time zone in a centralized place that the entire team can access. This way they know the best time to collaborate with one another.

Furthermore, you may find it helpful to transition your focus from daily goals to weekly goals. Bigger tasks with farther deadlines could smooth out time zone challenges.

Going Forward

Hopefully these challenges haven’t discouraged you from building or expanding your remote product team. Remote work is a growing trend, so it’s not something you can discount. Prepare to meet these challenges and you’ll build a productive and sustainable remote team.