My Approach to Remote Work
I spent a couple of years as PM lead in a globally-distributed series-B SaaS company with 120 people on 12 time zones. I'd never worked remotely before, but it was the most rewarding work experience to date. From there, I learned a few valuable lessons on how to work remotely.
Between 2017 and 2019, I was product manager lead for a software testing company in San Francisco. A bit like Uber, but for quality testing web and mobile apps. Clients wrote tests on our platform, and we sent them to thousands of people around the world who got paid for doing them, before enabling a more automated approach.
I led a remote team of eight people on three time zones, responsible for the testers and quality of our results. It was a relay race and balancing act to manage both people and projects, none on my time zone. My team improved quality and reduced client churn to less than 1% of our ARR over a year. And not only that, but our ways of working were copied by other teams in the company.
You gain trust by showing trust. It doesn't happen overnight, but generally I trust that people will do the right thing, what's needed or asked of them, given the right structure (expectations) and incentives (financial or otherwise). This doesn't mean there aren't any checks and balances, and that we all fail spectacularly in public with no consequences. It just means that once you're clear on what needs to be done and how, it's up to people to figure out how they want to do something. It's not for me or anyone to breathe down their neck or tell them how to work.
For my team, remote trust emerged due to respecting people's spoken or unspoken working preferences and schedules. I worked with them, and around them, to get things done.
- I never pressured our designer and working mother to turn up to 8 am meetings at 8 am while on the school run;
- If there was an outage, I knew where to get info from and how to piece it together myself, and followed-up with engineers once the initial panic was over;
- Instead of emails to explain features, I made videos for the sales team, so they could borrow tricks that'd make them look good on their next call;
The principles behind a decision are as important as the decision itself. Conversations are far more productive and work more rewarding when people know where you stand, and ‘first principles’ used to guide decisions.
Principles are derived out of values, so they'll be personal to individuals and teams. But they're best understood and formulated as "I/we will always …" or "I/we will never…".
I lean towards positive ones, e.g., "Always leave things better than you found them" (documentation, meeting rooms, people), but I've also used "Never let a crisis go to waste" . I believe in learning from every encounter, and failures are tremendously useful outliers to learn from.
Information flow beats planning and OKRs. Where there is trust, principled decision-making and information flows freely, remote work is much more pleasant.
In my experience, the pressure to achieve company-imposed goals is coercion, and coercion is a cousin to fear. I’ve looked and found no research to back up the notion that goals set above stimulate anyone to greater productivity. In fact, the evidence suggests the contrary: they limit you. People chafe when told what to do in the context of something out of touch with the real world they face day in and day you.
So I value information flow and intelligence far more than carefully made-up plans, even if I was the one who had to take something back to leadership. It’s not the best or most beautiful plan that wins; it’s the coordinated effort of sharing information up and down: when everyone has all the info they need to do their job and they can pass information back to others, knowing it will be read and acknowledged. Whatever the format, it matters that anyone can create it and anyone can read it — regardless of status or access.
For me, clear and concise writing is the primary vehicle because anyone with an insight or idea can write it down regardless of status or access. It doesn't have to be writing, but it helps when people can express themselves clearly.