Working Remotely as a Product Manager: It’s about trust.

product managers building trust while working remotelyEveryone is now learning about remote work: how to do it, what not to do, and the pros and cons of working from home for different jobs.

According to a Gartner report “How to Cultivate Effective ‘Remote Work’ Programs Refreshed 14 May 2019, Published 16 January 2018,” three of the four key challenges are:

  • Mutual lack of trust undermines good remote work intentions.
  • Stereotypes about what kind of work can or cannot be done remotely lead to unrealistic expectations and underperforming programs.
  • Employees unaccustomed to the demands of remote work lose enthusiasm and suffer from loneliness.

These all remain true in our current work environment. In this post, I focus on the first one: trust. The job of a product manager has many elements, but at its core is a responsibility to build relationships, especially with development, engineering, sales and sales leadership, as well as executive management. There are many others, but these form the key triad for product management to get the product manager’s job done.

How do you build trust in the workplace?

A recent ‘Grossman Group’ blog post ‘Trust in the Workplace’  explains trustworthiness with the following key points:

  • Deserving confidence
  • Doing what you say you will do (being dependable)
  • Being approachable and friendly (people trust leaders they like)
  • Showing support for your team members, even when they make mistakes
  • Balancing the need for results with being considerate of others and their feelings
  • Working hard to win over people by being respectful of their ideas and perspectives
  • Ensuring that your words and actions match. Not just some of the time—all the time

To be effective leaders and make changes in response to the disruption businesses face, product managers must build relationships internally and externally, whether in person or virtually. Creating trust-based relationships is essential to succeeding as the change agents the company hired them to be—this can’t be emphasized enough.

I call this type of trust-building process in relationships a “trust bank account.” Why? Relationships are like bank accounts because you make deposits and withdrawals. When you make continual deposits, your relationships become more fulfilling, happy and productive. You could say you become “wealthier” regarding trust with a person. However, when you make too many withdrawals, you empty your account of trust and goodwill. This emotional poverty shows itself with increased conflict, suspicion and inefficiency. If you are relatively new in your position and now find yourself working remotely, you have to go first and make deposits. How? Do what you say you will do. That builds confidence. That builds trust. That builds a relationship. And that can be done remotely.

Building relationships can be tough. However, like real bank accounts, trust cannot be built quickly. There are no shortcuts. You must make consistent, long-term deposits to the relationship. Like bank accounts, errors or breaches of trust can quickly empty your account that took years to build.

Beyond doing what you say you’re going to do, how can you build relationships?

There is no easy way to build relationships based on trust other than to listen, communicate and then show results. And yes, that can be on Skype, or Zoom, on a phone call or even in a text or email. Another element of building trust remotely is to ‘think big but work on small victories.’ You need to win small victories since small wins along with persistence will create the trust foundation you need to make larger bets in the future.

Along the way, celebrate small victories. They will add up quickly if you pay attention and look for them. If you’re waiting for home runs all day, you will be waiting a long time. That’s not how this game is played. It’s a daily struggle, but in the end, small victories add up and it’s how big victories are won.

Finally, as a product manager, look for people who voice support for what you are doing. That may not sound like a victory, but it is. Help them to promote your activities. They are putting their trust in you early, and you’ll want to get others to follow.

How do you maintain relationships remotely?

Here are some thoughts on trust messages that are more specific and relevant, from a LinkedIn post by Carlos Gonzalez de Villaumbrosia, the founder of Product School.

 Be aware of the gravity and ambiguity of written text, which adds seriousness in comparison with water cooler chats. With written communication you can risk damaging trust if you are not careful.

  • Make an effort to know your people, send reminders of your ties to the company. Put a note in the mail and send handwritten thank you notes.
  • Avoid unnecessary conflict: never let misunderstandings escalate. Get on the phone/web and resolve things asap!

You can be a product manager and work remotely. There are lots of other elements such as methodologies and tools that will assist in the process. But at its core, working remotely requires trust. And whether you remain remote, end up doing a hybrid or return to the office, the trust you build and the victories you celebrate will add value to your trustworthiness and your product’s success.