#ManagementHeroes with Justin Clark – Product Manager at Time Doctor

How a remote product manager overcomes communication, productivity, and team-building challenges.

There is a misconception that everyone does work the same way. But the truth is that the concept of work is different for everyone. People need to accomplish different things and individuals have their own way of doing things. In the real world, work is what happens to get things done

In this new series, we’ll showcase how different people work and explore their workflows: People who work in different industries, departments and roles. People who work remotely or in an office, as part of a big team or a small team. It’s a Dr. Seuss-like description, but the thing that they all have in common is that they all use Fellow

Hopefully, it will spark some ideas about how to make your workday a little more productive and efficient 

Meet Justin Clark: Product Manager at Time Doctor ⏰

Imagine that you are a product manager (if you aren’t one already). It’s your responsibility to prioritize upcoming product features, collaborate with different departments about needs and challenges, and meet regularly with your direct reports. Now imagine that you work remotely as part of a team spread across 25 different countries. 

This is Justin Clark’s everyday. As a product manager at Time Doctor (a Saas time tracking and productivity tool), Justin has three direct reports and needs to collaborate with Sales, other Project Managers, the Development team, Design, Co-founders, and Data Science. 

It’s a lot. So how does one overcome some of the fundamental challenges inherent to this role? – Well, it depends on the challenge!

Challenge #1: Meeting Management

According to OwlLabs’s State of Remote Work report, it’s common for remote workers to have a lot of meetings, with 14% having 11 or more meetings per week as compared to 3% of onsite workers. It would be easy to imagine drowning in a sea of agendas. But Justin manages by keeping all his meeting agendas in one central place: Fellow.app

Since everyone at Time Doctor uses Fellow, it’s become the “single place for all agendas and everyone knows where to go,” says Justin. 

While Justin was able to juggle agendas spread across “a million Google Docs” before, other team members struggled to keep track of where everything was. But now, since there is only one place to remember, Justin has noticed that people contribute more to agendas, something that they might not have done otherwise:

“So if they have to only keep one single place in their memory (which is Fellow), it’s easier for them, and they actually add things to agendas which they otherwise might not have done,” he says.

During the meeting itself, having an agenda that everyone contributes to can help keep the meeting stay on track (with limited tangents) and everything documented in one place. 

As part of his daily workflow, Justin keeps one tab open to Fellow at all times – so when he thinks of something that he wants to discuss further in an upcoming meeting, he can add it straight to that meeting’s agenda. It helps to keep him organized and limits disruptions to his team. It also gives space for elaboration or further discussion. It’s a little harder to discuss over messaging. 

Challenge #2: Collaboration Across Teams

Product Management depends on information from a lot of different sources in order to make informed decisions. And as part of a remote company, Justin tries to over-communicate. 

In an office setting, you could give a quick update to the team member sitting next to you, but it’s much harder if your team member lives thousands of miles away. That’s why, even though Justin has many meetings on his schedule, a lot of them are ones that Justin feels that he couldn’t live without:

“We do try to over-communicate due to the fact that we’re remote, and throughout the entire company, each person is supposed to do a meeting at least once a week with their direct manager, and in the past when we haven’t done that people start to get disconnected.” 

What type of meetings does a product manager attend?

One of the most important meetings is one that he has with the Head of Development.

“Without that meeting to touch base, both teams would get bogged down and become disjointed,” says Justin.

He also meets regularly with another Product Manager to discuss and prioritize features, and the Head of Sales in order to align the needs of the Sales team with new feature releases. 

Time Zones

There is an added challenge for collaboration between remote teams – time zones and ways to communicate. Time Doctor makes it a policy that team members are available during their working hours on Slack. In that way, there is an open channel of communication. 

According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, it’s essential for remote teams to establish communication norms, whether it’s a team’s preferred response time, writing style, or another informality: 

“Norms can also exist on an individual level, such as people’s preferred response time, writing style, and tone. For example, some individuals prefer short and quick messages, while others favor lengthy and detailed responses; people also differ in their preference and tolerance for humor and informality.”

Challenge #3: Team Building

There are different levels of team-building: peer to peer, team, and organization. We’ll start with the highest level and work down. 

For organization-wide team building, Time Doctor comes together for a company retreat to meet each other face to face. These company-wide retreats are a common practice by remote companies to help individuals get to know one another beyond their job titles and the computer screen. As there are a lot of different schedules to consider and planning to be done, these entire company events are less frequent than smaller team-wide events.  

Instead, Justin travels to different places to meet with the teams with whom he works. And for a product manager, this can be a lot of different teams. Justin’s been to the Philippines, Dubai, Bali, Florida, and Montreal, among other places to meet his team members.  

“I’ve met them all a few times. We try to have everyone at least once a year meet their team. I’m a part of multiple teams so I probably travel twice a year, maybe three times a year to meet people. But yeah, that’s important.”

And then there’s the peer to peer level. To keep everyone on the same page, each person meets with their direct manager at least once a week. 

For Justin, these one-on-one meetings have normally been more work-focused, except for a quarterly performance review. But recently, Justin has been experimenting with a new technique – Kim Scott’s series of three career conversations as described in her book, Radical Candor

So far, Justin has had one cycle of “career conversations” with the Head of Design, where they learned a lot about the other person, by both asking the other questions about their life story, goals, and aspirations. 

Like most things, parts of the process were more challenging than others. But Justin found it a useful way to get to know his remote teammate. He is even planning on having more of these meetings with other people in the company: 

“The first meeting is just asking questions to learn about the person’s history, like their life up until now. So I did that process with the Head of Design and I found that that was a pretty good process for getting to know him and I have on my todo list to do that with other people. I learned a lot about him in the life story part that I didn’t know.”

Here’s a complete guide on how to run career conversations with your team.

Challenge #4: Personal Productivity

Justin has been a remote worker for the last ten years, so he has compiled some tips about staying on track!

If you have a flexible work schedule, he recommends setting a strict timeline for yourself. It’s easy to get in the routine of taking long breaks and working into the evening, but as Justin remarks that has negative repercussions on work/life balance. 

To help prevent your workday from bleeding into your evenings, remote workers at Hubspot suggest picking a definitive finishing time each day. Besides maintaining a schedule, Justin also has set rules for himself to stay disciplined and productive: 

“I think it’s just practicing the discipline of it. I have my phone in do not disturb during the workday. I set rules for myself, like I’m not supposed to check my personal email until I’m done work for  the day.”

Justin is not alone in this advice. Alex Biedrzycki, a remote worker at HubSpot, removes all social networks from their toolbar to make it harder to click and browse endlessly. At the end of the day, it’s about being aware of what distracts you and trying to minimize those distractions. 

“I’ve worked remotely for probably ten years. Before I worked for this company I was working from home running a very small online marketing company, just myself. And then I kind of fell into this role, which happened to be remote. And now that I am remote, I really like it, and I hope to always be remote.”

. . . 

At the end of the day, no matter how you work or what work you do, there are some challenges that you need to deal with. But you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Odds are that there is someone out there who has a solution to overcome the obstacle in your workflow! 

Join us next week to learn about the workflows of a Customer Success Manager at one of the fastest-growing companies in Silicon Valley! 🚀