If you want to be a bad product manager, rely solely on technology to communicate with coworkers. With all of the advances in technology, you don’t ever need to be there in person. Between email and instant messaging, wikis and webcams, Skype and cell phones, you can keep in touch without ever being in the same time zone, let alone the same room.
If you want to be a good product manager, communicate in person as much as possible. Technology advances are fantastic and have improved communications and business around the world. Many technologies allow product managers to be much more efficient and effective. However, technology is no replacement for in person communication, and can not provide many of the benefits from meeting face-to-face.
It is common knowledge that only a small percentage of communication comes from alone — inflection and non-verbal cues make up a much larger portion. Certainly this is a benefit of meeting with team members and coworkers in person, though there are many others that are even more important:
- Improved efficiency: Simply put, it is much quicker to work with someone in person rather than over the phone, through instant messenger, or over email. An issue that may take a dozen emails back and forth to sort out can probably be resolved through one short conversation in person. An hour-long phone call to describe a design or business rule may be resolved with a five-minute collaborative whiteboard sketching session.
- Improved information: More than just being able to pick up on non-verbal cues, communication in person allows more information to be shared. Text-based communication is usually direct and crafted, leaving little possibility for useful diversions from the main topic. Telephone is better, though often difficult to visualize ideas and concepts. Collaborating and discussing in the same location allows for you to pick up on details that may not have been shared otherwise, or for others to press you on things they may have just shrugged off if you were not there in person.
- Unintentional communication: One of the best benefits about a collocated team is the unintended conversations. Ordinarily, discussions might only happen in planned meetings or when someone takes the effort to initiate a conversation. Working together in person allows you to overhear conversations that others are having — not eavesdrop, but legitimately pick up on. Questions that are not important enough for a phone call or email will get asked (and answered) since it is much easier to just turn around or walk a few steps to have a discussion. Chance meetings in the hallway often turn into the most productive brainstorming sessions, risk mitigation planning, or problem solving workshops.
- Show of commitment: As a product manager, you are both leading the product development team and a member of it. Especially when the rest of the team is collocated and you are not, it is important that you feel like a part of the team and that they feel like you are part of the team as well. Rather than a faceless email address that just throws requirements over the wall, you need to be a visible and trusted leader. Spending time working in person with members of the team shows that you value the members of the team (which you should!) and their ideas and input (ditto). More than just benefiting you and the product for all the reasons above, it will engage and energize the team. (A corollary to this: the more you appear to sacrifice, the more commitment it shows. Leaving your office in Florida to spend a week with your engineering team in Wisconsin in January will earn you more bonus points than vice versa!)
Obviously it is not possible to always communicate in person, especially as more companies move towards geographically-dispersed product development organizations. Still, the more time product managers can spend working with team members an communicating in person, the more everyone benefits. The next time you have the urge to send an instant message or email, or pick up the phone, ask yourself if the topic is something that you can discuss in person. Block off time to work with engineers, designers, and marketers. Develop a culture that encourages the use of high context methods of communication and you will reap the benefits.