How To Be Empathetic To Product Builders In Order To Build Empathy-Based Products

Samantha Pramanick

Samantha Pramanick

Product Manager

June 16, 2020

coworkers happily working together

The day we received work from home orders, Connected had a company-wide team building event in the office. Being relatively new to the company, I remember feeling as though this was the day when I really began hitting my stride. After the first weeks of settling in I was building trust with my clients, working well with my team, and finally, at this event, becoming friends with colleagues whom I knew, but didn’t really know. I left the office late that night, not knowing that it would be months before I returned—I wish I’d grabbed a few more chocolate covered almonds on my way out. 

Within a few weeks of distancing measures, I felt the progress I had made in my first two months at Connected slipping through my fingers—feelings of isolation, incompetence, and uncertainty formed a dark cloud around me and many of my peers as we made sense of the adjustments necessary in our personal and professional lives. 

Fast-forward to week eleven, and that dark cloud has dissipated enough for me to be able to parse through the trials and tribulations that many of us have faced while we attempt to deliver high-quality work in the midst of a global crisis. As companies everywhere race to adjust, capitalizing on the “new normal” by adapting various technologies in all sorts of unique ways, it is critical that we show empathy towards our product builders, not losing sight of the humanity that exists behind the technology. As with most good advice, that’s easier said than done, so within this post I’ve outlined some key approaches that have been effective for me as a product manager.

Add vulnerability to your toolkit

It’s natural for any one of us to look at the accomplishments of others during this crisis and wonder, “Why am I struggling while my colleagues seem to be thriving?” Well, the truth is they aren’t. We are experiencing a collective sense of grief, so it can be easy to forget that everyone is dealing with their own set of challenges. 

As human beings, we are constantly under pressure to be strong in the face of adversity which can make it feel incredibly daunting to be honest about how a situation is impacting us individually. Being vulnerable with the folks on your team and acknowledging the negative feelings that you are grappling with may not necessarily empower them to do the same, but at the very least it will serve as a strong reminder that they are not alone, even in those moments of weakness. There is power in solidarity, especially from a distance.

Sit down, be humble

A couple of months ago, I mentioned to my manager that I felt stupid because I had started PM-ing a machine learning project having almost no technical ML knowledge myself. On top of that, I hadn’t worked with this team prior to the quarantine, meaning we didn’t have the rapport and momentum established for me to carry the team forward confidently. Imagine a deer in headlights with a healthy dose of imposter syndrome. 

My manager swiftly reminded me that it isn’t my job to know all the answers—if I did, why would I be working with a team of highly skilled engineers? As PMs, we are meant to provide the structure, environment, and trust to allow our teams to thrive and do what they do best. By recognizing that we don’t know what we don’t know and asking the right questions, we guide the team towards finding answers, thus building the right solution. A piece of advice I usually like to dole out is “fake it til you make it!!!” But when it comes to technical discussions with your engineers, don’t fake it as they will see right through you. Relinquish a little bit of control, focus on building the best possible product, and let the team shine.

Read the room before you reconnect

Does anyone else feel like they’ve been repeatedly smacked across the face by lists of tools, software, and games meant to streamline your WFH life and feel more connected to your team? With the popularity of apps like Jackbox, I often wondered if these were activities that I should introduce to the team as many others were doing. But the truth is, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of feeling disconnected from each other while working remotely. Humans aren’t a monolith, and everyone has their own way of maintaining relationships. Games and happy hours can be great for team morale but that’s not the kind of connection that everyone wants or needs in times like these. It’s important to be aware of people’s feelings of social pressure, lest anyone feel obligated or forced to participate in organized fun when it may not serve them. 

Understanding the needs of each team member and how those needs can be met is tricky for a large team, but I would argue that it is absolutely critical for one that is smaller in size. Keep lanes of communication open with each of your team members, get feedback, recognize how/when you can help, and act accordingly within your means. 

With all that being said however, a game I cannot recommend enough is It is a favourite among the team and has brightened many gloomy afternoons.

Revisit your roots

Tragedies have a way of putting life into perspective, often revealing what is truly important to us. The tricky part comes when these revelations don’t neatly line up with our day-to-day obligations. Alain de Botton summed up this sentiment beautifully in his book On Love: There is an Arabic saying that the soul travels at the pace of a camel. While most of us are led by the strict demands of timetables and diaries, our soul, the seat of the heart, trails nostalgically behind.” 

Many colleagues have expressed a lack of motivation at work, feeling like it doesn’t matter or is not impactful given the current climate. While front-line workers put their health at risk to provide essential services, the majority of us in tech have the luxury of working from home, carrying on with projects that may now feel superfluous. Overcoming this requires a different type of perspective shift, one in which we recognize that yes it feels like the world as we know it has come to a standstill, but time doesn’t just stop. We have a responsibility to honour commitments to our stakeholders and to remember the value of the products we are building, especially if that value is no longer as immediately evident. 

One way I’ve done this is by chatting with folks on the client side who are particularly passionate about the product and can breathe life back into the mission. It’s a reminder that though we may not be actively solving the pandemic, our product is still impactful and desired by users. Combine that perspective with the knowledge that one day soon, things will start getting back to normal, and it may just give you the push you need to keep going.

Times are tough and they certainly aren’t getting any easier, though we may be getting used to them thanks to good old human resilience. There is no doubt that the push for technological advancements arising as a result of this crisis aim to benefit society—and they will. But in this push let’s be cognisant of the humans building these technologies. As they say, “help me, help you.”

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