Remote Project Management is no longer a remote prospect for most Project Managers. If that’s not the nature of you current project, you can be sure that, soon, you may well have to deal with it.
So, what are the types of remote Project Management? And what the challenges they pose and the benefits they offer? Then, crucially, what are the key enablers of success? We’ll look at all of that and more…
When we talk about a remote team, we are referring to teams that are not fully co-located. That is, in simple terms, they do not all work out of the same physical space. However, there are degrees of remoteness, based on:
Physical distance introduces challenges, like differences in time zone, but the biggest differentiator is the number of team members who work remotely from the core of the team. So, we can identify three degrees of remote working:
If you’re an absolute pragmatist or you have little or no control over your team make-up, you may want to skip this list. But, if you can arrange things this way, I suggest you virtual project team will have the best chance of working well when you can arrange for:
I did warn you. But these are great if you can engineer them. And you should certainly try!
We already have a very popular article, Managing Remote Teams: How to Meet the Challenges. In it, I focused on seven challenges you will face in managing and leading a remote team. These are not Project Management specific challenges.
Do take a look at that. But, in this article, I will focus largely on the challenges of remote Project management – the team leadership aspects will be secondary. Therefore, the two articles may overlap, but they will be substantially different and complementary.
There are many benefits to remote Project management. But, sadly, there are two caveats I must alert you to:
But with that in mind, here are the commonly cited benefits of remote Project Management:
Many of the challenges we will look at and the enablers I will describe focus on addressing the dark side mirrors of our benefits.
When we look at the challenges of remote Project management in the next section, the single biggest will be communication. And, when we look at the enables in the section that follows that… Guess What? Communication is the most important answer there.
So, instead, I want to extract communication from these sections and tackle it on its own. After all, whether you are managing a traditional or agile project, co-located or remotely, communication will always be your first priority. This includes communication with your:
Getting remote team communication right means thinking about three things:
‘Little and often’.
That’s not a bad rule for many things in life! Think about the frequency for different types of communication: formal and informal, individual and group. Devise a regular cadence. But always be prepared to adjust it as you learn what’s working and what isn’t. And, indeed, as needs change.
You need regular:
In general, more communication is better than less. But, as with co-located project teams, avoid unnecessary meetings or communications that will:
Face-to-face meetings are the gold standard of human communication. So, to the extent you can, try to replicate these with the technology you have. Fortunately, we have an array of tools, like:
With all of these, aim to have cameras on for everybody, but be aware that some people may not have the bandwidth from their ISP to support this from their home. Fortunately, false or blurred backgrounds mean we no longer need to worry about the privacy concerns that we used to have.
We might refer to tools that replace face-to-face communication as proimary communication tools. In this case, the secondary tools are the ones that supplement these, and which we use a lot. These include:
‘It’s not what you say: it’s how you say it’
Often the process pf communicating is as important – or more so – than the message in itself. The process certainly communicates its own message.
When you meet, have an agenda and follow it. Make sure everyone can contribute and check everyone is happy with the process. Make a record of commitments and decisions, and consider the benefits and disadvantages of hitting the ‘Record’ button.
All communication – spoken or written – needs to be short and focused, clear, and timely.
Let’s take communication – and the understanding of communication – as read, and move on, to other challenges.
Closely linked to the communication issue, but an added challenge in itself, are cross-cultural teams. This is a big issue and we have a guest article from Samad Aidane, called: What does Cross-Cultural Leadership Mean for Project Managers? For more information, our sister YouTube Channel and Website have a short series of videos on cross-cultural working, as part of our course on Teams.
These videos are due to come out during July 2021, shortly after the publication of this article. So, if you are reading it before the end of June, these may not yet all be available. If so, please do return.
‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’Peter Drucker
But, with a remote team, establishing and maintaining a culture is hard. You need to create routines and habits that combine the formal and the social.
The only aspect of remote project management that makes accountability harder is that you cannot literally meet face-to-face. So, emphasise the other mechanisms for driving accountability:
Scheduling can be both harder and easier with remote project management. Harder, because people are not only not together, they are also not there at the same time. But, easier, because with less traveling there are more slots and because people may choose to exercise some of their flexibility. However, you must not abuse any willingness they have, to do so.
For me, this is the big one. I say this for two reasons:
I don’t have any clever answers for you.
I do, however, have a series of enablers for remote project management. These are things you can put in place, or that you can tweak. Each one will make things a little better, a bit easier, and a tad more efficient. Try them out, there are seven.
In my article on remote teams, I discuss the mechanism of ‘swift trust’. This is a way to rapidly develop trust within a new team. Trust is central to effective team working and harder to achieve when your team is diverse and dispersed.
But, showing trust to your people is a key enabler of effective remote working. And one way is to focus on good quality delegation. Set the task and avoid getting involved any more than you have to. And, at the end, offer recognition, praise, and good quality feedback.
People will work best when they know exactly what you expect of the team and of them individually. This needs to cover:
I might have had all-hand meetings as a separate enabler. They facilitate many things. But what they are particularly good at is setting and sharing expectations. And, of these, the single most important will be your Project kick-off meeting.
Advanced Meeting Skills for Project Managers who need to Achieve Business Outcomes.
Closely related to clarity of expectations is role clarity. But more than in a regular project, remote project management demands everyone is crystal-clear on their role and what it means. This is for the simple reason that checking in by popping over to your desk or catching you at the coffee machine is no longer possible. Inititating a call or committing my uncertainty to an email feels just a bit more (a lot more?) daunting.
The tools you can use, however, are the same:
This follows on logically. People need access to information to do their job. So you need to make everything accessible. Likewise, you need to be diligent in documenting the Project and its processes. This way, people can access what they need, and act with independence, when they choose to.
A key enabler to this is….
Software is not the answer to every problem. Neither, do I believe, is it solely the answer to any problem. But it is an enabler.
The right choice of software for your team can enable you to do all three of:
I don’t accept a brief to make recommendations. Mainly, this is because I cannot possibly know your context and need, nor your culture or budget. But there are a number of excellent tools out there to evaluate.
My personal favourite is Favro, but here is a list of excellent tools to get you started. Through I don’t endorse any of the others for the simple and sole reason that I have little or no experience with them:
Do also take a look at our review free software options.
An always-on culture is exhausting. It subjects your people to stress and radically reduces productivity and efficiency. After all, it’s a form of multi-tasking and human are rubbish at multi-tasking.
So encourage offline working with scheduled check-ins, meetings, and available time. That allows people to get their heads fully into substantial tasks without distraction. As I write this 3,000 word article, my phone is off, my email program is closed, and so too are any social media browser windows.
I’m not talking about big conflicts here. Frankly, there is no difference between normal and remote project management here. However, what is likely to be amplified is priority conflicts.
You may recall that I identified the ‘ideal’ remote team as working on one project at a time. If you cannot meet this ideal (and you rarely will for more than the most critical team members), then you will need to help them juggle priorities. And, believe me, this is far more common and more tricky, with a remote project team.
Dealing with Conflict in Projects: A Practical Introduction to Conflict Management for Project Managers
The last thing I want to touch on is the logistics of remote project management. This is likely to be the easiest component in a way, but there are a couple of challenges to bear in mind.
While the ability for people to work flexibly when working remotely and even from home is an advantage, it is also a trap. They may just find themselves getting burned out. The potential to keep your project progressing through a 24 hour day my put pressure on your team – and you – to accommodate a wide range of time zones. You must set things up so that people not only know they can turn off the contact, but also do so.
And you must also be prepared to respect people’s availability and other commitments. The benefits of flexibility have to work both ways. If you want to expect someone to be flexible in attending a meeting outside normal hours, then you must allow them to cover personal commitments during working hours. Remember my first enabler for remote project management?
It was trust.
If you are not going to provide a central office and all that this means to people, you do need to provide one or more of:
As always, I am keen to hear about your experiences, opinions, ideas, and questions. Leave a comment below, and I will respond.
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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