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Remote Project Management: Get a Grip on the Path to Success

Remote Project Management: Get a Grip on the Path to Success

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…

Remote Project Management: Get a Grip on the Path to Success

Our Agenda

The Nature of Remote Project Teams

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:

  • Number of team members separated from the rest
    …from one or two, to all in different locations
  • Physical distance
    …from adjacent offices to different continents

Three Degrees of Remote Project Team

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:

  1. Flexible Remote Working
    The core team works out of the same physical space. But they have the flexibility – maybe sometimes the need – to work from alternative spaces, like their home office, or other premises of their employer.
  2. Hybrid Remote Working
    Part of the team is co-located in a single ‘team hub’. Other members of the team work remotely from this location.
  3. Fully Remote Working
    There is no obvious team hub location. While some team members may share a location, the team is dispersed and primarily members come together in the virtual world, via technology.

The Ideal Remote Project Team

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:

  • Best in class enabling technology that is well-suited to the team’s culture
  • A cross functional team where experts can work within their own sphere of expertise
  • Team members to be allocated full-time to your project, with minimal distractions from other work responsibilities
  • The team to have all of the resources it needs to do its job
  • Access to particular experts to supplement the team when needed

I did warn you. But these are great if you can engineer them. And you should certainly try!

Learn More about Managing Remote Teams

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.

Managing Remote Teams

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.

Benefits of Remote Project Management

There are many benefits to remote Project management. But, sadly, there are two caveats I must alert you to:

  1. The evidence for these is sadly lacking. Most of these come down to a consensus view, rather than the outcome of rigorous research.
  2. Most are double-edged swords with a corollary that is often roughly equal and pretty-much opposite in effect

But with that in mind, here are the commonly cited benefits of remote Project Management:

  • Widely dispersed teams permit almost 24 hour per day progress on your project
    …with the risk that team members may feel pressure to be ‘always-available’
  • Reduced premises costs arise where organizations no longer need to maintain prime locations
    …with the challenge for some team members to find suitable places to work effectively
  • World-wide working creates opportunities for huge diversity in think and styles
    …with all of the challenges for trust and communication they bring
  • And this also offers the widest possible talent pool of expertise
    …but a far greater challenge in creating fair recruitment processes
  • Working from home can really enhance work-life balance for team members
    …as long as they don’t feel pressure to let their work intrude on home-life
  • Increased productivity can arise from fewer distractions and less travelling
    …but only if team management allows this to happen
  • Reduced staff turnover from greater levels of satisfaction
    …or are we talking about the kind of comfort that can become complacency?
  • Reductions in stress levels arising from the new work style
    …unless work does intrude on family life, resulting in an inability to switch-off

Addressing the ‘Dark Side’ 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.

80 percent of Remote Project Management: Communication

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:

  • Team
  • Stakeholders
  • Client
  • Sponsor and Board

Getting remote team communication right means thinking about three things:

  • frequency
  • mode
  • process

Communication Frequency

‘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:

  • whole-team meetings to share information and build relationships
  • work-team reviews to understand progress and issues
  • individual check-ins for performance management, guidance, and feedback

In general, more communication is better than less. But, as with co-located project teams, avoid unnecessary meetings or communications that will:

  • distract people from their work
  • increase workload
  • add to stress

Communication Mode

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:

  • Microsoft Teams
  • Zoom
  • Blue Jeans
  • Google Meet
  • Skype
  • Webex

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.

Secondary Communication Tools

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:

  • Telephone
  • Email
  • Synchronous messaging apps like Slack, Google Chat, Teams
  • Asynchronous messaging apps like Twist and embeds in collaboration tools

Communication Process

‘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.

Challenges of Remote Project Management

Let’s take communication – and the understanding of communication – as read, and move on, to other challenges.

Cross-Cultural Working

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.

Videos on Cross-Cultural Teams

From OnlinePMCourses

From our Sister Channel, Management Courses

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.

Creating a Culture

‘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.

Acccountability

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:

  • formal role and task allocation
  • objective-setting
  • review sessions
  • visible progress measures

Scheduling

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.

Personal Relationships

For me, this is the big one. I say this for two reasons:

  1. It matters a lot
    For many people, workplace and project relationships are a huge part of their career progress, their work satisfaction, and their personal wellbeing
  2. It’s the hardest to fix
    Because relationships are largely born of contact, and when you work remotely, there is necessarily less of it

I don’t have any clever answers for you.

Enablers for Remote Project Management

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.

Trust

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.

Resources to Help you with Delegation

Free Resources

Go Large!

How to Delegate without Stress

Our premium course will teach you how to use Delegation to multiply your effectiveness, build team resilience, and increase motivation in your team.

Clarity in Communicating Expectations

People will work best when they know exactly what you expect of the team and of them individually. This needs to cover:

  • Project Purpose, Goal, and Objectives
  • Milestones at the project, workstream, and individual levels
  • Quality standards

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.

Role Clarity

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:

Information Sharing

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….

Project Collaboration Software

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:

  1. Facilitating collaboration and communication
  2. Setting, specifying, and tracking tasks, and monitoring contributions
  3. Storing and making accessible all project information, templates, checklists, documents…

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:

  • Favro
  • Asana
  • Monday
  • Teamwork
  • Hive
  • Hubstaff

Do also take a look at our review free software options.

Offline Working

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.

Conflict Resolution

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.

If you need to know about conflict, check out:

Free Resources

Go Large!

Dealing with Conflict in Projects

Dealing with Conflict in Projects: A Practical Introduction to Conflict Management for Project Managers

Logistics of Remote Project Management

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.

Time Challenges

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.

Office Set-up

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:

  • Equipment and funding to set up a home office
  • Options for out-of home office working
  • Mobile equipment from which they can create a ready-bag, or go-bag

Please Tell Us about Your Experiences fo Remote Project Management

As always, I am keen to hear about your experiences, opinions, ideas, and questions. Leave a comment below, and I will respond.

About the Author Mike Clayton

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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  • Thanks for a great article, Mike!
    It seems quite comprehensive with all the links to more info. The Favro video is especially informative, though I’m doing more development these days than PM.
    I’ve found that remote teams can work pretty well if they honor their commitments. One team I was on but didn’t manage had people here in South Carolina(multiple sites), Oklahoma, and Nova Scotia. It was challenging but we all felt free to phone or email with questions and we met every week.
    Another that I did manage had the team split across two buildings on the same site, delivering software to both that site and Nova Scotia, with good success. We had an advantage there of all knowing each other well, with high trust, and got good results.
    These days I’m prototyping a system for letting teams work on their documentation via online forms, with the result merged to a Word document when done. The link is below. I’d love to have your feedback!

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