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Remote Project Management – How do I manage a project remotely?
I love this topic because as someone who has been in the PM space for over 30+ years now; I have managed projects with people working around the world. I love it. I loved being a remote project manager and it open my eyes to a whole new world. When working at AT&T Wireless, Cingular Wireless, and Microsoft, they staffed my projects with people in a variety of countries. These countries included China, India, Ireland, England, France, and all over the US and Canada. I have managed major “go live” events from home, from small broom closets, mainframe server rooms, project war rooms…etc. In today’s article, I wanted to share some of the best practices I have used to manage projects with people all around the world.
Remote project management can work; however, there are many factors that impact the success of a virtual project team, including the industry, the nature of the project, complexity, infrastructure, communications, technology and team dynamics. One of the core components to making remote project management work is the people and communication skills of not only the project manager but the entire project team. If you have one broken link in that communications chain, the complete project team will struggle. Project communications is critical for projects being run onsite. When you are remote team members all over the world, the complexity of communications gets that much harder.
Let’s spend some time now and look back at how remote project management started. I believe that history and context are always so important in our learning process, so start.
History of Remote Project Management
Remote project management in the big scheme of things has not been around that long, and I would say started in the mid-90s. The good news is we are all still growing and learning in this space, so if you are new to this, that’s ok we all are, so let’s learn together.
One of the first products to offer screen sharing and communications between groups of people was a product from Microsoft ® called NetMeeting. Microsoft released NetMeeting in 1996 and it hit the business world by storm. In my research, I discovered companies like Dow Chemical Co (no relation) used NetMeeting on thousands of PCs as a collaboration tool to save travel costs. So, even in 1996, they did not nail yet the concept of remote project management, but it was a great starting point and Microsoft could see where this was going in the business world. Microsoft understood as we do today that to do remote project management successfully, you are going to need good software to support this process. One of the coolest features of NetMeeting was it had an IM or a messenger fea
ture to allow you to chat with other team members. It, of course, had a screen sharing capability as well, which was one of the core aspects of the software.
Ok, we have the early version of software that contributes to working remotely, but what about project management? Where did all that start? Well, that’s interesting because as someone who was managing projects back in those same timeframes and lived through the start of remote project management, I have to say it all took off with Y2K. Yes, remember Y2K, that was a major world event that had people worried about when the clock turned over from 1999 to 2000. Planes were going to fall out of the sky, the world was going to end, computers crashing….etc. It was a whole thing and created thousands and thousands of jobs! Trust me, this was a major world event that never happened! If you are a history buff, go Google “Y2K” and learn all about it, but we didn’t know that at the time and many-many companies around the world were worried about what would happen to them during this proposed major event. So, how did companies alleviate that worry, well they hired programmers to program the date logic in application after application to be ready for the date change to the year 2000? See, many applications had 2 digit years in their programming code and when there was now needing a spot for four digits, see “00” would not make sense. They had to change the code to allow for those 4 digits. Interesting right? It was, and it was a wild ride, living through those times.
But, what did US companies have to do to hire the thousands and thousands of programmers when there was not enough available in the US? American companies had no other option than to reach out to companies around the world for this programming support. There were not enough programmers in the US that could change all the code and be ready for that Y2K event, so it forced companies to search outside of the US.
That’s it, that’s how remote project management was born.
Ok, it is time for a story because it was an interesting time back then and I wanted to tell you from my experience what really happened and how remote project management started. I lived it, so I wanted you to hear from me what it was like. During that same timeframe, but just after the Y2K event, I was working at AT&T Wireless, and we had hired programming staff working in India, so I was quite involved in this remote project management work. This was all new to everyone, so let me tell you what we did and what the structure would look like for a typical project.
Remote Project Management – Project Org Structure in the beginning
As you can see clearly, there was not one project manager, there were three. Now, think about that for a second. We had a liaison project manager that would go between the US PM(Me) and the India-based PM to ensure the project was operating effectively. The idea there was to have an India-based PM in the US, that would work directly with the PM in India and avoid and communication issues, culture issues and essentially bring the team together as one. The liaison project manager would work out of the US, but would be connected directly with the India-based PM and would do all the interactions with him and the project team members. For a good portion of the project, I never met with any of the project team members. It was done with the other two project managers. Think about that as well for a second. I am managing a project of two project managers and they did the work without my knowledge. You can only imagine what that was like day-to-day, add the time difference between Seattle and India and it becomes quite challenging and very costly having three project managers. But, one thing it did was help me learn how to manage remote project teams when we had not only all the layers in-between us, but the time differences, the software challenges, and all the other nuances of running a project. Luckily, this 3rd PM on every project idea did not last long, and I was working directly with the remote team members myself. Remember, this was in the early 2000s and this whole concept of remote project management was new to every company in the world.
As I took over the remote teams and continued to do so for many years, I wanted to cover some of the best practices and the differences of working with onsite and remote teams.
Let’s dive into that now.
Project management for remote teams differs from onsite project management
Project management for remote teams differs from running onsite teams. I described onsite teams as teams that come into an office every day. Yes, in the world of Covid, those days seem like they are gone, but things get better, it might go back to normal. However, the strategies that are used in traditional project management for managing people in the office every day will not work if they distributed your team around the city or world. This is because you can’t walk down into someone’s office and connect with them. It has to be done over technology. A phone, Zoom, Teams, some form of technology and therefore the communications is much more difficult and having that in-person office communications. Can it be done? Sure it can, but it is much more difficult.
We have seen remote teams need more support, guidance, and direction to ensure they stay motivated and continue to produce high-quality work. There are three fundamental differences between managing a remote team and an onsite team. These include:
- Team members rarely see each other, which means they don’t know each other as well as they would with colleagues who work in proximity. In most cases, remote workers only meet their teammates on video calls or messages sent through Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams…etc. It’s important to create moments where employees can interact with each other on a more personal level to build relationships outside of their professional tasks. It is those personal connections, such as team meetings, happy hour events that are important to your onsite team, are even more important with remote teams.
- Remote team members often have limited resources or infrastructure available to them at home. We found that in India, back in the day, technology in home offices and even some remote offices were not what we had in company headquarters, so expectation on remote team members had to match what we as managers expect them to do. For example, we used to have a series of plotters at the HQ offices and I asked my project managers to plot out their project schedules and stick on a wall for “Go-Live” war room events. Imagine having a 5 foot MS Project schedule on the wall to see exactly step-by-step your Go Live activities? The whole project team and management could huddle around that huge schedule and watch the application go into production. That will not happen with someone working from home or remote office with no access to a plotter.
- Using technology such as videoconferencing tools like Zoom or Teams may be necessary, but these platforms aren’t always reliable in how well they connect people together in real-time interactions – especially if one side has bad internet connection speeds. This happens all the time, people using Wi-Fi compared to using hard-wired connections and we experience slow and lags in screen sharing, audio problems…etc. We have all experienced it and just a new reality of managing distributed teams working around the world. I had one experience working on a project in China who had very slow internet speeds and I was sharing an Excel file that would take several seconds to paint on the page, thus making for meetings to be much more frustrating and go much longer because of these technology challenges.
Ok, now we have seen some challenges. Let’s look at some of the best practices for running remote project teams.
Best Practices (from hands-on experience) of managing Remote Teams
There are several best practices for managing remote teams that I wanted to share. Not only from doing this myself for many-many years, but from watching and guiding project managers in my PMOs as well. I have broken these down into three major categories, including Project, Team and Meeting techniques. Let’s look at these now.
Project Communications across the project team – it is critical that you have good communications across all team members. Regardless if they are in the building or thousands of miles away, you need to connect with your project team members. Communication is crucial in remote projects, as there’s no opportunity for informal “water cooler” type conversations. As a project manager, you need to ensure that your team can communicate with each other. They should never feel like they can’t ask questions or raise concerns. Communication within the team should be open and honest. Regular communication is also vital. This doesn’t have to mean long meetings, but it means regular check-ins. You need to ensure that your team is on track, and they need regular updates from you about the overall project status and how their work fits into it. Communication needs to be clear and easy to understand – there’s no chance for follow up if someone misunderstands an email or Teams/Slack message.
Personal relationships – Build solid personal relationships with your team members. It is those same relationships that take you through the hard times on your projects. If you have good solid relationships with your team members, they will go to bat for you and help you through the tougher times on the project and share the successes.
Keep tasks short for early success – One technique that I used for years with my remote team members is to keep project assignments/task short, allowing those remote team members to complete the tasks and show continued progress on the project.
Hours of work – It is critical that you understand the hours of work for your remote employees and respect those hours of work across the different time zones. Sending emails or leaving voice mails in the wee hours of the morning is not acceptable and should be avoided.
Time tracking is a must for remote team members – Time tracking is required for remote team members, and it’s actually one of the easiest ways to keep a remote project on track. Time tracking software, such as Project Online, for example, will allow you to measure how long a task has taken and whether it is on track. You can then use that information to see where your team is spending time and how the project’s progressing overall. This helps you manage client expectations too; for example, if a client asks for an estimate on future work, your team can look at their previous time logs and give more accurate estimates.
There should be clarity about who does what on project – If you have a team of people, then there will be some confusion about who handles the different project activities. That’s not OK especially working with remote project teams, so the best practice is to ensure you have a RACI developed for your project. RACIs are so important when you have people around the world and are unclear of what tasks we assign them to on the project. Get that clarity as soon as possible and make sure you don’t leave this that long. The worst thing you can do is to lead people to believe that they are in charge of something, only to find out later that they aren’t. Besides the actual work tasks, there should be clarity about who handles what (e.g. who designs the product, who is the lead developer…etc.). There should also be clarity about who is in charge of what (e.g. who manages the budget). Finally, there should be clarity about who is accountable for what (e.g. if I make a mistake on something, then I am accountable). All the major components of a RACI are outlined and the entire team is assigned.
Now, let’s look at some of the team specific best practices you can follow for remote and in-person teams.
Team Dynamics – Different cultures and different backgrounds are going to bring different team dynamics and especially if you have teams around the world. Since Y2K that is something to consider, so you need to understand the culture of your remote team members and work through the team dynamics issues as the team goes through the norming, storming, forming stages.
Planning Team Morale – Make sure that you are planning moral events with the team members when working remote team members. Events like happy hours, morale events…etc. Anything that gets people connecting a social setting and not talking about work items.
Teamwork is critical for remote teams – When you’re working remotely, it’s important to focus on teamwork. As with any project management situations, the team has to come first. Team members should be able to count on each other for support and have fun in their day-to-day interactions. No one should feel left out or held back from asking for help when they need it. You want to build a culture of collaboration where people trust each other and everyone is working toward the same goals.
Make sure you have all the project management tools needed to collaborate – With remote team members then having a clear set of tools is going to be critical in this process. There is new software that is released daily, so I will not list them here, but Teams for example, are taking off as an all around tool for meetings, collaboration, document sharing and a perfect solution for any company.
When you are formulating your teams, you will need a series of meetings and connection points to keep everyone connected and the project. Let’s look at some best practices in that area now.
Weekly meetings are a must – If you’re managing a remote team, weekly meetings are a must. Regular check-ins with the team will help keep your project on track, ensure that everyone is focused on their assigned tasks and that they understand what’s expected of them. Weekly meetings are also beneficial because they give employees an opportunity to ask questions and clarify any issues that might arise during the week.
Meetings should be scheduled around different time zones – If you or your team works remotely, it’s important to be aware of the time zones in which everyone is working. This can come into play when scheduling meetings. Luckily, there are apps and tools that can help you manage meetings across different time zones. A couple of options include Doodle and Calendly. You can also use Google Calendar and invite others to join a meeting in a specific time zone. However, note that sometimes this doesn’t work perfectly, as attendees may see the meeting listed in a different time zone than what was intended. Double check with everyone ahead of the meeting to ensure they know what day/time it is happening for them. When scheduling meetings with remote teams, consider how much prep work needs to happen for all parties before the meeting starts. Allow enough time for people to get on video calls if you need that level of interaction (or just let them know they are welcome to call in). Make sure all relevant materials have been shared and reviewed so everyone comes prepared and ready to contribute their best ideas! I used World Meeting Planner for years that has been a life saver for teams working in different companies around the world. Check it out, it is free!
Meet in person as often as possible – This is so important that if you are managing remote teams, make sure you get in front of your remote team members. That means in a lot of time traveling to different companies, but attempting to travel and spend time with your team members in their home companies is really important.
What do you think?
If you like this article, you will love this one around interviewing over Zoom. It is called Ten Tricks for Interviewing over Zoom and I think you will love it.
Or this one on the top communication tools for virtual teams located here.
Bill Dow, PMP
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