Managing remote project teams

In this article, we look at how projects can be managed remotely and effectively by making just a few tweaks to the way you work.

Can I trust my team to work remotely?

I’ve been managing projects remotely for several years now. The hardest part is starting. A question that I often get asked is – “how can I be sure that they will work just as well at home and how can they be trusted?”

A simple response to this is to remember why you hired the person. You hired them for their skills, experience and professionalism, so if you can’t trust a person to work effectively at home or remotely, then why would you hire them in the first place?

Talk to the team before the decision is made, let them know that the project depends on them behaving professionally and doing the same work in the same time. As remote working will become normalized over the next few years, companies need to prepare for more work done from home.

Working hours

The one aspect of remote working that is always impacted is working hours. Some people prefer to start early, some prefer to start late. You should be reasonable with this one as your flexibility will be paid back in spades. Be firm around meeting times but not rigid. If there are specific meetings that need to happen, get a consensus from the team on what the best time is to hold specific meetings.

Once the time has been agreed it must be respected, avoid loose time arrangements around the daily meeting. This is the one opportunity for team contact each day and it is important that this is respected unless there is a valid reason.

The one risk here is that a personal situation at team members home may begin to infringe on the work, meetings and overall delivery. If you suspect there is an issue or a chronic problem, address it head-on. Avoid letting it fester.

After a few weeks, you know who is being effective in working remotely and who is not. Again you must deal with any performance issues as you would if they were occurring in an office situation.

so if you can’t trust a person to work effectively at home or remotely, then why would you hire them in the first place?

Time focus v task focus

When managing any project, it is always better to focus on tasks and deadlines as opposed to working hours. If you transition the project team from working together in an office to remote working, this becomes more important.

A good approach is to set the deadlines for each week. “What do we need to complete this week to keep the project on track?” Some team members will not need much management, some will – the same as they would in an office. Your responsibility as a project manager is to ensure you remove all the barriers to progress and ensure you get the desired results within the specified timeframe.

This is best achieved by not measuring performance by the hours worked but by what has been delivered within a specific time. Once the deadlines are met, the number of hours worked is somewhat secondary. Once people get into the habit of this approach, it can reap a myriad of benefits for the project and the team member.

What tools should we use?

The simple answer is to use whatever works. There will be tools needed for communication, online meetings, video conferencing etc. These are simple enough to use, however not everyone knows how to use them. Before the team is dispersed from the office, ensure that everyone knows how to use the communication tools. The last thing you need is the first 10 minutes of each call occupied with “Hello”, “Can you hear me?”, “Are you there?” etc,……….

Each time member should sign a training form indicating that they are now trained in using the tool both at home and at work.

One big aspect of online meetings is being able to see each other. Initially, it can be a little odd for people that are not used to seeing themselves on camera. Once we get over this initial discomfort, the camera will be your biggest game-changer in keeping the team connected. There are a few advantages using the camera during video calls and online meetings.

1. You can see facial expressions and body language
2. People will make an effort to tidy up the surroundings to facilitate work
3. People will clean up and dress accordingly for the call, you do not need someone dialling in from the bed or the bathroom (trust me it will happen!!!!)
4. It helps build relationships

The next tool that is necessary is a tool for communicating the plan, setting tasks, monitoring progress and raising issues. This can be as simple as a spreadsheet or Kanban style app. If you are used to working with a stand-up meeting with a whiteboard and post-it labels, then this information needs to be transferred to a digital alternative.

Before the team is dispersed take plenty of photographs and assign one of the team the task of transcribing the whiteboard, post-its, or scrum board into a digital format. Focus on the content here and the effectiveness of the information. Do not worry too much about the aesthetics, these can be improved with time.

An application or spreadsheet should be utilised for managing tasks. Individuals can manage their own tasks in whatever way they see fit but there needs to be a central tasks management log for assigning, monitoring and managing project-related tasks.

Running project meetings with a dispersed team

Communication is key when running a project. When running a project with a remote team, this is even more critical. You need to ensure that everyone is on time, as lateness for meeting times can develop into a disruptive habit.

Develop a routine for the meeting just as you would with a face to face project meeting. Run through the usual topics – Overall status, work completed since the last meeting, plans for the next day and discuss any risks, issues or stumbling blocks.

The team need to maintain a tactile relationship with the project and for this reason, it is imperative that each team member provides an update for each session. Knowing that they need to provide an update will ensure that they prepare for the meeting. A few minutes of preparation for any meeting can make all the difference.

In summary

1. Trust the team. If they are good enough to work in the office, they can be trusted to work at home unsupervised.
2. Be reasonably firm with the working hours but not rigid. Maintain the same meeting times.
3. Focus on the tasks completed each day/week and the overall progress made more so than the number of hours worked. Performance management is all about measuring results and not hours.
4. Insist on the use of web cameras at the meeting, it is very important to maintain the human connection, particularly on a long term project.
5. Convert all whiteboard, post-it, scrum boards to a digital medium, quality of content is key here, not colours.
6. Run the project meeting as you would run a face to face meeting. Ensure everyone gives an update.

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