When COVID-19 hit and required people to work from home, many companies realized that teams could work remotely and deliver the same or even better results. Yes indeed, it is possible, you just need a project manager who can handle asynchronous working and find ways to compensate for the absence of ‘in-real-life’ interactions. If you are unable to find a project manager or if your project is too small to have a (dedicated) project manager, the tips we’re sharing below will definitely help you achieve your project’s goals.
In this piece, you will read references to Slack. This is the tool we use at CFD, and is invaluable for remote teams in my opinion. That said you don’t have to use Slack; there are other virtual collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams and Chanty (you can find more here).
I have been a project manager for 20 years in various industries. When I look back, I realize that there has always been a remote element in the projects I was involved with, even if the bulk of the team was in the same physical space: offices based in different countries, freelancers working on a tiny part of the project etc. In the past 2 years, I have been working totally remotely and it made me think, “What makes project management successful within remote teams?” Here are my tips:
1. Set expectations and ways of working at the outset.
This is important in establishing what’s expected amongst team members, in terms of professional and social behavior and should reinforce the organization’s values. Without a guideline for the team, they could miss key deadlines and milestones. A simple description at the start of the project explaining roles, responsibilities and key milestones will help the team know what to expect
2. Never assume. Always make things explicit and avoid jargon.
Ensure that everyone is aware of their responsibilities for a task. By sending a direct message or tagging a team member in the virtual collaboration tool used by your team you can make sure they’ve been reached and you can receive direct confirmation that your message has been received. In a remote working model, we all receive a lot of messages daily. Surveys show that communication and collaboration remain the most challenging parts of the remote work model.
If things aren’t explained clearly, team members can misunderstand or create work that’s not correct, unnecessarily increasing workload. Providing clear guidance for task responsibility and explaining the output in detail in the project channel will help everyone keep track of their tasks and deadlines. You might feel like you are being patronizing, but you’re not. As time goes, you’ll also be able to assess who needs more hand holding and explanation than others.
Tasks, deadlines and milestones need to be clearly communicated and readily accessible to all team members. Reiterate often, as information can get missed when not relayed in person.
Confusion around task responsibilities, key milestones and missed deadlines can cause additional work for the whole team and bring down morale. When communicating something, ask for acknowledgement that the message has been read. If you are using Slack, adding a ‘thumbs up’ emoji (or any emoji) does the job! If you are using a project management tool (such as Monday or Asana), you can create a task and ask everybody to mark it as complete when they have read it, this way you know your message has been read.
4. Keep your communication channels open.
You want your team to know they can go to you for anything, whether it’s a chat about how they feel, something project specific or even a difficulty they’re encountering. The way you engage and build rapport with the team will help you achieve this!
Tell them about your availability and how they can reach you outside of regular check-ins. We use Calendly at CFD (there are other tools like Book Like a Boss), which makes appointment scheduling a walk in the park: you set your availability, share a link, your team members book a slot that works for them, the tool sends you both a calendar invitation in Zoom or Gmeet and voilà… no fussing finding a time that works for each of you.
5. Touch base via regular or daily check-ins (written or video), but avoid meetings for meetings’ sake.
Regular check-ins will give you the confidence that the team understands what they have to deliver, that you are aware of progress and are keeping within your budget. In an office situation you can check in with people in an informal manner – it’s harder when you’re remote. They also help the team feel part of something bigger, gives them a larger purpose and greater sense of fulfillment to see the project delivered successfully.
A simple ‘how are you?’ in a direct message or channel goes a long way. Remember: remote freelancers/employees can feel lonely at times. In fact loneliness, along with miscommunications, is cited among the most challenging parts of remote work.
6. Encourage all project-related conversations to be in one place.
It’s important to have all communications in the same place to minimize confusion and to prevent important messages from disappearing into the ether. It also prevents duplicate conversations from happening parallel to direct messages or emails. If you discuss the same thing via email, Asana comments, in Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and in Slack there’s a great risk that people will miss important messages and could be confused by which directive they should follow.
At CFD, we create a separate channel for each project (which is archived once the project is finished) and encourage everyone to hold their conversations around project objectives there. Email is reserved for client conversations (if you have not created a client channel on Slack) and Slack for all internal conversations. Sometimes a direct message is needed and that’s ok.
7. Avoid micromanagement.
Trust in the ability of people in your team to deliver on their responsibilities and let the team work. Encourage mature ways of working to show the team that you trust them and their capability / ability. Data shows that 71 percent of employees acknowledge that micromanagement negatively affects their job performance.
8. Compile and share the team’s ‘availability’ in the same time zone equivalent.
Being remote in some organizations doesn’t necessarily mean flexible working, but at CFD, it’s ok to not work the regular 9 to 5, as long as it’s communicated to the team when each team member is available (days of the week, times) in GMT or EST regardless of where team members are based in the world.
Set an expectation for everyone on the team to set their status in your team’s virtual collaboration tool (Slack in our case) with the times they can be expected to be online and responsive. That way, everyone will know which days and times Fran or Bert are available. If you don’t have Slack, you can create an Excel/Google Sheet spreadsheet with everybody’s workstyle and find somewhere to save it so it can be easily accessible. We save it in the general or project Slack channel description, but it could go in the project folder.
9. Recognize that some colleagues might need more support than others.
Some team members might need more hand-holding than others due to level of experience or time in the organization. It’s important to recognize this, offering reassurance and support to those who need it.
It could mean that you make yourself available to these team members more often and have more general check-ins with them if needed. You could even have informal virtual coffee with them if you think that would help.
Overall, remote project management involves a slightly new way of thinking, but if the right tools and mindset are used, it can be a powerful way of working that brings better results, more empowered team members and a better work-life balance for everyone.
Which tip resonated the most with you? Anything you weren’t doing and will be trying out with your team? Let us know in the comments!