At this point it’s safe to say that just about everyone working in the digital space is working remotely at least some of the time.
For project managers, this presents some unique challenges. How can you stay synced with your team if you can’t meet them in person? How can you ensure your team is working on the right things at the right time? And how can you manage it all while keeping your stress levels in check?
I’ve compiled my remote project management best practices for managing your projects and teams, as well as some strategies I use to manage stress and prevent burnout.
What Is Remote Project Management?
Remote project management involves the same procedures, methodologies, and objectives as project management, but the difference is that with the former, the project manager isn’t physically with the project team.
The project team may be fully remote and in different locations themselves, working as a hybrid team, or working together in an office.
Remote project managers must find ways to bring the entire team together, keep everyone on task, and deliver the project with the added challenge of not working with the team in person.
7 Strategies For Managing Remote Teams And Projects
Here are some of my best tips and tricks for keeping on top of projects (and teammates). I put these into practice long before working remotely, so I’ve since adapted them to fit my remote project management routine.
I’ve always had a saying: “Candy makes friends.” At every in-office job I’ve had, I’ve come in with a large candy jar that I would stock with a wide variety of treats. You’d be surprised at how many people will cheerfully come to your desk if you have their favorite treats.
I would take note of (or would flat out ask) what some of my more challenging teammates ate frequently. When I had a really tight deadline, or I knew one teammate was working on competing priorities, or even when I had either bad news or a silly question, I’d take a few of the candies I knew they liked best, and I’d stroll over to their desk and just leave the candy. I would say nothing, just leave the candy.
About an hour or so later, I’d send a message or email to ask if they had a moment to chat – and they almost always did, because they were so grateful.
So what’s the remote version of this? The bribe just gets more complicated. I still find out what they like and what they’d appreciate, and I’ll either send something to them that I box up myself, or have the item delivered from Amazon.com or somewhere local to my teammate.
I don’t bribe nearly as much as I did when I was face to face, but by and large, people rarely forget that you went out of your way in these situations.
For developers, I might do this in the middle of a long stretch of programming or at a particular milestone, and at the beginning of a design cycle for UX and UI teams. For a QA team, I’ll typically send something at the beginning if it is a complicated project to QA, or at the end, if the project is more simple from their standpoint.
When a project concludes, I will find something that each of my teammates would appreciate, and send that out. Fully remote teams rarely get any kind of physical perks because they’re not all in the same place, so doing this at the end makes them super excited to work with you again on the next project—even if that project is slated to be a rough one.
2. Create A Team Atmosphere
Try to get the team pumped for the project during kickoff. In the past, I have always tried to create a real team atmosphere by naming all of my teammates and their roles on the project, even if we’ve done 100 projects together already.
I look each in the eye, which creates a type of ownership, where the team is accepting responsibility for their part of the project. It’s very slight, but I’ve found that it works wonders for keeping teammates engaged.
At the end of the project, most project managers celebrate in some way. In office jobs I’ve had before, this could include going out to lunch, ending work early and enjoying some food and beverages in the office kitchen, or even just having that last status meeting where everyone high-fives. I thank each teammate, again looking them in the eye.
During my remote project kickoffs, I start by distributing a more robust agenda (separate from the agenda I’ve already sent with the meeting invite) that will have some solid information about each teammate, even if we’ve done 100 projects together already.
I include name, discipline, time zone (super handy for when you’ve got folks all over the world) and some sort of interesting info. Sometimes I would give them nicknames, and sometimes it would be embellishments of things I know about them.
It’s a lot more work, and it’s a little cheesy, (okay, it’s a lot cheesy) but the point is that I’m encouraging teamwork, promoting team building, and replacing that eye contact with another connection.
3. Keep Your Team Engaged
When you’re running a status meeting in an office, you can easily see who is engaged and who isn’t. But if you’re remote, one of your main challenges is keeping people engaged in such a way that you ultimately enhance your remote team collaboration.
Plus, in a face to face meeting, most people won’t be obvious about not paying attention (unless they brought their phone in with them, in which case they are very much obvious.) You can also read the room to know when someone may have an objection or comment, and you can see when the team is starting to collectively wander and the meeting needs to end.
Remote project managers don’t have that luxury, even if you’re on video. Of course, video conferencing (using a tool such as Zoom) makes it a lot easier to see if someone is obviously otherwise engaged, but you still don’t get to see their body language and you can’t be sure they’re not multitasking. So, to make remote project management work, you have to keep them engaged in other ways.
Maybe you’ll ask them to give an update on where they are with their part of the project, along with their favorite TV show growing up. Perhaps you’ll ask your designer to give your developer’s update in 10 words or less—this can be pretty funny if you let it, or it can be revealing if your team takes it seriously.
Find out what makes your team come alive, and incorporate that into your meetings.
4. Have A Conversation Before Making A Request
Most project managers don’t barge into other people’s offices and ask a question before even saying hello. If you do this, please rethink your tactics. Very few people respond well to that! It’s very easy to “barge into” someone’s space by sending a question via Slack without saying hello, because the medium just feels different. But it is very much the same.
Now that I’m remote, I usually start out by saying hello and asking how their day is. I then ask if it’s an okay time for a short question, which would probably take about 10 minutes to discuss. If you can, always include a target amount of time you think you need from them, because then they can really answer honestly about if they have time.
I’ll end the conversation by asking a quick question about their personal life, like “hey, how did your daughter’s game go the other day?” It doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out conversation, but remember that we’re all people, and not just computers responding via Slack or other communication channels.
5. Check In Without Micromanaging
An advantage of working in an office with your teammates is being able to see when they’re in the office, at their desk, and what they appear to be working on. As a PM, you want to be sure work is getting done so there are no surprises when a deadline approaches.
When you’re remote, checking in on progress can feel a lot like babysitting, and no professional person appreciates that. A good tactic I employ is to keep up with what percentage of long-term tasks are complete, and I ask my teammates for periodic updates when I know I’ll be reporting to stakeholders.
This way, they know I’m just doing my job and not harping on them. You also might hold teammates responsible for updating progress at regular status meetings (which are also extremely important to a remote team, who won’t bump into each other at the office), ask to see work-in-progress (this is a real test of what’s been done vs. what’s left to do), or flat out ask “Hey, do you think you’ll still make that deadline on time?”
One thing you don’t want to do is ask too often, or too close to the last time you asked. You must trust your remote team, maybe even more than you’d trust your in-person team, to get their work done. They will appreciate your respect and will give respect in return.
6. Be Human
This really ties into everything we’ve already addressed: you may be a remote project manager, working remotely via machines and software, but you are all human beings, and that can get lost.
It’s even more important to ensure people know you as a person, and you know each team member as a person, because of the nature of your job. Tell some jokes if that’s your personality. Ask about their family and pets. Ask them how their weather is today.
If you’re working with teammates globally, take a few seconds (it’s so, so easy) to look up how to say “hello” or “thank you” in their native language. This is one of the most effective ways I’ve found to make a connection with someone working in another country.
For my friends in the UK or Canada, I’ll do my best to throw in some slang, or spell things in that silly way they have (saying “centre” instead of “center” is definitely more highbrow). If you’re working with people in different time zones, say “good morning” or “good afternoon” according to their time.
7. Invest In Project Management Software
Project management software and other task management and work management tools are crucial for running projects at all—whether in office or remotely. You’ll find it easier to track progress (so you can bother your teammates less) and most project management software has plenty of communication tools and collaboration tools built in.
When it comes to running projects remotely, there are several tools out there that are best-suited to remote project management and remote teams. These pack in extra resources and functionalities for things like video calls, cloud storage, automations, shared Gantt charts and Kanban boards, and team management and engagement tools.
Remote project management tools also need to be as accessible as possible, in case some team members aren’t on hard-wired internet connections, and facilitate sharing files and documents across the team (even across borders, in some cases). A good mobile app is also always a bonus.
5 Ways to Reduce Stress as a Remote Project Manager
Here are my top tips for keeping yourself calm and preventing burnout while working remotely (which is all too common!).
1. Organize Your Space
Most project managers have a specific way they like to organize their desks to be most efficient. This is usually a lot more of an issue for project managers than for many other roles, because project managers are required to manage so many facets of multiple projects.
In my last office job, I had two whiteboards, two large bulletin cork boards, dual monitors, a wireless keyboard and mouse, and two desk lamps with soft lighting.
It took me a while to get my space just right, as it does for many project managers, who rely on organized, controlled spaces to get their work done. When something was out of place in my office, I had a hard time concentrating. Most project managers know what they need to have in place to feel organized.
Why, then, do so many remote project managers merely carve out a tiny area in their house with a little lamp and a drawer or two? If you’re serious about working remotely, you have to treat your office as a real office. If you don’t have a dedicated room for your office, you need to come to terms with having your workspace look like a workspace.
My workspace is in my den, so when we decide to lounge in that room when I’m not working, we deal with the two whiteboards and large cork boards and multiple monitors and desk lamps that I require for working efficiently. Don’t scale your space down because it’s a remote office—or you could find yourself distracted by feeling disorganized.
2. Create Boundaries
Remote workers need boundaries to delineate work and home life. While most employers worry that their remote employees are going to sit on the couch and watch Netflix all day, remote project managers have the opposite problem: more often than not, we’re working way too many hours because our work is available to us 24/7. Boundaries, then, become paramount to keep us from burning out or blowing budgets.
These boundaries don’t have to be overly formal, or overly significant—they just have to work. My boundaries are shoes and lights. If I’m at home and working, I have shoes on and my desk lights are on. When I’m done working, even if I have shoes on, my desk lights are off.
Lots of people with dedicated office space just close their doors. I think that project managers need multiple cues for stopping work, or we can find ourselves tempted to just “check one more email.” Whatever you choose as your boundary, just make sure you’re consistent so that it’s second nature and not something you have to think too hard about.
Related listen: Is Quiet Quitting Just Setting Clear Boundaries?
3. Get Some Human Interaction
Project manager’s jobs are not easy. You’re in charge of the project, but often not the people. You’re responsible for the output, but you’re not the one doing the work. That is very frustrating and that frustration can sometimes build up if it has nowhere to go.
There are ways to let off steam—a change of scenery, a walk outside, a little snack—that remote workers and office workers alike can take advantage of. The one glaring thing that is not available to remote workers is other people.
Whether you’re looking to vent about work (hopefully not selling out your project; see my article on project empathy) or just to talk about something else for a while, interacting with coworkers is an essential part of office culture.
Remote project managers must have other humans to talk to during the day or we run the risk of either having a meltdown, or for those of us who live with other humans, causing them to have a meltdown.
The first time I worked remotely, I talked to no one during the day other than through work emails to coworkers and clients. When my husband came home at night, weary after a long work day of having to talk to people, I would pounce. It did neither of us any good.
I now have two networks of friends that I talk to throughout the day: one is a fantastic group of peers, where I can talk about project management issues and get input on project dilemmas, and the other is a fantastic group of people who have nothing to do with PM, where I can talk about life in general, Westworld, or SNL sketches.
Important to note: I talk to these people throughout the day when my schedule permits. I don’t restrict my access to personal email and Slack channels during work hours because this is my only outlet. I never let this interaction affect my work performance, but without this interaction, my work suffers. Find what works best for you.
4. Work Out(side Your Home)
Even if you have peer or friend networks available to you during the day, you should try to occasionally make time to be around other people. I call myself a remote worker, not someone who “works from home” because working “from home” is too limiting. Every once in a while, work from a coffee shop, find a coworking space, or maybe even stop by your local library.
You don’t have to strike up conversations with strangers, but being in the presence of other people can recharge you and make you feel like you’re part of society. Whatever you can do to get yourself out of your house here and there (or more than that!) is going to help you from becoming a recluse and keep you on top of your PM game.
5. Exploit The Benefits
I know so many project managers who worry about doing anything that could be construed as being selfish—picking up the last swag bag left in the company kitchen, taking the first slice of pizza, naming themselves in their congratulatory project launch email to the masses.
I do the same thing. So I often find myself feeling like I really shouldn’t take advantage of the perks of working remotely. Then I remind myself that taking some time to do things that make me happy without compromising my work availability or output actually makes me a better project manager.
So I take the dogs outside twice a day to throw tennis balls. I throw in a load of laundry so I don’t have to worry about it later. I wear sweatpants every day so I’m the most comfortable I can be while working. It doesn’t make me less of a project manager to actually take advantage of the perks of a remote work situation.
Test out these strategies and best practices for remote project management on yourself and your remote project team. Give each a try if you’re working remotely now, plan to in the future, or even if you just work from home on occasion.
Working in these remote project management strategies whenever you can will likely make your work easier and more fulfilling. Whatever you can do to create a culture of human interaction in a world full of computer screens and typed responses, do that—you’ll find that remote work isn’t so remote after all.
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