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Remote project management is like herding cats, except the cats are all in different cities, and it's your job to pull them together. In a lot of ways, it's similar to regular project management, but it's done at a distance via video conferencing and digital collaboration tools. 

I’m going to cover the ins and outs of good project management for remote teams and highlight some of the pitfalls you're likely to run into. I also have a few recommendations for the best project management software you can use. 

What Is Remote Project Management?

Remote project management is the art of project management at a distance. When you have teams scattered all over the place, whether they're on opposite sides of town or different continents, big projects still need to be coordinated. 

Why Choose Remote Teams for Projects?

Here are some common reasons to go for remote project management, even when you have a choice.

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1. Physical Separation

Your company might have teams all over the place: headquarters in San Francisco, consultants in Boston, and a sales rep in Houston. You no longer have to be in the same office; project management software links teams together as if they were on different floors of a single building.

2. Different Time Zones

You don't even have to be in the same time zone to get work done together. Good project planning software lets you time shift, with tasks left open for the next person to take up and work on, regardless of when they're available.

3. Diversity of Talent

You can hire team members from anywhere, instead of being limited to talent in your city. It's also useful for filling gaps in your team's skills. Instead of flying somebody across the country or pulling a worker off another team, you can add a remote worker and get their expertise with the least hassle possible.

4. Global Pandemics and Other Unlikely Events

In the event of, say, a global pandemic that shuts down your office, a remote team can be a lifesaver. Before any emergency occurs, put together some remote workers for projects and practice working remotely. That way, if something happens, you're already set up for a switch to remote work.

Pros and Cons of Remote Project Management

Before you assemble your remote team and settle into work, have a look at some of the pros and cons of remote project management. 

8 Pros of Remote Project Management

  • Flexibility: Working with remote teams is an exercise in flexibility. Instead of working within the very structured environment of a traditional office, your remote project team can work when, where, and how they want, within reason.
  • Productivity: Working with a remote project team makes you all the more productive. The distractions and annoyances that come with any office drop productivity in a way that working 6 feet away from your own refrigerator doesn't. 
  • Cost-effectiveness: Offices are also expensive. Say you have a project that needs 20 team members. Do you have office space for them? What about the other 10 project managers in your office, who all need 20 people? Working remotely externalizes your overhead and saves a ton of money.
  • Talent: Remote projects let you reach across continents to find the best in the world and bring them on as needed. You can even pull together people who work for different companies, or freelancers if you can find them, and get the best in the field for nearly every job your project needs.
  • Perspective: Remote teams bring together different perspectives. Having a big team full of different people lets you come at problems from all angles, which creates novel solutions you might never have thought of with just the usual office team.
  • Satisfaction: People often report higher satisfaction when they can work from home. Remote jobs you can do over Zoom allow people to work at their own pace and switch between tasks as they like, which are the two biggest factors that drive job satisfaction.
  • Retention: It's a no-brainer that people who are happier and more productive are going to stick around longer than they would at a less satisfying job. Remote teams offer everything people need to stay on the job and stop keeping an eye out for a better opportunity somewhere else.
  • Savings: You're not just saving money with remotely managed projects; you're also saving time, space, and frustration with remote teams who can work from wherever they are about as efficiently as it's possible.

7 Cons of Remote Project Management

  • Communication: While office communications can be as simple as leaning over and hollering at a coworker, communicating between locations or different cities can be more of a challenge. If the project you're managing calls for a lot of cross-party contact, it can add extra hassle. 
  • Scheduling: If communications can be difficult among a remote team, scheduling can be worse. If, for instance, you have people working in San Francisco and several more in Europe or Australia, getting everybody together for a team meeting is an undertaking.
  • Accountability: Setting up an accountability system will help team members improve the overall quality of their work. It's not easy to develop accountability on a remote project, however, and a lot of the small stuff is likely to either escape your notice or be too much of a hassle to correct. 
  • Collaboration: Organic collaboration is more difficult. In person, your team members can hang out together and develop ideas, even on a break. That doesn't happen with remote projects. It's worth setting up a project Discord server, Slack channel, or another channel to encourage collaboration. 
  • Progress: Working remotely puts you in a position of trust with team members, who typically self-report on their progress until project goals are met and the product is delivered, or you find out with hours to go that there have been serious delays.
  • Culture: Developing a strong company culture helps integrate teams smoothly. When everybody is in the same office, people will gel around a common set of expectations, references, and rules. This is a pain to develop when your team doesn't see each other every day in the same office.
  • Management: The distance between you and the teams complicates almost all of your management tasks, and turns meetings into experiments in patience and resourcefulness. When you're managing a team remotely, you have less resources than you might when in an office. This can be mitigated with proper resource management for remote teams.

8 Tips for Managing Remote Teams

  • Set clear expectations: Setting clear expectations for performance, communication, and project timeline from the very beginning helps to prevent misunderstandings and avoidable errors when you're deep into the project. If, for example, you need a web developer to do a little rudimentary HTML design work on the front end of the site you're building, work out a strategy early on to make sure they know about the extra requirements and how to get the help they need.
  • Schedule regular meetings: Setting expectations is great for getting everybody on the same page, but to keep them there, you need to keep meeting with your people and having regular check-ins. Schedule meetings at least weekly to discuss any minor issues that may have come up in the course of the project, and don't be shy about calling interim meetings as needed to deal with any brush fires.
  • Create established communication channels: Having meetings is all good, but you're going to have to communicate freely between them, so your stakeholders all need a way to get in touch in a hurry. In the old days, you'd exchange phone numbers. Today you can set up a project-specific chat server for instant communication and use email for team communications that call for more detail.
  • Encourage independence: You're not managing remote projects because you're a control freak, and the people on your teams aren't there because they need to be micromanaged. Encourage independence of action and initiative wherever you can. This is one of the areas where remote project management shines since it's structurally biased in favor of independent freelance personalities.
  • Check on your people: As cool as it is to be the hands-off boss, you still need to keep an eye on things. Plan to drop in on your team members every so often, even if it's a surprise phone call, to check up on them and learn how things are going.
  • Fight the distraction monster: People get distracted very easily. Even at the office, studies show that average workers get distracted by something 6-8 times during the workday, which burns about 28% of what should be productive time. Working from home is a distraction machine, and you need a plan to help your team fight it.
  • Be outcome-based: You may not need to be told this, but focusing on the outcome of the work is the only way to get to the end of your projects in one piece. The great virtue of using remote teams is the flexibility they offer in how the work gets done. As helpful as this is, it practically forces you to keep your eyes on the deliverables and try to stick to your project calendar. Focusing on the outcomes and not the processes or minutiae saves you a world of trouble and time.
  • Patience is a virtue: Everything else to one side, you have to be patient. Not everything is going to go well, no matter how hard you work or how good your plan is. Be patient with all of your people, and allow the processes to work themselves out naturally. Ask for help when you need it but also be patient with yourself.

Find more remote project management best practices here.

Must-Have Tools for Managing Projects Remotely

Remote project management only became possible with the rise of digital communications. Some of the best new technologies are available as standalone apps, which can pull your team together and help them meet your goals. These project management tools for remote teams generally offer specific features and functionalities to support the unique needs of remote teams.

Here are some cool software tools you can plug into and experiment with for your next project.

Find more remote-first SaaS project management tools here.

What's Next?

For more help managing projects remotely, connect with other digital project managers in our membership community. Get access to the conversation in Slack to share resources and best practices, as well as to 100+ templates, samples, and examples.

Galen Low
By Galen Low

Galen is a digital project manager with over 10 years of experience shaping and delivering human-centered digital transformation initiatives in government, healthcare, transit, and retail. He is a digital project management nerd, a cultivator of highly collaborative teams, and an impulsive sharer of knowledge. He's also the co-founder of The Digital Project Manager and host of The DPM Podcast.