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.
This can be a great way to coordinate across time zones with all kinds of people, both in and outside of your company's formal structure. It can also create more problems than it solves if you do it wrong.
In this piece, I go over remote project management best practices. 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.
By the end, you should have the project management tools you need to hold your team members together through all kinds of remote work. We 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.
You could even go for remote projects when you don't have to. Even if everybody is in the same town and could make it to the office, you might prefer remote project management as a way to coordinate your teams.
Reasons To Choose Remote Teams for Projects
You don't have to be stuck in the office all the time, and sometimes a new project is the excuse you need to go remote. Digital projects are especially promising for remote work. Here are some common reasons to go for remote project management, even when you have a choice.
Your company might have teams all over the place, and the talent you need might be half a world away. You might have headquarters in San Francisco, a data center in Phoenix, consultants in Boston, a sales rep in Houston, and maybe you're semi-retired and living somewhere nice.
In the old days, you'd all have to be sitting in the same office to get anything done, unless you wanted to manage your remote projects by U.S. Mail. Today, remote project management software links you together as easily as coordinating a conference call between floors of a single building.
Physical space isn't your only limitation when you're managing remote teams. You can also be shifted apart in time.
Some of this is the difference in time zones, where you might be ready to work at 9 a.m. PST on a Monday, but your team lead is back east and just broke for lunch. It can also be a difference of night and day, literally, if you're in North America and they're in India.
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.
Diversity of Talent
People come in all shapes and sizes, and so do their talent stacks. Even if you're working in the office with a completely on-site team, you might still pop up with a special need, such as a sudden gap in your consulting or a need for a graphic designer that you didn't expect when you started.
Then, remote management is your friend. Instead of flying somebody across the country or pulling a worker off another team, you can just add the person remotely and get the benefit of their expertise with the least hassle possible.
You aren't always going to have all the talent you need in one place. Say your company has a lot of database and developer teams but no designers in-house.
A major project, such as setting up a new website, might require you to do the back end and software development with the team you have in your location, with a design team from another department in your org located in say, Boston, and content from a third department in a place like Seattle.
Inviting all these people into your office in San Francisco probably isn't going to work, and farming work out to contractors is inefficient.
With decent remote project management, you can effectively build a team of people from everywhere who can work together and then disperse again when the project is done.
Global Pandemics and Other Unlikely Events
In the unlikely event of, say, a global pandemic that shuts down your office, having a remote team can be a lifesaver. Even before the fire, flood, earthquake, or alien invasion that closes your office, it's a good idea to put together some remote workers for projects and practice the skills and tools of remote project work.
That way, when something happens, you're already set up for a smooth switchover to remote work.
Pros and Cons of Remote Project Management
Like everything else in this world, remote project management is a mixed bag of good and bad. Sometimes it's the appropriate tool for the job, and other times, you might not want to go fully remote.
Before you assemble your remote team and settle into work, have a look at some of the pros and cons of remote project management.
The 8 Big 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. Pajamas and hair rollers are frowned upon in most offices, but they work great when everybody is operating remotely.
- Productivity: Working with a remote project team makes you all more productive. One of the big surprises for modern businesses is how much of a drag the office turns out to be. People have to put on uncomfortable clothes and fight traffic to get into the office, where the break room is always out of creamer. 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: Just as the office is a drag on employee morale and, ultimately, their productivity, it's also expensive. Say you have a big project that needs 20 team members to make it work. Do you have office space for them all? What about the other 10 project managers in your office, who all need 20 people and office space and creamer for everybody? If you work in one place, you need space for, at minimum, 231 people (220 team members, 10 managers, plus you). With remote teams, everybody is home or working from Starbucks, externalizing your overhead and saving a ton of money.
- Talent: No matter how amazing your job seekers are, you're not going to have all the talent in the world under one roof. Remote projects let you reach across continents to find the best braintrust in the world, or at least the best your budget can handle, 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, including from people who don't really fit into the office environment. No matter how many projects you've pulled off in the past or how easy the one you're doing now looks on paper, you're going to hit a few bumps sooner or later. 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, more productive, and working with an exciting and dynamic team are going to stick around longer than they would at a less satisfying job. Remote teams offer everything your people need to stay on the job and stop keeping one eye on the exit for a better opportunity somewhere else. The increased cost-effectiveness also helps retention, especially if it allows for a modest wage hike.
- Savings: You're not just saving money with remotely managed projects; you're saving basically everything else as well. You're saving time, space, and frustration with remote teams who can work from wherever they are about as efficiently as it's possible.
The 7 Irritating Cons of Remote Project Management
Managing teams remotely isn't all fun and games, of course. Like everything else, this approach is a series of tradeoffs between the good and the bad. Before you get too carried away with new remote initiatives to try out with your team, weigh the cons of remote project management against the upside.
Here are seven reasons you might not want to go fully remote on every project:
- Communication: Communication can be a challenge for remote teams. 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, doing it remotely can add extra hassle.
- Scheduling: If communications can be difficult among a remote team, scheduling can be worse. If, for instance, you have three people working in the office in San Francisco, half a dozen more located around the country, and several more in Europe, Australia, and other unlikely places, just getting everybody to be awake during the same hours is an undertaking, let alone pulling people together for a team meeting.
- 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: Working together always has its challenges, even when everybody is in a conference room with their sleeves rolled up. Even on a break, your team members can hang out together and develop ideas. That doesn't happen with remote projects, or at least it doesn't happen as easily. It might be worth the extra time and trouble to set up a project Discord server, Slack channel, or another routine messaging channel to encourage better collaboration.
- Progress: Are your teams making progress toward important project milestones? Are you sure? Working remotely puts you in a position of trust with team members, who typically self-report on their progress until either 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 is one of those intangibles that can help integrate teams smoothly. When everybody is in the same office within easy walking distance of each other for 8+ hours a day, people will naturally gel around a common set of expectations, references, and rules they work by. Collectively, this is the company culture, and it's a pain to develop when your team might not even work for the same company, let alone see each other every day in the same office.
- Management: As a project manager, your job is to manage projects. As a remote project manager, you're doing it remotely. The separation between yourself and your teams complicates almost all of your management tasks, and it turns even a simple meeting into an experiment in patience and resourcefulness. When you're managing a team in-house, you have a lot of resources open to you that might not be as readily available when you're running the operation from afar. 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 nearly instant communication and maybe project email addresses for team communications that call for a bit 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, and you should be okay.
Software 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.
Master Remote Project Management With Information
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