Managing Remote Projects Is Like Having 1 Arm Tied Behind Your Back. These Mental Models Can Free You.

Because so much nonverbal communication is lost in remote work environments, it’s important to overcompensate by putting more time and specificity into your messaging.
Headshot of author T.C. Portis
T.C. Portis
Expert Contributor
April 27, 2021
Updated: April 28, 2021
Headshot of author T.C. Portis
T.C. Portis
Expert Contributor
April 27, 2021
Updated: April 28, 2021

The past year’s lesson can’t be ignored: There’s no going back to the way we worked before.

We’ve entered a new frontier of opportunity where companies are evaluating their operations as fully virtual work spaces. So how can you as a project leader best tackle this unique challenge?

Consider the changes — to our workplaces, communication styles, resources and leadership expectations — and see the high-value proposition of updating your programs to ensure your team and clients are heard, accounted for, respected and prosperous in this ever-changing atmosphere. Make sure you review major elements of your office and strategize for how you can elevate your success as you manage projects remotely. Proactively adapting can solidify your team as a unit that delivers effective projects.

You may be used to a diverse working schedule mix of on-site and remote work. But what about your team members, vendors and stakeholders? What about the working styles and planning pace you previously established? Here are the shifts you should respond to as you develop your remote project management plan.

 

Loss of Face-to-Face Interaction

There is no doubt that in-person interaction can have a great impact on a project manager’s ability to influence, monitor and build rapport with team members and clients. Gone is the ability to see your engineers and to discuss progress, do quick “drive-by” meetings, make on-the-fly decisions and get tangible feedback. The work process has to be more formal and structured to ensure those needs are being addressed.

So how can you make up for this? What can you do to get that informal conversation started during formally structured check-ins? For one, include some informal conversation topics with your project planning. And when you do have those formal meetings, make an open call for opinions and feedback on your reports’ experience with a process or recent project. Zoom fatigue has set in for all of us, so this can also be accomplished with a quick email or instant message to a few key folks on the team. Asking for input can show that you value their opinion outside of official channels — as long as you actually follow up and discuss how that feedback can help you.

Read More From Our Project Management ExpertsHow to Manage Projects Effectively, Regardless of the Client or Industry

 

More Time Zones to Consider

Teams are more spread out than before. With more and more employees being hired remotely and team members choosing to relocate due to the coronavirus, you likely have multiple zones to consider. It’s important that you make an effort to assess whether traditional working hours are functioning as intended — and you should consider switching up meeting times to accommodate.

A great example, if you have EMEA users, is meeting a little earlier in the day. It could be a thoughtful gesture to show you are aware of the time difference and the challenges it creates for collaborative international teams. I have had very good success with simply going to the affected team members and asking for their preferences. Granted, it is not always possible due to the size of the meeting, but adjusting the calendar to give them relief toward the end (or the start) of their day can be a quick win for your working relationship.

Another perspective is to consider the skills that are newly requalified as we work from home. These highly valuable aspects of the remote workplace can be just as impactful as wrapping up successful projects.

 

Amplify Your Communication

Because so much nonverbal communication is lost in remote work environments, it’s important to overcompensate by putting more time and specificity into your messaging — especially when it comes to getting your point across to your diverse audiences. Below, I’ll cover both the hard and soft skills required.

 

Document Everything 

As office tasks force their way into people’s personal spaces, the line between work and home can feel nonexistent. That leads to more casual — and sometimes lax — communication occurring out of comfort. How can you ensure that everyone is on the same page? Prioritize the documentation for your projects. Encourage collaboration on meeting minutes and share that responsibility so that it does not become a burden for one associate manager on the team. Lay out your strategy in detail, not only with your scopes and statements of work but in your communication plans and risk logs too. By including dates, listing responsible parties for action items and documenting your expectations, you will save the headaches from informal communication misunderstandings.

 

Use Formal Tool Systems

Are you using project management software? Do you have unique project plans created by each project manager, and does that PMO assign work using Monday, Trello or MS Project? How consistent is the information in those tools? How easy is it to manage and export the data to report on for your stakeholders?

These questions will help you evaluate how well your team is inputting data. This is an opportunity to make sure your tools support your team’s working process and can be something you refresh expectations around. Getting data consistently is the only way to understand how the projects are progressing (or not!)

 

Words Matter

Using empty descriptors can cause confusion. Describing something as “good” is a great example. If I get a note that a report was “good,” what does that really mean? Did the report capture accurate metrics? Did it include enough information to fulfill the immediate need? Using detailed descriptors can provide the vivid detail that lets others into your purview of how the report was “good.” Other words that could provide better insight into the sliding scale quality might include:

  • Subpar
  • Baseline
  • Satisfactory
  • High quality
  • Beyond expectations

These capture a wide spectrum of outcomes and offer more information than a blah term like “good.” Can you think of other words or phrases that have made it into your work lexicon that might also be empty descriptors? Try replacing them in your next team meeting; you will see improved responses to action items when your descriptors are deliberate and specific.

 

Revive Relationships and Establish New Connections

Take this leveled opportunity to reach out and create a new standard for meeting others on your immediate team and in your community. It’s important to do this across the organization — with colleagues who are both senior and junior to your current role. Make an effort to learn more about how their own working styles have changed. You will find folks want to share how they work, what they are working on, and, sometimes, just commiserate.

The easy way to build mutual respect is to simply reach out and ask for a quick catch-up chat. I have had the good fortune of meeting so many different people during quarantine — authors, program and project leads, executive assistants, C-suite executives — all from asking if I could get to know them and learn what challenges they’re trying to overcome. Those connections might turn into new projects or new connections to further my project work, or they may just turn into new friendships. Either outcome is a win, and becoming a well connected and aware project manager is a best-case scenario that you can control and initiate!

 

The Takeaway

As you evaluate how you can improve and learn new best practices in the remote workplace, I want to remind you to encourage continuous improvement within yourself and your team. Try out many methods of updating your skills and find which ones work. Approach this new way of working with grace, and you will get it back.

Acknowledge the challenges in front you, and find the courage to address them head-on. The new remote workplace represents a big opportunity to reinvest in your communication skills — particularly because our habits have changed and may not return to the way they were before. By practicing specificity and implementing formal channels, you have the power to improve your team’s quality of work in spite of the environmental challenges we’ve all been dealing with.

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