Does remote project management really work?

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Remote project management may be a great alternative to traditional project management for most organizations, project managers and team members, but is it realistic? There are tangible advantages here, but this is not for the faint-hearted.

Does remote project management work? The answer, in general, is yes, it can. Will remote project management work for your organization if you have a top-notch virtual project teams? Not necessarily.

There are advantages to establishing virtual project teams for remote project management. Some may include the following:

  • Lower project costs due to technology advancements that bridge distance
  • Improved work/life balance for project team members
  • Increased efficiency and decreased travel time
  • increased ability to attract top talent

While these are definitely advantages, when it comes to knowing if remote project management is right for your company you should carefully vet several aspects. Below are some aspects that may impact an organization’s ability to execute a project successfully using virtual project teams, as well as some possible solutions.

[Related slideshow: The 7 best project management mobile apps of 2015] 

Factors that may impede remote project management

Productivity degradation. Even the most dedicated project managers and team members can at times lack focus and have trouble staying on task, despite their dedication to the project. 

Possible solutions:  

  • Seek to build virtual project teams with members that not only have the required technical expertise but possess an intrapreneurial outlook and approach to their work. People who are intrapreneurial naturally possess a passion for what they do; they are results-oriented, resourceful, dedicated, independent, innovative and highly adaptable.
  • Expect a high level of professionalism and personal integrity from all team members. This trait should not be optional, as it drives the actions of team members throughout projects.
  • Foster exceptional organizational skills in all team members. If this is not a team member’s strong suit, additional training can be gained in this area to improve their abilities in this regard.
  • Clearly define the roles of all team members, establish schedules, and regularly monitor the status of activities and deliverables to ensure nothing falls through the cracks. This is particularly important with virtual teams due to various obstacles like distance, time and possible cultural and language barriers that may exist.

Location, distance or time zone issues. Project schedules can develop a bottleneck when negatively impacted by the distance between team members, time zone changes that impact fluctuating work hours, and even remote locations of work where communication is limited due to telecommunication servicing gaps.

Possible solutions: 

  • Establish clear policies and protocols to address expected availability of team members throughout the life of a project. Whenever possible, determine a reasonable time and schedule for team meetings where all required members can attend in order to effectively manage the project. Due to time zone changes, this may only be a small window of time per week but can significantly aid in effectively monitoring progress and moving things along.
  • Ensure all remotely located team members have access to the necessary technologies to complete their required work on time, and have enabled them to communicate with key contacts as well as the project manager as needed.

Cultural and legal differences. In today’s global business world, many organizations have projects that span across multiple geographical locations; sometimes creating cultural and legal challenges that must be factored into the success of a project.

Possible solutions: 

  • In the initial stages, it will be important to evaluate and address any legal or regulatory issues that may exist currently or in the future.These types of issues can easily and unnecessarily halt a project. Try to gain critical local and/or international legal expertise prior to proceeding with the project, which can mitigate the risk of the project becoming an expensive sunk cost.
  • Also prior to initiating a project, research and prepare for any cultural or language barriers that could crop up throughout the project. This is an area that is often highly underestimated but can often times create the potential to risk project failure due to misunderstandings.

Communication barriers. This is easily one of the areas most impacted in remotely managed projects because teams are not meeting regularly face-to-face, where it is easier to gauge facial expressions, body language and tone of voice simultaneously. As a result, effective and timely communication can be the most troubling for virtual project teams to achieve.

Possible Solutions: 

  • Project managers will have to work exceptionally hard to establish trust with and among team members. Work at building virtual teams that feel connected and stay connected regularly. It may be helpful to talk with some other virtual project teams that have been successful in this regard. Also, find out more about your team members in order to establish common ground to help build a more cohesive team.
  • When possible set up the initial kick-off and weekly/bi-weekly meetings via video conference as people often feel more connected when they can see each other when they are talking.
  • Try to use different forms of communication depending on time and information sensitivities, timing differences, the nature of the message and even the audience.
  • Set team based rewards that are tied to team performance, not just individual performance.

[Related: How to pick a project management methodology] 

Technology, data access and security issues. Having the right technology and tools available to all members of a project team is essential in ensuring a project is on schedule and on budget. This is especially true in remote project management.  Projects can easily fall out of scope if team members cannot access the data they need in a timely manner. Projects and organizations can also be negatively impacted by security breaches that can put the client’s or internal company data at risk. This is another area often highly underestimated and overlooked.

Possible solutions:

  • Prior to project execution ensure the appropriate PM/other collaboration tools, access rights and permissions are identified, provisioned and tested for all project team members.
  • Establish clear security protocols for utilizing all company information, resources, technologies and external mobile devices.

Remote project management can work; however, there are numerous factors that impact the success of a virtual project team, including the industry, project nature and complexity, infrastructure, communications, technology and team dynamics.

Take a close look at your organizational goals and resources.The success will depend on how well all issues are sufficiently and appropriately addressed in the initial stages and how well your resources, knowledge and tools are leveraged to avoid any pitfalls. This may require some specialized situational team training to help improve on schedule management, effectively utilizing collaboration tools, and improving communications, processes, and protocols.

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