8 expert tips for remote project management

Seasoned remote project managers offer next-level tips and tricks from the virtual trenches for coordinating the output and productivity of remote teams.

8 expert tips for remote project management
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In the past few weeks, you’ve pulled off a feat you once believed impossible: Without notice, planning, or training you became project manager for a remote team you never see in person.

Managing remotely is a specialized skill, requiring communication and mediation skills, digital tools, and excellent planning and visualization. When built from the ground up, a remote team operates differently from one that works in an office. It would even have different people on it — those who sought and selected a remote job.

Not everyone thrives in a work-from-home setting. According to a recent study from the National Research Group, 51 percent of Gen Z find working from home distracting and 41 percent say they don’t have the necessary resources. “There are advantages and disadvantages to remote work,” agrees Kenny Johnston, director of product ops at GitLab. GitLab is a completely remote company with teams in more than 65 countries. “The people we hire enjoy it and we self-select for a principle we call ‘manager of one,’ which means we expect people to be proactive, define their own work, and be responsible for their own projects.”

If managing a remote team is new to you, you’ll need to hone some skills. To that end, I spoke to project managers who’ve been managing remote teams for years. Here is their advice.

1. Communicate intentionally

Everyone I spoke to agrees that remote communication is a different animal from in-person interactions. “There are all these lightweight, nuanced, subtle ways we talk with colleagues in an office,” says Ethan Fast, CTO and co-founder of Nash. Fast manages a remote team of 33 people located all over the world. “When you work remotely, you can no longer rely on those. You have to be proactive and intentional about communication.”

One way to replace some of that rich in-person communication is with video meetings. But those — and all your communication channels — require a clear strategy and specialized skills.

“I’d say that the best practice is to have a daily touch point,” says Kelley Ervin Project Manager at Talent Path. “It does not have to be long.” Ervin manages a remote team of more than 10 people, all over the country.

“We take a page out of Scrum,” says Katie Guzman, product manager lead at Asana. She supports 10 product managers. “We do a daily standup. Everyone says, ‘This is what I did yesterday, and this is where I'm blocked.’ We do it on a video call, so everyone is up and working.”

You’ll also have to rely heavily on written communication to clarify, document, add fine points, follow up, and touch base often, whatever video meeting schedule you choose.

And you have to be intentional about how you connect with each member of your team.

2. Practice good video meeting hygiene

Come up with a playbook for managing video meetings so everyone gets heard and chaos can’t reign. Asana’s Guzman calls this, “practicing good meeting hygiene.”

All the PMs I spoke to agree you should insist everyone turn their camera on in meetings so you can see everyone is well, out of bed, and engaged.

But the key to a worthwhile video conference is to send an agenda before the meeting and to follow up with notes sent out afterward. “We start by defining what would make this meeting successful,” says Guzman. “That way, at the end, everyone has the satisfaction of a job well done.”

“One way I’ve seen meetings go sideways is confusion caused by video calls that make it hard to interrupt,” she says. There are the clues someone wants to speak when you meet in person. They sit up, catch your eye, raise a hand, or clear their throat. That’s all lost in a video call. “We made physical signs,” says Guzman. “We wrote on Post-it Notes so people can plus-one when they have a question. It’s a subtle strategy that’s very effective.”

Letting meetings flow from the video call to a post-meeting chat is also effective.

“I do a quick debrief after meeting,” says Guzman. “To simulate the ‘walking out of the meeting’ time. We discovered remote teams often think the meeting went less well because they didn’t get that positive moment people in the room get. So I do that on Slack.”

3. Write with surgical precision

When so much communication happens via written channels, “you have to be a lot more organized about communicating with your team precisely," says Adam Matas, head of project management and manager of a remote team at Taulia. “While it’s important to be thorough and organized in your documentation, it is equally important to be concise in your communication in order to drive action.”

Whether you prefer Slack, Skype, or email for daily communications, try to be precise, concise, and clear. Long detailed missives overwhelm an audience that’s already distracted.

Make sure it’s easy to answer quickly. Don’t pack too much into a message. Make it clear what’s required so your recipient can move through communications quickly. Use active language and direct messaging.

And keep in mind that constant interruptions, especially from someone the team feels they can’t ignore, seriously impacts productivity. According to a one study, it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to work after every interruption.

4. Search out conflict

There are issues — mostly around conflict — that won’t come up unless you hunt them down. “The pain point I see most often,” says GitLab’s Johnston, “is what I call suffering in silence.” You don’t want this to go unnoticed. The longer conflicts rage, the more intense they become.

“Team members end up struggling and having a high level of anxiety,” he says. “That’s not visible. So, as a manager, I’ve gotten in the habit of asking how people are doing both at home and at work, on a regular basis.”

“When you think, ‘Hmm, I wonder if they’re okay, that’s a sign something is off,” says GitLab’s Christie Lenneville, a UX director who manages what is perhaps the largest global all-remote UX team in the world. “Any time I’ve asked if everything is okay and it was, no one minded that I asked. But when something is wrong, people deeply appreciate that I am willing to start a dialogue.”

If your conflict hunt turns up issues, says Johnston, “the tactics for solving it are probably the same as they were in an office. The biggest risk is not knowing. You would have gotten other signals in an office that you don't get remotely.”

5. Don’t lead with anxiety

If you tend toward anxiety, the massive shift to suddenly working from home might cause you to drill deeper into every project, lock down every detail, and try to control all aspects of everything everyone is doing.

Resist that urge.

“It's a mindset challenge,” says Rachel Happe, co-founder and principal of The Community Roundtable. “All of a sudden, you have to trust people you can't see. There’s a lot of legitimate anxiety around management. Find a channel for it. You can't put it on your employees if you want them to be productive.”

Communicate instead. Get everyone involved and problem-solving. Set up routines. Put meetings on the schedule. Do a daily roll call. Hone your Scrum master skills. Lead.

“Get the whole team together and ask how they want to work together,” says Happe. “Check in with people, ask about routines that will get everyone to buy in. That will calm people. Lowering anxiety is your first priority.”

6. Flex your empathy

Everyone I spoke to said remote managers need to do one-on-one meetings, regularly, with everyone because some things never come up in a meeting or Slack. Use those to imagine the job from each person’s point of view. “You need to empathize with the people on your team,” says Tim Macek, director of technical operations and infrastructure at Sterling Trading Tech. He manages a remote team of 15 people. “Whether they sit next to you or are remote.”

When you do this, you’ll find problems — and solutions — you would have missed.

“I have a team in Serbia,” says Macek. “When I got here, there was a daily tech ops meeting that, for them, happened at 7 p.m. — even on Fridays.” Remote teams often don’t feel comfortable bringing this sort of thing up. He put himself in their shoes, though, and changed the meeting time — which was easy to do — to something reasonable for everyone.

This applies with the type of work people do, as well. “A manager’s time and a coders time are used differently,” says Spencer Waldron, global communications director at Prezi. “Managers tend to organize a meeting or call into the free calendar slots they have. But someone whose job it is to create code, needs big chunks of 'deep work' time. Getting pulled out of that work to attend a 1-hour meeting can ruin a whole afternoons work.”

He encourages team members to recognize the type of time they need and mark it off on their calendar, so they aren’t constantly pulled away from work.

7. Productivity? Bring it up

Don’t be afraid to talk to your team about productivity. If you don’t bring it up, no one will. “People think it’s taboo to talk about productivity,” says Taulia’s Matas. “But there is going to be adjustment to day-to-day working processes, which more people are experiencing first-hand in this climate. It is good to talk about it.”

Productivity is easy to undermine, especially when working remotely. Working too much, though, can be a bigger problem, in the long run. With no clear markers between work and home, many people fall into this trap.

Everyone I spoke to encourages their team to set real hours, create a workspace or system that signals when they’re working, and stick to them.

At GitLab productivity is a common topic. “We use issue boards for this,” says Lenneville. “That way, we can see if someone is under-resourced. A manager can also look at an issue board to see when someone is overloaded.”

Overwork is not something the company encourages. It’s bad for morale, health, and ultimately productivity. Team members call each other out for it and manager’s step in to correct it. “We are focused on work/life balance because we know people can fall into that trap.”

8. Help your culture thrive

When you work in an office, culture happens. But when you work remotely, someone needs to give it a place and forum to thrive.

“We like to give everyone a Starbucks gift card and take a coffee break together,” says Tara Gilbert, customer experience team lead at monday.com. She manages an entirely remote customer experience team. “The whole team gets on Zoom or Slack and we have a great time catching up on things that aren't only work related.”

GitLab takes remote culture-building seriously. “We’ve built a system for it,” says Johnston. “We have twice-a-week Zoom meetings that are coffee chats. We have slack channels for board games, beer, every location, dogs, parents, and many other things.”

“We have even scheduled Zoom meetings where team members’ kids get together,” says GitLab’s Lenneville. “It's funny and crazy and silly and everyone enjoys it.”

The company also encourages people to have a life, even in meetings. “If your kid gets into your lap when you’re in a meeting,” says Lenneville, “we all say, ‘Hi!’ It’s fine. We have pets in meetings. We like it. It helps us get to know each other.”

Bringing the personal into work, even remotely, builds culture. And it makes working from home a lot more fun.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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