Any HR professional can tell you: the remote workforce is expanding. In fact, a 2017 Gallup poll reported that 43% of employed Americans said they spent at least some time working remotely, an increase of 4% since 2012. And some companies (Buffer.com, Chess.com) go the whole nine yards with entirely virtual teams: everyone works off-site, spanning multiple time zones, countries, even continents.
For many, working remotely means added flexibility and freedom. But a distributed workforce presents new challenges to project managers accustomed to an in-house team.
Below are some common areas of concern stemming from the reality of having a remote team. We will see that none of the concerns are drastically different from what we deal with on a day-to-day basis.
You may not be able to simply drop by your colleague’s remote office (if you did, you might find yourself holding a meeting on their bed).
However, even though your team is spread over different time zones and locations, you’re probably already well-versed in building relationships that span geographical boundaries. The foundations for success, such as basic communication skills and use of enabling technology, are already in place—they just need to be tweaked for managing remote relationships. Just as you had to experiment until you found the right time of day and medium for connecting with your valued supplier, your interaction with remote workers has to be orchestrated through conscientious planning. In today’s global markets, we already conduct business with long-distance suppliers, customers, agents, project sponsors, etc.
Take a deep breath, and remember: you’re already familiar with the foundational skills for managing an efficient virtual team
Especially if your virtual team is newly assembled, working remotely will incur start-up costs and downtime during setup. In light of today’s just-in-time production schedules and uber-tight budgets, project managers are rightfully cautious of introducing remote work arrangements.
Keep in mind, however, that this isn’t unique to virtual teams: like all new initiatives (adding new personnel or tools, adopting new methods) requires resources. When managed properly, the new initiatives can ultimately drive productivity gains that offset the initial overhead. In fact, Industry research shows productivity gains due to increased effort and engagement by virtual teams.
The importance of communication in the life of project managers is highlighted by the claim that 90% of a PM’s time is spent on communication. As a critical element of the job, crafting a solid communication plan becomes all the more important when coordinating efforts between a team spread across the globe.
From presenting sponsors with a status report to coaching a team member on improving their performance, we PMs are already accustomed to using a variety of mediums (wikis, tweets, emails) to communicate—even when we’re working with an on-site team.
Of course, it’s true that timezone differences make effective communication with remote team members more challenging, but effective communication with virtual team members is certainly attainable.
Nowadays, it is rare for project team members to be fully dedicated to a single project at any given time. We often fret over the possibility that, on a given day, a scheduled remote worker may work on another project (or not work at all). Supervising virtual teams is a challenge due to the lack of proximity.
However, remember that we, as project managers, face the same reality even if team members are on-site. On-site employees also juggle multiple projects simultaneously. This is so common that there’s a well-developed pool of knowledge on how to improve productivity in a multi-project multitasking work environment. What is encouraging is that off-site workers have a distinct productivity advantage over their on-site colleagues: in general, they self-manage much of their working time. This means they can stop working on a task at a logical completion point before switching to a new one, hence minimizing the loss of productivity due to context switching.
The above concerns arising from having to manage a remote workforce are nothing new to us as project managers. Still, the coordination challenges they pose to are exacerbated by the distance and time zone differences.
Left alone, out-of-sight remote team members may become out-of-mind. When this happens, they may develop feelings of isolation, become reluctant to provide or ask for help from the team, and stop providing meaningful feedback to management.
To facilitate effective, ongoing interactions among team members, leverage technology. Slack is a popular team communication platform. Team members can communicate using email, text, voice, video calls—whatever platform you use, organize the communication space clearly so team members can get ahold of one another reliably. Today, almost all of the project management software out there comes with team communication tools, and most also offer the option to integrate additional tools (like Slack).
As PMs, we should allocate sufficient time in our own schedule for one-on-one touchpoints with each off-site team member. Weekly video calls (using Skype or Google Hangouts) are ideal, but not always practical depending on your case. The key takeaway is that the one-on-one time is precious and should be used as such: mundane housekeeping topics such as time-tracking should be kept out of those dialogues. Instead, spend the time on coaching and exchanging honest feedback.
A high-end computer plus a fast Internet connection are but the basic information technology apparatus for working remotely. Alone, they aren’t going to automatically boost productivity for virtual teams—this is where good PM software comes into play.
Tools that on-site workers normally use may not translate well to a distributed team environment. To optimize a distributed workflow, additional tools are required, e.g., document management software. Slack (or a similar tool) allows a team of people located in different work sites to collaborate on the authoring, proof-reading and signing off of documents.
Virtual teams do not have access to the support infrastructures located at headquarters. As a project manager, we want virtual teams to spend the majority of their time on productive project-related tasks, not the mundane administrative ones. For example, tasks such as time tracking are essential but energy-draining to a remote worker. The good news is that applications exist to automate important administrative tasks. DPM recently published a great article listing some of the best applications with automatic time tracking.
Our organizations may already have written policies and operational procedures governing the acceptable uses of information technology and social media, call monitoring, employee privacy, etc. If these documents predate the era of the remote workforce, they need updates to stay relevant.
For a project team member, the main attraction of working remotely is the flexibility to set one’s working hours and to optimize personal peak production times. However, we don’t want our team members to work in silo, feel alienated, or burn out. Below are some procedural rules that project managers should consider adding into the corporate policies:
A remote workforce holds the promise of increased overall productivity. However, the boost in productivity will not materialize suddenly, just as a remote worker will not suddenly become a self-managing super-producing employee of the month. Productivity-friendly work habits need to be developed and perfected over time. We as project managers should step into the role of the coach.
To be good coaches, we require an accurate picture of the worker’s work habits and performance data. Without objective input data, productivity discussions quickly descend into guessing exercises and heated rebuttals. Again, technology alleviates the problem by automating the capture of the vital data. The time tracking applications mentioned in Lifehack 2 capture work hours which can serve as input data in coaching sessions. In addition to capturing hours worked, these apps also record statistics on applications run and websites visited by the remote worker.
Conventional wisdom tells us that remote workers, with no daily commutes and more family time, should theoretically have a healthy work-life balance.
It may come as a surprise to learn that several studies have shown that remote workers are at risk of the exact opposite, due to an inability to switch out of work mode. While higher productivity is the goal of every organization, burn-out as a by-product is not. We have the responsibility to protect the well-being of team members to ensure their long-term productivity.
As project managers, we need to engage each remote team member in discussions on maintaining a good work-life balance while keeping productivity high. Each team member is unique. Hence, there is no one-size-fits-all plan. Some flexibility and room for exploration should be allowed. However, we should monitor progress based on the hours worked as reported by time tracking applications.
Remote working is a modern phenomenon which introduces new challenges—and sometimes repackages the conventional PM challenges with a slightly different flavor.
Project managers can cope with a virtual project team by focusing on improving our coaching and communication skills, and by researching and embracing new technologies that better support a distributed workflow.