‘Remote project management does not work’ is often what I hear from CEO’s and COO’s. But is this really true or just a preconception? In early spring 2020 I was suddenly forced to manage a project remotely from home office, which initially had been foreseen to be an on-site project. Here is what were the challenges and how to make this work in your company. A 2020 case study.
Sometimes disaster just strikes, and you can do nothing about it. Beginning of 2020 one of my international customers asked me to manage a project for him on site. We had just started setting up the project and gotten to know some people from the team when Corona struck and I was stuck in a foreign country and my customer closed their offices, but lucky enough not the project.
Suddenly, I was faced with the need to become a virtual project manager and manage this project remotely. This came with a whole lot of challenges, but also opened the eyes for opportunities and revealed some of the distortions why people think that virtual project management does not work.
Now do not get confused about my wording, as I use ‘remote’ and ‘virtual’ interchangeably, as in this context from my point of view the meaning is the same. You can use whatever word you like.
The executive summary: Yes, managing projects remotely does work!
I was not sure at first how this would work out, as my customer had initially insisted on this project to be managed on-site. This is normally a sign of the communication of the company and the working together rely very much on face-to-face interactions.
But having to move into home office after just 2 weeks of project on site, which was in fact my holiday flat, I can state that…
Virtual project management does actually work pretty well,Christian Sachs
even with organisations that are not used to it.
Nonetheless, there are prejudices and challenges that come with this kind of set up, like not being able to meet face-to-face, or the belief that you cannot exercise control if you do not see a person.
Looking at the example of the project at hand shows the misconception. The team setup was already not all in one place. Only a fraction of the team was on site, the rest spread over Northern Europe, Middle East, and China. But even with this setup the prejudice remained, that a project manager must be on site.
It clearly helped that we could do some on-site preparation and have face-to-face meetings with top management, the project sponsors, and the on-site team. Once the set-up done, remote project management was amazingly effective.
Once you have adhered to the idea of virtual project management you can also tap into some very distinct advantages, like having access to full-time and part-time talent all over the world and not only in your small town. Also, not travelling to see different sites was a huge time saver.
But it is also not all sunshine and roses unless you adhere to some ground rules and shift your thinking.
Now let us go for the details.
Start on the positive side…
The advantages of managing projects remotely
With all the challenges we should not forget that there are some substantial advantages of going virtual with your project management and your team.
You gain access to talent from all over the world, as you are no longer limited to the area where your offices are, but you can at least reach out to people in your time zone.
In my special case it would in fact have made no difference to work from an office or not because the team was spread all over the world. Out of 20 team members 10 were in the office, 8 were in other countries in Europe and 2 in Asia. As a matter of fact, most of the meetings would have been over video anyways.
Your company will be much more disaster proof if you have your projects managed remotely. It is not only Covid19 that made you close your offices, but also events like 9/11 where suddenly travel was pretty much restricted. Or imagine your offices would burn down. Wouldn’t it be great to have your project team set up remotely and being able to continue working uninterrupted?
You gain in flexibility. You can hire highly skilled people part time if you do not have a full-time gig for them. Like whatever expert who has kids he or she wants to take care of and thus would not be willing to work full time AND spend an hour or 2 each day commuting to the office. Doing 4 hours per day from home sounds much more workable in this case, isn’t it?
Your team saves a bunch of time and gains flexibility because they just have to walk into another room in their house, instead of spending lots of time in public transport or in the car getting to the other side of the town. And if they use the time they saved for study, do self-development, or get into shape the benefits are tremendous. Believe me, the high performers in your teams will do.
You better pay attention to these…
Challenges of managing projects remotely
Especially when you have a situation where you need to send your project managers into home office on short notice, like this was the case with the Corona pandemic, you will face a certain number of challenges. But here is how to overcome them.
If you send people to work from home, make sure they have a good internet connection. This was a real challenge at Covid19-time, as everybody was working from home and thus overstretching the available bandwidth.
Then you need to set up a secure connection to the office IT systems and good communication tools, like Skype for Business or Teams. And, last but not least, you need to equip your people with laptop computers if not yet done, as moving around a desktop workstation might be a little cumbersome. 😉
I will come straight to the point. If you are not ready to trust your people you will not be able to make this work.
Get rid of your control issues and the thinking that you pay your employees by the hour worked, as this is old style industrial age thinking. Your people are not paid because they are able to sit in front of a computer for 8 hours in a row. Any chimpanzee could do that. But you need people to think, to be creative and to produce results. If the result is there, stop worrying if that person has done 8 hours in a day or not.
This day and age you just can no longer measure results by the time spent on doing the task, because not all people are equally efficient and talented in all and every task. Focus on the results and stop caring about if he or she took their kids out for eating an ice during the day, as long as you get the result you want.
But do not get me wrong. Trust must be earned and maintained continuously. You must talk straight if people do not keep their promises. A document not delivered on time, delays adding up in the projects or the infamous sentence in meetings “Sorry can you repeat, the sound was cutting out” being repeated too often which in reality means, “I didn’t pay attention, was reading a book, doing the dishes,…” are signs that things are slipping. You need to address this issue. You need to be absolutely clear that this is not acceptable. And do not forget, whatever you expect as a behaviour from your employees, you must demonstrate that first.
This is a challenge everybody faces when working from home. Depending on the type of person, it can be difficult to work all day without any social interaction. People who are a high ‘I’ (influential, collaborative) on the DISC profile will probably have a rough time working alone from home. You might need to provide support to your teams to overcome this.
Help your people to overcome the difficulties to draw the boundaries between work and leisure time. This is especially true for project environments, where the workload of a project manager and his team can change a lot from one day to another, depending on the problems coming up.
Checking emails quickly after dinner and some glasses of red wine might be a bad mix for writing a good response to a nasty email. And if you do not respond it might keep you awake all night thinking about what to do with it. Do not do this yourself and don’t expect it from your employees. It is even a good idea to phrase this as a rule explicitly.
It is also a good mental hygiene measure to switch off all work-related devices in the evening and mark a clear cut between work and private time, like most of us do while commuting back home from the office. Now as you do not commute you need to find a different way to make this cut, like going for a run or a walk.
As you lead by example you should also refrain from actively contacting your people after office hours just because something came to mind. Take a note and address the topic next morning.
When it comes to international projects time zones can be an issue and you might need to organise work differently to cater for this. But if your project team accepts to work until 10 at night to participate in meetings with the Americas, do not expect them to respond to your call at 8 am next morning.
One parting word, if your team works well and the result is there, feel free to open the door to less standardised working times. A responsible person for example may very well take the afternoon off to take care of the kids and get the work done in the mornings and when the kids are in bed. If this has no negative impact on the rest of the team it would be perfectly acceptable. But you should put this in writing and be transparent with the other team members about this to make sure that resting times are respected.
to make Virtual Project Management work
Now this said, there are some good practices that I found helpful for overcoming the challenges and taking full advantage of virtual project management:
1. Lead by example!
I know that this is good practice for every leader, but it is increasingly important when working remotely. People will follow you, whatever you do. So do the things right if you want them to do things right.
2. Set up ground rules for the working together!
This is especially important, as informal communication tends to cease in a virtual environment. There is no longer such thing as meeting over a coffee in the office to discuss and clean out little issues.
3. Switch the camera on for video conferences!
It is much easier to connect when you see the face of the person you are talking to. Also, if you want to lead by example you may want to show a bit of your workspace and how well it is organised (it hopefully is!). This is also a way to provide prove that you are not doing the dishes, house repair or whatever while being in a meeting.
4. For Men: Shave and dress correctly!
Relating to 3. I know working from home is different and you never shave on weekends. But you want people to act in a professional way and this starts with dressing correctly and shaving, if wearing a beard is not your normal office look. Do not get me wrong, it is totally acceptable to be dressed like on casual Friday. But looking like Tom Hanks in Cast Away does not send a signal of professionalism to your team and that is what you want, don’t you?
5. For Women: You want to look professional!
Again relating to 3. Keep your bikini for the beach. It might be hot in your little apartment, but if you want to be taken seriously that implies being dressed and combed. Like said in point 4, you do not need to put on your neat office suit but do not go more relaxed than on a normal casual Friday.
6. Leave some space between meetings!
I found the fact that everybody is working from home and in front of the computer leads to a lot of back to back meetings. The problems are twofold. From time to time you need a minute to stand-up, stretch and go to the bathroom. And you also need some time to actually do some work, like writing an email, preparing a presentation, etc. If people are in meetings all day long, they try to multitask which is something science has proven does not work.
7. Separate workspace and private space as far as possible!
Yes, if you do not have a proper place to work at home, this might be challenging. Mute your microphone when in noisy environment. I know having kids, a dog or whatever makes noise in your household. If you have no dedicated workspace, this is a problem you need to solve. It should not impact the communication between your team members more than absolutely necessary.
Managing projects remotely does work! If you find solutions to the following challenges:
1) Technical Challenges
2) Trust Challenges
3) Psychological Challenges
4) Boundaries Challenges
The advantages of virtual project management are:
1) Helps gaining access to talent from all over the world,
2) Disaster-proofs your company,
3) Gain in flexibility,
4) Safes time for your team and yourself.
Remote project management BEST PRACTICES:
1) Lead by example!
2) Set up ground rules for the working together!
3) Switch the camera on for video conferences!
4) For Men: Shave and dress correctly!
5) For Women: You want to look professional!
6) Leave some space between meetings!
7) Separate workspace and private space as far as possible!
What are your experiences with working remote with your team?
Now that you have read all this, I would be curious to know more about your experience with remote work. Have you been forced to work from home yourself or sent all your team to work from home? Jump to the comments section and share what you have learned in this kind of experience for yourself and your team.
Has this increased or decreased the performance?
What were the things that you tried out to make all this work, what worked, and what did not?
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Now, go below to the comments, ask your questions or let’s start a discussion! As you already know, I answer all questions and comments.