It is quite rare to find someone who does not, at least partly, collaborate on business tasks remotely. Neither is it uncommon for teams within your own organization to be located in other parts of the country (or even the world). If you are someone like me whose clients come from across the world, remote project management is the only way to get things done.
Managing a project remotely can be tricky. No matter how articulate you are in your verbal and written communication, it is still not as good as being there in person. In his book, “Silent Messages”, Professor Albert Mehrabian argues that spoken words contribute to only seven percent in any communication. Your body language, voice and tone contribute towards the rest.
It is of course not realistic to turn back the wheel of time to go back to the way project management happened in the past. We will therefore do the next best thing which is to identify the challenges that one faces with remote project management and finding ways to fix them.
Dealing with different time zones
Working with a team member from the other side of the globe is by far the most challenging aspect of remote project management. Simple queries to your colleagues could take hours to get answered. Not only can this mess up your work schedule, but it can also sometimes be a source of frustration.
This can seem like a bad thing, but is actually not. The fact that you may not be able to catch up with your team members for another day could instead force workers towards organizing their tasks better. Invest in project management software that fits the specific needs of your organization. Also, make sure that all elements of your project are exhaustively documented by the various members in the team. This way, you reduce your dependence on individual members and instead focus on the process.
If you run an agency that deals with clients from around the world, it is important to stick to a specific work schedule. Otherwise, you could be tiring yourself out by trying to work across multiple time zones. The rules change if most of your clients or team members are based in similar time zones. In such cases, it is a good idea to tweak your schedule to fit their working hours. You could, for instance, start a couple of hours early or end your day a couple of hours late if that could help you reach out to your colleagues before one of you logs out for the day.
Dealing with communication barriers
There are several factors that can impede a good transmission of information among the various people in a remote team. The absence of body language is definitely a contributor. Besides this, communication is also affected by channel issues such as poor network reception or internet connectivity. In turn this can accentuate other relatively minor issues like the inability to grasp the accent of the other speaker, not setting a pace that is comfortable for all users, and zoning out during remote meetings.
While there are several collaboration channels available to team members, they are not suitable for all scenarios. At a basic level, your team communication may be classified into two categories – brainstorming and project updates.
Brainstorming may include weekly catch-up meetings and product demo calls as well. In each of these scenarios, the objective is to enable free exchange of thoughts and ideas among the members in your team. While online chat tools can work well in some scenarios, they are not the best option to build a cohesive team. Video conferencing makes it possible for face-to-face conversations and you can also make use of the collaboration features like whiteboard, screen-sharing and control sharing to replicate a real-world conference room.
For project updates however, it is ideal to use a collaboration channel that is type-based. This helps with documenting the efforts from all members of the team which is absolutely crucial. Any team member who has a query relating to the project could look into past conversations which cannot happen with audio/video based discussions. Asana, Basecamp, Trello and Jira are some popular tools for collaboration. Slack, or the recently launched Microsoft Teams, is a better option if documentation is not your primary concern and all your team members are placed in similar time zones.
Tracking progress on a remote project shouldn’t be so hard. Yet, a significant number of such tasks fail because of improper collaboration. There are essentially two reasons why this happens. Firstly, there are often too many people meddling with the process. When your remote team has a flat hierarchy where people from various departments (like business, sales, design and development) collaborate, it leads to a ‘free for all’ where each member of the team creates their own workflow. This clutters the system and reduces the productivity of the team.
This problem can be frequently seen with project status messages. When different team members set their own status messages, it can lead to chaos where the status message itself does not carry any meaning. To fix this problem, all members of the team need to agree on who is responsible for the various processes like creating a new project, structuring the various project statuses, and who can close projects. Typically, these responsibilities fall on the service seeker. In a webpage design project, for instance, the design and development teams shall be the service providers while the business/sales team would be service seekers.
Another reason that contributes to improper collaboration is the lack of ground rules. Too often, members in a project tend to discuss casual and non-work related stuff from within the collaboration platform. This can drown out any critical project related updates shared by other members in the team. Other times, team members could share updates in the wrong section or without making the appropriate changes to the project status. Not following a protocol while collaborating online could make the whole process futile. It is important for a team to create a protocol document that underlines all the do’s and don’ts and strictly abide by it.
Remote working is already mainstream and is not going away. The only way to survive in this new reality is to acknowledge the problems this comes with and work out suitable ways to fix it.