A PM’s guide to managing projects remotely

  • Judith Scholes, Author |

4 min read

But even after we’ve all had a vaccine, it’s likely that our ways of working won’t go back to exactly how they were before – remote working is here to stay. For project managers (PMs) that means being on top of what it takes to manage a project remotely.

So how can you deliver a project successfully when your team is working remotely? What are the pitfalls you need to look out for? And what strategies can you adopt to achieve the best possible outcomes?

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Interaction between team members can falter when everyone is working remotely. To tackle that, you might be tempted to schedule in more virtual meetings and conference calls. And that can help. But the same rules apply here as to any project meeting. Avoid getting together for the sake of it. Talking shops don’t help teams stay focused. Schedule short calls, have a clear agenda – and share it before the meeting so no-one’s caught off guard – agree actions and focus on results.

As the PM, you can also help improve virtual communications by modelling the behaviour you want to see. If you don’t switch your webcam on during virtual calls, don’t expect anyone else to. Encouraging face-to-face communications, if only virtually, can help remove barriers and provides greater transparency about how people are feeling.

But don’t just focus on virtual calls. Try to avoid defaulting to one communication tool and instead consider the audience, purpose and tone of your communication. Then select the most suitable method for what you’re trying to achieve. 

Getting past the blockers

Every project encounters its fair share of blockers (for example, on my current project we’ve had unforeseen upgrade requirements shared with us at the last minute). Removing them as quickly as possible is key to hitting deadlines. When you’re managing a remote project, scheduling short, frequent ‘keep in touch calls’ to manage blockers can be effective.

You might also try creating an informal discussion forum on your virtual platform of choice – Slack or Microsoft Teams, for example – just for blockers. You can then monitor progress and project team members can easily contribute their solutions in a live environment. This encourages your teams to raise any blockers as soon as they come up against them and resolve them as a team.

Staying motivated

Project progress can be hindered by a lack of motivation. So, how do you motivate a team you never meet with face to face?

Consider starting your project by identifying what makes your teammates tick. That could involve working through a model of motivation with each individual team member. The 4-Drive model of motivation – a holistic model that looks beyond financial motivators to the impact of bonding and belonging – is a good example. This can prove especially useful if you’re never going to meet your colleagues in person. Getting to know your colleagues earlier will help build stronger relationships and should lead to better delivery.

The ‘softer’ side of motivation is also crucial – making your team feel valued will help to maintain momentum. Think of new ways to emotionally support your team to help them deliver the best results for themselves and the project. For example, you could find time to meet and discuss topics outside of work, like favourite TV shows or plans for the weekend. That can help build stronger personal connections and give you a greater insight into what drives your team.

Building trust

Trust is vital to the success of any project. It’s key to people enjoying projects and embracing them as developmental experiences. But some people may struggle to trust that their teammates are pulling their weight when they’re out of sight.

Building in a sense of individual accountability for the outcome of a project can help to combat this. At the start of your project, and when each new project team member joins, spend time setting the scene and helping every individual on the project to understand where their piece of the puzzle fits in. Then, throughout the project, make a habit of sending regular, encouraging communications that help everyone understand progress and remind them of the bigger picture. 

Supporting work-life balance

One principle of good project management is maintaining a sustainable pace. This is important for the wellbeing of individuals and the success of the project. Maintaining a sustainable pace has often proven challenging; adding a commute to an already long day means that colleagues can quickly become burned out, especially in a fast-paced project.

If team members are working from home, commutes reduce to the length of time it takes to walk from the bedroom to the home-office. This can mean that even long days on a project can be less tiring, making a consistent sustainable pace far more achievable. But there are other challenges, such as screen fatigue and how to switch off from work.

Consider setting your team members challenges that bring them together to do something different with the time they would have spent commuting. That can help delineate between work and home. And it can help to build connections in the team, while also encouraging and reinforcing the new opportunities for work-life balance.

Embrace change

COVID-19 has already caused a seismic shift in the ways we work. While normality may still be some way off, we can hopefully harness some of the benefits and positive change the last year has brought about. Remote project management is a new discipline for many organisations and project teams. And there are many risks and opportunities offered by the ever-changing world in which we find ourselves. But prior thought and consideration of these can deliver significant benefits to our projects. By mitigating the risks posed, and magnifying the benefits, remote projects could arguably lead to more project success than ever before.