The Advantages of Working Remotely as a Project Manager
Working remotely as a project manager can be daunting. You don't have that safety net of being able to walk over to the team when something has gone wrong, or if you've got a quick question.
But there is an advantage to working remotely as a Project Manager as it forces you to prepare and plan better. You have to think about what you need to get out of the next catch up or meeting, so you don't then have to go and speak to the team during their working time.
It then makes you think about the importance of the type of questions you need to ask, so don't have to go back to a team member to clarify.
As a Project Manager, improving your preparation and asking better questions, you'll create more focused working time for your team, and your project will see the benefits.
This post is titled "How to Stay in Control of Your Project" when I say control, I don't mean total control like the like a Project Manager out of the book telling everyone what to do all the time. It's about making sure the right information is shared at the right time by you and by the team.
Everyone then has a shared understanding of what you're looking to achieve on your project, information is easily accessible, you have the right tools use, and ultimately you get the control in a much more natural way and beneficial way.
Skip the Status Meetings
The first approach to stay in control of your project is to skip the status meetings and replace them with quick team updates.
Status meetings use a lot of time for your project team, especially if you've got a big team. It can be easily an hour once a week, lots of information get shared, but not everyone in the room needs to know that information.
The problem is they have no choice, the talkers get to talk, and it uses up valuable working time, and you might not even get the updates you need.
All you need to know is what the team are doing for the week, and what they need from each other to do it.
So why not do it a few minutes?
This example is from Base Camp where they send out the following message on the group chat.
"What do you plan to work on this week?
It's sent Monday morning, first thing, and everyone knows it's coming. The team all respond in brief bullets, which is helpful and clear for everyone and quick for the team member writing it.
Then as a Project Manager, in the space of a few minutes, you've got a mini-project plan for the week. If you need more detail, you know you can go directly to that individual and ask a question.
Another benefit is one of the team members may read a colleagues update and notice they’re missing something they should be doing, or they may need that individuals help during the week.
All of this just takes a few minutes, saves a ton of time for everyone involved and as a Project Manager, you have a clear and concise team plan for the week.
Create a Team Board
To reduce emails, Slack messages, and create more focus time for your team, create a team board.
A team board manages all non-urgent requests to give your team the headspace to do great work, as you don't want them constantly responding to emails and Slack messages that aren't urgent.
Emails and Slack can be a real killer for productivity as they're full of;
“I've got a quick question”
“Can you send me this?”
And quite often they're not even needed for that day. So what you can do here is you can create a shared team board where each swim lane is just the name of the team members on the project.
Then if you suddenly think of something and it’s not urgent for that day, put it on the team board underneath that person's name. The next morning when they start to plan out their day, they go to the board to check for any new requests.
The team can then can plan the actions into their working day and the requestor gets the answers for when they need it.
It frees up the teams time, reduces the distractions of emails and Slack messages and as a Project Manager, you can monitor the board to check for consistent themes to the questions being asked. You may then spot some improvements you can make to the projects processes, reports or communication flow.
A Project Canvas
A project canvas is like an operating system for your project.
Have you worked on a project, when a few weeks in a team member says something like;
“I thought we were trying to do this?”
“Who's this person who keeps asking me for an update? “
Then as a Project Manager, you’re sure the team were aligned on what you trying to achieve and everyone knew who is involved outside of the project team.
On a project, it’s often assumed that the engineers only need to know what to build and the designers only need to know what to design etc. But this creates silos that can impact the work completed as it might not meet expectations.
This can also could cause rework because of the lack of engagement and shared knowledge within the team
A project canvas provides a birds-eye view of the project and it's created at the start of the project.
It provides a shared understanding of the project at a broad level. So not lots of detail, but the vision, the roles, the communication approach, key processes, and who the client is to name a few.
It reduces the chances of the team not being aligned a few weeks into the project.
It's also dynamic, because no project goes exactly as planned. When things do change, you can easily update it as you go.
A Team Wiki
A team Wiki is a living database for your project that is continuously being updated with shared learnings, guides, and project knowledge.
So if the project canvas is the bird's eye view of the project, the team Wiki is the ground level.
A project is often filled with questions like,
“Where can I find X?”
“How do I do Y?”
These questions are time-consuming for the Project Manager and the team, which can be frustrating as it impacts the team's productivity.
As a PM you want the team to be working productively and not relying on you to share every piece of project information, and a Wiki can help solve this.
The full project team contributes to building and then maintaining the Wiki as you only update it when you need to.
At the start of a project, you only put the critical information in the Wiki, so that could be a process, templates or any useful information about the client and the project.
As the project goes on, you update the Wiki when you need to, but everyone contributes to it.
So as a Project Manager, you can then focus on the essential tasks rather than being the team's in-person Google search!
Create a Communication Flow for Your Project
By creating a communication flow you can focus on what brings value to your project over just following a process.
A communication flow often doesn’t get enough attention when planning a project, but it should, because it defines how all your meetings and reports work together, how and when the project team speak to each other, all using a systems thinking approach.
So how does that Monday morning client status meeting link to the project team meeting two days before, or is the right type of information being discussed in one that will benefit the other?
Or is the data in the Wednesday report supporting the Friday report two days later?
To help create a communication flow you need to look at things like small, regular updates over long sporadic meetings.
One of the worst things for the team is when you get them all in a room together (virtual or physical) randomly to replan the plan as you’ve lost control of the project. It takes a lot of time out of the day and it's frustrating for the team.
By having small regular updates that are fixed to review and adjust the plan together, it’s more manageable, focused and valuable for the team and the project.
You need to define the push and pull approach for the communication flow.
So that means what information needs to be pushed the team and when. An example of a push would be a weekly report that gets shared at the same time and day each week.
The pull approach is like your team Wiki. This is key information about the project, but if you need you know where you need to go and get it.
So it's important to have that separation between the two. It helps reduce the noise so your project team get the right information when they need it.
Next you need to look at where can you combine your project communications.
Look at the meetings your project has, then review the content and attendees to see if two separate meetings are needed, or can you do it in one?
Then the same for reports, quite often information gets duplicated. Where can you merge them to make the creation and sharing as efficient as possible?
Centralise Your Project Tools
As a project manager, some of the most frustrating and stressful times can be when you can't remember where you saw that particular piece of information, a decision, a report.
Was it in an email? a general comment? a Slack message? You waste valuable time trying to find it. Or in some cases you miss it completely.
First you need to review your projects tools in terms of numbers, so how many you have, but also what the team actually use them for.
Agree upfront with the team which tools you'll use to do what on the project.
So where do you log all the decisions?
What tools do you use to store documentation?
Clarify what you need each tool for, but also focus on having as small number of tools as possible to make it easier for you and the team.
What could go wrong?
What could go wrong? By asking this question, you can discover some valuable insights into your project.
You might not always feel comfortable asking this question, but when you ask it, it really makes people think as it's easy to update on what you're doing or what you need to do, but as you know, projects don't always go to plan.
By asking this question, there isn't a quick, simple answer that that individual can roll off straight away.
And this is where you get the insights that really help you as a Project Manager to stay in control of the project, as you'll get feedback on how you might need to change the plan or who needs help or what is missing that the team need.
You can then provide the support needed so that the team can focus on the tasks at hand. It's also a great question to ask in planning meetings or a weekly review meeting.
So as a Project Manager, integrate this question into your weekly updates so you can stay ahead of any potential issues.
Ask “How Can I Help” Rather Than “What are you Working on?”
Ask, how can I help you rather than what you're working on?
This is another great question that can provide you with higher quality feedback from the team as by asking "What are you working on?" You'll just get the stock answer in some cases, but also there's nothing wrong with asking this question. Just ask it at the right times.
Asking "How I can help you?" has multiple benefits as it's more likely the team member will speak out about a problem, especially the quieter, less confident, or junior team members.
Other benefits of this question are team members really appreciate the offer as this isn't just about gaining more insights; it's about how can you actually help someone!
So the more you ask this question, the better the team morale is going to be, and you're going to feel better about yourself as you're helping other team members.