A project manager’s 3 tested tips for remote project management

, Product Marketing | May 27, 2016

This is a guest blog post by Justin Witz, CTO and project manager at PlanTools.

As a CTO and project manager of a remote team, I am particularly sensitive to issues that cause project failures. For my company, PlanTools, failed projects can mean lost profits, dissatisfied customers, reputation damage, lost opportunity for future engagements, and failure to secure a reputable referral source. While project management always has challenges, the particular obstacles of doing so with a remote team are unique.

PlanTools is a cloud-based SaaS company specializing in custom built and retail web-based solutions, primarily for financial services. Our team is remote, I’m in North Carolina and the majority of the development team is in India

Communications with a remote workforce and project stakeholders are essential for a successful project. But communicating with colleagues that are dispersed remotely, especially on team projects, has many challenges.

I’ve come to find certain truths, or pieces of wisdom, in running project management with remote teams, which I’ll lay out below. You’ll notice that the common thread to all these learnings is the human element. Every project begins and ends with people. While remote, keeping the camaraderie, understanding, and collaboration of your team in tact is crucial for successful projects.

1. Get to know each teammate

Successful project management outcomes start before a project ever begins. In my experience, the likelihood of success is highly dependent on the initial interactions a project manager has with fellow team members when they are first introduced. Investing time questioning each team member to learn more about them, their needs, desires, and goals is an important first step to understanding their personalities, culture, beliefs, and work habits.

If a project manager takes the time to understand each team member, they are in a better position to inspire them, support their weaknesses, and leverage their strengths so that individually and collectively they achieve great things. Based on client satisfaction and project profitability, my methods have paid off.

2. Use chat-based communication

One might ask, however, how a project manager can become so connected to people living thousands of miles away. For me and my team, chat-based communication has been fundamental to our success.

From Team Foundation Server to Skype to Slack – my team has tried many communication tools. Each held benefits but exhibited faults. TFS was too complicated, Skype unfeasible due to exorbitant fees for mobile data, and Slack lacked the video chat features our team needed.

Then we found HipChat, providing us with a powerful communication tool which accommodates multiple models of communication. Every concern we had with previous solutions were solved and all team members embraced it enthusiastically.

Millennial team members were particularly pleased with its efficiency and the minimal effort necessary to experience immediate optimal results. We also found that HipChat accommodated the creativity and humorous side of team members, which is important when culture differences exist. Using emoticons strategically placed in a communication string permits the message to be communicated with the correct tone and sentiment.

Today we use HipChat to communicate on over 400 projects. The search features provide us an easy way to review past logs to confirm a data point and review requirement discussions. HipChat eliminates the unnecessary variables of noise that impact effective communication and it is a lightweight tool that is easy to use from anywhere.

3. Make project objectives clear

The biggest struggle with remote communication is confirming all team members and stakeholders understand project objectives. Unfortunately, nonverbal clues such as facial expressions and body language are lost when you cannot see team members or stakeholders.

Furthermore, it is not unusual for stakeholders to lack experience, vision, and the ability to communicate what they want according to their expectation. The combination can be disastrous for a project’s successful completion, especially in a waterfall environment.

If you operate in a waterfall environment, it is not unusual to reach the conclusion of a project according to the specifications in the statement of work (SOW) only to find what you built is not what your client wanted or thought they were going to receive.

Although agile is more forgiving because you’re working in sprints, stakeholders often demand tedious SOWs and fixed pricing making the project challenging when it is evolving in a constrained budget environment.

No matter your collaboration method, I’ve learned that the burden of responsibility is the project manager’s. A project manager must provide clear communication on a weekly basis with team members and stakeholders with an eye on budget to avoid project derailment.

Luckily, taking the first two steps makes this last one much easier. By getting to know my teammates and understanding their goals, habits, and personalities, I have better insight into when to assist them and how to make objectives clear. With that base, I can use chat-based communication to stay connected with my team and provide clear goals for the weekly cycle.

Running project management for a remote team is not simple. Of course there will be bumps in the road, but my best advice is to always remember the human element. Near or far, the connection a project manager has with teammates will directly correlate to the outcome of your project.