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Remote project management strategies: How to keep the human touch

Remote project manager - How to keep the human touch - strategies for remote project management

Remote project management is growing in popularity but how can we make projects a success and empower our team to thrive when we’re not face to face? We’ve explored previously practical ways to manage projects in the article, How to create virtual co-location: a guide to managing remote teams, but can we keep the human touch to manage our teams better?

Project Managers have it tough: we’re responsible for the project, but not the people; we’re responsible for the output, but we don’t do the work.  Most seasoned project managers have learned tricks for how to indirectly manage their project team. A good number of these include face to face interactions with the project team to compel them to bend to your will.  But what if you can’t be face to face?  That is the dilemma of Remote Project Management.

Remote project management strategies

If you’re a remote project manager or thinking about taking on remote project management jobs, here are some of my best tips and tricks for keeping on top of projects (and teammates) and how I adapted them for remote project management.

Bribing

I’ve always had a saying: “Candy makes friends.” Every job I’ve had, I’ve come in with a large candy jar that I would stock with a wide variety of treats.  As I got to know my coworkers, I’d see who liked what, and I’d start to buy more of what they liked.  I was laying a foundation for being The Person Who Always Has Candy – you’d be surprised at how many people who will cheerfully come to your desk if you have their favorite treats.  I would take note of (or would flat out ask) what some of my more challenging teammates ate frequently. When I had a really tight deadline, or I knew one teammate was working on competing priorities, or even when I had either bad news or a silly question, I’d take a few of the candies I knew they liked best, and I’d stroll over to their desk and just leave the candy.  I would say nothing, just leave the candy.  About an hour or so later, I’d send an IM to ask if they had a moment to chat – and they almost always did, because they were so grateful for the thought I put into the delivery of their favorite treat.  Now, you can do this with all kinds of things – sodas, office supplies (yes, really), even grabbing items off the printer and delivering them so they don’t need to get up.

So what’s the strategy for remote project management?  The bribe just gets more complicated.  I still find out what they like and what they’d appreciate, and I’ll either send something to them that I box up myself, or I’ll check Amazon.com or something local to my teammate, and have something delivered.  I don’t bribe nearly as much as I did when I was face to face, but the fact that I go through so much trouble makes my teammate feel pretty great for quite a while, and they rarely forget that you went out of your way.  I’ll do this in the middle of a long stretch of programming, for developers, or at the beginning of a design cycle for UX and UI teams.  For a QA team, I’ll typically send something at the beginning if it is a complicated project to QA, or at the end, if the project is more simple from their standpoint.

Creating a team atmosphere

Many project managers, myself included, try to get the team pumped for the project during kickoff.  I have always tried to create a real team atmosphere by naming all of my teammates and their roles on the project, even if we’ve done 100 projects together already.  I look each in the eye, and I can convey that I am welcoming them into the team.  This creates a type of ownership, where the team is accepting responsibility for their part of the project.  It’s very slight, but I’ve found that it works wonders for keeping teammates engaged.

At the end of the project, most project managers celebrate in some way.  In office jobs I’ve had before, this could be going out to lunch, ending work early and enjoying some food and beverages in the office kitchen, or even just having that last status meeting where everyone high-fives.  I thank each teammate, again looking them in the eye.  I feel like this bookend approach to team buy-in is extremely valuable.

As a project manager, during my remote project kickoffs, I usually start by projecting a more robust agenda (of course, as a good project manager, I’ve already sent an agenda with the meeting invite) that will have some solid information about each teammate, even if we’ve done 100 projects together already.  I include name, discipline, time zone (super handy for when you’ve got folks all over the world) and some sort of interesting info.  Sometimes I would give them nicknames, like Dan “The Total Man” Dexter, or The Amazing Amy Belvedere. Sometimes it would be embellishments of things I know about them, like Dan Dexter, who once drank an entire gallon of milk in 30 minutes on a dare, or Amy Belvedere, the biggest fan of Pepsi you will ever meet.

As remote project management often is, it’s a lot more work, and it’s a little cheesy (okay, it’s a lot cheesy) but the point is, I’m engaging them and replacing that eye contact with another connection I’m making.  When a project concludes, I will find something that each of my teammates would appreciate, and send that out to everyone as a way to congratulate them on the project ending.  I have sent t-shirts, Girl Scout cookies, eCards, gift cards, and even had hats made up featuring an inside joke that only the team would understand.  Remote teams rarely get any kind of physical perks because they’re not all in the same place, so doing this at the end makes them super excited to work with you again on the next project – even if that project is slated to be a rough one.

Making sure your team are engaged

When you’re a project manager running a status meeting in an office, you can easily see who is engaged and who isn’t, and you can rectify that issue immediately.  Plus, in a face to face meeting, most people won’t be obvious about not paying attention (unless they brought their phone in with them, in which case they are very much obvious.)  You can also read the room to know when someone may have an objection or comment, and you can see when the team is starting to collectively wander and the meeting really needs to end.

When you’re a remote project manager, you don’t have that luxury, even if you’re on video.  Of course, video conferencing makes it a lot easier to see if someone is obviously otherwise engaged, but you still don’t get to see their entire body language and you can’t be sure they’re not still multitasking.  So, to make remote project management work, you have to keep them engaged in other ways.

Maybe you’ll ask them to give an update on where they are with their part of the project, along with their favorite TV show growing up.  Perhaps you’ll ask your designer to give your developer’s update in 10 words or less.  (Trust me, that can get pretty funny if you let it, or it can be pretty revealing if your team takes it seriously.)  You have to work hard at this, but it is worth it, especially if you have a very low-energy team. Find out what makes them come alive, and incorporate that into your meetings.

Knowing how to have a conversation before you make a request

Most project managers don’t barge into others’ offices and ask a question before even saying hello.  (If you do this, please rethink your tactics.  Very few people respond well to that!)  It’s very easy to “barge into” someone’s space by sending a question via IM without saying hello, because the medium just feels different.  But it is very much the same.

As a remote project manager, I usually start out by saying hello, and asking how their day is.  I then ask if it’s an okay time for a short question, which would probably take about 10 minutes to discuss.  (Always include a target amount of time you think you need from them, because then they can really answer honestly about if they have time.) I’ll end the conversation by asking a quick question about their personal life, like “hey, how did your daughter’s game go the other day?”  It doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out conversation, but you have to continue to remind everyone that we’re all people, and not just computers responding via IM.

Checking in without babysitting

An advantage of working in an office with your teammates is being able to see when they’re in the office, at their desk, and what they appear to be working on.  As a PM, you want to be sure your work is getting done so there are no surprises when a deadline approaches.

When you’re a remote project manager, checking in on progress can feel a lot like babysitting, and no professional person appreciates that.  A good tactic I employ is keeping up with percentage complete of long-term tasks, and asking my teammates for periodic updates when I know I’ll be reporting to stakeholders.  This way, they know I’m just doing my job and not harping on them.  Other ways project managers can check in are holding their teammates responsible for updating progress at regular status meetings (which are also extremely important to a remote team, who won’t bump into each other in the hallways at the office), asking to see work-in-progress (this is a real test of what’s been done vs. what’s left to do), or flat out asking “Hey, do you think you’ll still make that deadline?”  One thing you will NOT want to do is ask too often, or too close to the last time you asked.  You must trust your remote team, maybe even more than you’d trust your in-person team, to get their work done.  They will appreciate your respect and will give respect in return.

Being human

This really ties into everything we’ve already addressed:  you may be a remote project manager, working remotely via machines and software, but you are all human beings, and that can get lost.

As a remote project manager, it’s even more important to ensure people know you as a person, and you know your team as a person, because of the nature of your job.  Tell some jokes if that’s your personality.  Ask about their family and pets.  Ask them how their weather is today.  If you’re a remote project manager, working with teammates globally, take a few seconds (it’s so, so easy) to look up how to say “hello” or “thank you” in their native language.  (As a side-note, that is one of the most effective ways I’ve found to make a connection with someone working in another country.

I’m a native English speaker, living in the US.  Even if my teammates speak English fluently as a second language, they almost always appreciate an effort on my part to acknowledge their native tongue.  For my friends in the UK or Canada, I’ll do my best to throw in some slang, or spell things in that silly way they have [just kidding, saying “ centre” instead of “center” is definitely more fancy and highbrow] so I’m acknowledging the country divide.)  If you’re working with people throughout your own nation and they are in different time zones, make a note of that so you say “good morning” instead of “good afternoon” if that makes sense.  But just be a human being.  At least 50% of project management is people management – maybe even more.  It’s vital, especially for remote project managers.

What are your remote project management strategies?

Working in these remote project management strategies whenever you can, will likely make your work as a remote project manager easier and more fulfilling.  Whatever you can do to create a culture of human interaction in a world full of computer screens and typed responses, do that – you’ll find that remote work isn’t so remote after all. If you’re interested in reading more, check out this article from Moira Alexander on ‘9 steps to building a first-rate remote project management team’ and this article from Natalie Semczuk on ‘How do I freelance as a project manager’.  Do you have any remote project management strategies or adaptations of those that we’ve shared that you use and can share? Join the conversation below!

Patrice Embry

About Patrice Embry

I’m Patrice Embry, a freelance digital project manager and Certified ScrumMaster. After 18 years in the field, I’ve been fortunate to work for agencies, corporations, and everything in between. My clients have spanned far and wide across verticals – pharmaceutical, finance, construction, ecommerce, race cars, you name it. My client roster includes Exxon Mobile, Merck, Granite Construction, Edwards Lifesciences, GS1 Global, and many more. I’ve worked on large scale websites, mobile apps, CRM and CMS systems, even print! I’m passionate about project management philosophy – it shapes what I do every day. My website is http://patrice-embry.com, and you can find me on Twitter @patrice108.

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