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How-to: Stay sane as a remote project manager

How to stay sane as a remote project manager

If you work as a remote project manager, this one’s for you! Earlier this year, Galen Low wrote a brilliant article on how to manage remote teams, and that article is chock full of tips on how to successfully run projects with a remote team.

Today, we’re continuing the conversation by talking about how you can successfully run your life and projects when you’re working as a remote project manager.  There are myriad resources you can find to help you be productive if you’re working remotely, but this article is a little different…because project managers are a little different.  I’m going to tell you as a Project Manager what to do in order to stay sane in your remote project manager role.

5 Ways to Stay Sane as a Remote Project Manager

1. Organize your space

Most project managers I know, including me, have a specific way they like to organize their desks at work to be most efficient.  This is usually a lot more of an issue for project managers than for many other roles, because project managers are required to manage so many facets of multiple projects.  In my last office job, I had two gigantic whiteboards to work through problems visually, and two large bulletin cork boards for hanging up documents.  I had dual monitors, a wireless keyboard and mouse, and two desk lamps with soft lighting.  I had the facilities folks turn off my overhead lights.  It took me a while to get my space just right, as it does for many project managers, who rely on organized, controlled spaces to get their work done.  When something was out of place in my office, I had a hard time concentrating.  Most project managers know what they need to have in place to feel organized.

Why, then, do so many remote project managers (and office project managers who routinely work from home) carve out a tiny area in their house with a little lamp and a drawer or two?  If you’re serious about working remotely, you have to treat your office as a real office.  If you’re like me and don’t have a dedicated room for your office, you need to come to terms with having your workspace look like a workspace, and not like a cute and nearly invisible “office area”.  My workspace is in my den, so when we decide to lounge in that room when I’m not working, we deal with the two whiteboards and large corkboards and multiple monitors and desk lamps that I require for working efficiently.  Don’t scale your space down because it’s a remote office – or you could find yourself distracted about feeling disorganized.

2. Create boundaries

Remote workers need some kind of boundaries to delineate work and home life.  While most employers worry that their remote employees are going to sit on the couch and watch Netflix all day, remote project managers have the opposite problem:  more often than not, we’re working way too many hours because our work is available to us 24×7.  Boundaries, then, become paramount to keep us from burning out or blowing hours budgets.

These boundaries don’t have to be overly formal, or overly significant – they just have to work.  My boundaries are shoes and lights.  If I’m at home and working, I have shoes on.  I never, ever work without shoes.  If I’m done working, even if I have shoes on, my desk lights are off.  I never, ever work at my desk with the desk lights off.  I know some people who dress as if they’re going to the office, and when their workday is done, they put on more comfortable clothes.  Lots of people with dedicated office space just close their door.  I think that project managers need multiple cues for stopping work, or we can find ourselves tempted to just check…one…more….email.  (Checking work email or Slack on your phone when you’re not working is a topic for another day.)  Whatever you choose as your boundary, just make sure you’re consistent so that it’s second nature and not something you have to think too hard about.

3. Get some human interaction

Project manager’s jobs are not easy.  You’re in charge of the project, but often times, not the people.  You’re responsible for the output, but you’re not the one doing the work.  That is very frustrating and that frustration can sometimes build up if it has nowhere to go.  There are ways to let off steam – a change of scenery, a walk outside, a little snack – that remote workers can take advantage of as well as office workers.  The one glaring thing not available to remote workers that office workers use daily is other people.  Whether you’re looking to vent about work (hopefully not selling out your project; see my article on project empathy) or just to talk about something else for a while, interacting with coworkers is an essential part of office culture.

Remote project managers have to have some sort of outlet during the day to talk to humans or we run the risk of either having a meltdown, or for those of us who live with other humans, causing them to have a meltdown.  The first time I worked remotely, I talked to no one during the day other than work emails to coworkers and clients.  When my husband came home at night, weary after a long day of having to talk to people, I would pounce.  HI HI HI WHAT ARE YOU DOING GUESS WHAT I DID TODAY HI HI HI!!!!!  It did neither of us any good – he dreaded coming home to a crazy person, and I hated feeling like a crazy person.

I now have two networks of friends that I talk to throughout the day:  one is a fantastic group of peers, where I can talk about project management issues and get input on project dilemmas, and the other is a fantastic group of people who have nothing to do with PM, where I can talk about life in general, Westworld, or SNL sketches. Important to note:  I talk to these people throughout the day when my schedule permits.  I don’t restrict my access to personal email and Slack channels during working hours because this is literally my only outlet.  I never let this interaction affect my work performance, but without this interaction, my work suffers.

4. Work out

Even if you have peer or friend networks available to you during the day, you should try to occasionally make time for being around other people.  I try my best to always call myself a remote worker, not someone who “works from home” because working “from home” is too limiting.  Every once in a while, work from a coffee shop, find a coworking space, or maybe even stop by your local library.

You don’t have to strike up conversations with strangers, but being in the presence of other people can recharge you and make you feel like you’re part of society.  I have a friend who travels extensively around the world, working regular weekly hours.  He just does it from various continents and time zones.  Whatever you can do to get yourself out of your house here and there (or more than that!) is going to help you from becoming a recluse and keep you on top of your PM game. (Also, if you happen to cohabitate with other life forms, they will appreciate that you’ve left the house occasionally too.  My husband can attest to this.)

5. Exploit the benefits

I know so many project managers who worry about doing anything that could be construed as being selfish – picking up the last swag bag left in the company kitchen, taking the first slice of pizza, naming themselves in their congratulatory project launch email to the masses.  I do the same thing.  So I often find myself feeling like I really shouldn’t take advantage of the perks of working remotely.  Then I remind myself that taking some time to do things that make me happy without compromising my work availability or output actually makes me a better project manager.

So I take the dogs outside twice a day to throw tennis balls.  I throw in a load of laundry so I don’t have to worry about it later.  I wear sweatpants EVERY DAY so I’m the most comfortable I can be while working. (Note: they are stylish sweatpants, not sweatpants I’ve painted in or anything. This makes it way more acceptable.  Right?)  It doesn’t make me less of a project manager to actually take advantage of the perks of a remote work situation.

Summary of Remote Project Manager Tips

Setting up the right workspace, creating boundaries, making time to talk to (or even just see) other people, and allowing yourself to bask in the perks of working remote are the 5 best ways I know to keep sane as a remote project manager.  All of these things make me more productive, less stressed, and happier overall.  I encourage you to give these a try if you’re working remotely now, plan to in the future, or even if you just work from home on occasion.  And for those remote project managers that are already working at peak capacity and loving it, what are some of your tips and tricks?

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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