Remote project management is the new norm with face-to-face interaction remaining difficult in the wake of Covid-19.
However, that doesn’t diminish the ongoing and increasing importance of project management to organizations, as projects are key to develop new capabilities and deliver improvements.
But this doesn’t make projects any less risky to manage. When polling 1,200 attendees of a recent AXELOS webinar about the types of issues they face, the problems ranked as follows:
- Lack of communication – 63%
- Heavy workload – 50%
- Technology issues – 34%
- Achieving limited success – 18%
Clearly, having to do more with less and manage scarce resources is tough on project managers. Doing all of this while navigating people management via remote working platforms such as Zoom and MS Teams doesn’t make things easier.
Yet communication remains the number one issue for why some projects fail, as we might love to talk but find it difficult to really communicate.
So, what can project managers do to maximise the effectiveness of working remotely?
Universal project management principles apply remotely too
The critical elements needed to ensure projects are managed successfully – leadership, communication and team management – apply as much to remote working as “in person”. However, managers need to think and work extra hard to ensure they translate fully to a virtual environment.
Leadership means having the confidence to lead the team; being resilient and removing impediments to success. It requires leaders to ensure they’re as visible as possible and more emotionally intelligent to get the team’s vote of confidence.
This, of course, has become a lot more challenging with remote working – yet it’s just as important, if not more. Good leadership is about demonstrating the correct behaviours including transparency, collaboration, communication, honesty, empathy, exploration; each of which can be called good business behaviours beyond their value in projects. Deploying these approaches helps a remote team become more productive.
Communication is vital as project managers liaise across many departments and stakeholders, handling a lot of information and conveying it in a multitude of ways. As the remote world remains two dimensional without the dynamics of face-to-face meetings, it’s essential to get the communications blend right.
That means good communication can’t be left to chance, such as the informal interactions that happen when people are co-located. Instead, it needs to be organised and planned using a common project vocabulary and monitoring the messages to understand their effect and resolve any misunderstanding.
Team management is extremely important, especially when working on high-risk and high-profile projects. When building a team, often in a project’s start-up phase, the project manager needs to assess how people work together and what additional skills/training they need. For some skills, the need for improvement might be easier within a remote context. But for other skills, the assessment could be more challenging. Wherever possible, it’s good to avoid someone leaving an assembled team, as this can have a major impact on the shared understandingand team dynamics that have been created.
When everyone in the team is clear on the project’s objectives and the tasks in hand, they will educate their organization through the change.
The challenges of a virtual environment
Even with leadership, communication and team management in place, there is no denying that the virtual environment is more complex for project management. For example:
- The spontaneity of in-person collaboration is reduced in a virtual environment
- There are more distractions and meetings interrupted by animals, children and home deliveries
- Technology is not altogether reliable.
These challenges require more planning and preparation to deal with potential unknowns in remote project engagement. Project managers need to work harder to identify team members’ body language when communicating through remote platforms to have colleagues’ well-being in mind.
When we asked our webinar attendees what they wanted their teams to do when working remotely, they said:
- Take initiative – 79%
- Motivate each other – 29%
- Brainstorm ideas – 29%.
This suggests project managers recognise the need for remote working teams to find mutual motivation, help each other solve problems and be proactive within the agreed tolerances of a project.
So, based on my observations of remote project management for more than 12 months, what are the best approaches organisations can take?
Remote onboarding of new team members takes a lot of courage from everyone, so consult your new people to involve them and encourage their views. Also, having cameras on in virtual meetings means you can gauge people’s feelings much better. Having the visual component really helps communication but you need to establish the ground rules for this in advance; that might mean being mindful of people’s mental health by allowing them to switch cameras off, especially if they’ve been involved in back-to-back video calls and need a break.
You should be clear in your purpose: why are you doing what you’re doing? What are the objectives? And dealing virtually with senior people on project boards means you have to be even more specific and clear. Project sponsors are well advised to attend meetings in a rota, to communicate directly with employees and give timely support and decisions for project managers
By enhancing the virtual engagement experience, with things like online chat functions, you will encourage people’s feedback. Virtual whiteboards are a good way of increasing interaction in meetings and energises the team, showing that their contribution is valued. Facilitators can also inspire engagement by making sure everyone can contribute. You need to build intention into your preparation and reach out to the team as much as possible – a skill developed over time in a virtual environment.
And, to avoid distraction and boredom, give yourself and the team a break after every 45 minutes to maintain a level of energy and interaction
The importance of celebrating success is as relevant in a virtual world as the physical world. Therefore, that could mean delivering cakes to everyone on the project team – but ensuring there’s enough for their families too!
Make technology a friend and avoid trying to fix IT issues in the middle of a meeting; rather postpone and reschedule.
Our expanding, virtual world is here to stay in one form or another. This means embracing it as an adaptable and flexible way of working. Indeed, virtual platforms have enabled more introverted people to contribute ideas and feel less inhibited.
However, this environment also brings a continued need for project management skills. For example, PRINCE2 principles, supported by themes and processes support project managers’ planning, delegation, monitoring and controlling projects along with their various constraints.
Ultimately, project managers must be in control when leading their teams: calm and composed on the surface but, in the style of a swan, paddling like crazy below.