Remote Project Management and Teams
At the time I am writing these sentences there is a dark satire changing hands in social media which looks like a questionnaire asking:
Who led the digital transformation of your company?
The answer given is not CEO or CTO but COVID-19
Dark, sad but unfortunately a main push many companies needed to forcefully start thinking, communicating and managing their work in digital as a total survival adoption approach, and the upgraded backbone of their operations across all teams.
Remote project and in general delivery management is not new.
Over the past 10 years, we have witnessed an acceleration in remote working structures with the team members residing and working out of multiple time zones through online communication channels, screen and document sharing and digital distributed working environments.
Remote project and delivery management differs from the traditional face-to-face methods in a few key aspects.
Video meetings through a VPN provided by your enterprise may not prove very functional due to the heavy workload it puts on your infrastructure when everyone is doing it and teams will end up having to use voice conferencing system enriched with some screen sharing features.
That would immediately take away body language as a very important communication factor. You cannot immediately tell if some seems stressed or uncomfortable about something. This goes beyond the meetings as well since we no longer have a real line of sight even in a one on one chat or team huddle.
This would be even harder for Agile teams and their favored philosophy of face-to-face and co-located team interaction.
There is no hard evidence [yet] on whether remote work would affect the team’s ability to stay on top of the work or the deadlines, especially that remote working with good delivery performance has been in practice by many companies even before an external pressure would force many to work from home.
One benefit of working remotely is the cost and time saving on the usual daily commute. That can translate into a less hectic start of the day, especially if the weather outside is not promoting the traffic’s flow.
Distraction-wise, both options can be for better or worse. You may have less distraction at home or not. Same goes for your day in the office.
There are hopes that working remotely would allow the team to have a better work and life balance, but the evidence shows that there is a higher chance of blurred lines between the two to the loss of personal rest and comfort than getting any additional benefit.
We are already seeing team members working from their home having to start work much earlier than before and continue throughout the day only to keep working past their old timeframe for their commute back home.
For many enterprises that were not ready for a massive change in work location, it very soon becomes obvious that their infrastructure cannot support the extra volume coming in from VPN connections alongside their day-to-day operations.
They soon end up categorizing teams into critical (which are expected to connect through VPN during the 9:00 to 5:00 hours to keep the production environment running) and the non-critical teams that are now going to be asked to work before 9:00 am (sometimes starting at 5:00 am or even earlier) and then stay away from the network throughout the day.
That curfew does not guarantee they don’t have to dial in to a few meetings during the day] and join back in via VPN after 5:00 pm to continue the work and end up “unofficially” working 12 to 15 hours a day.
That not only puts pressure on the team but also shifts their working hours away from their most productive time during the day.
But regardless of the working timeframe and categories, in order for a team to succeed in remote working they should:
- Establish clear processes and working protocol that matches between teams’ availability (also would need some overlaps between business and technology team availability hours to ensure they can support each other).
- Create visibility on timelines and target dates using any document or calendar sharing tool that is approved by the enterprise.
- Starting with what they have in place but keep pushing for evolutionary improvement of their efficiency and performance.
The traditional ways to boost morale (bribing the team with sweets and chocolate and shaking hands, tapping on the shoulder and such) would not function remotely so the focus would move mostly to what we can do remotely:
- Using verbal encouragement showing appreciation.
- Sending mems and gif files and short videos that can reduce stress, start a laughter or convey team building messages.
- Sending eCards for a variety of occasions, including appreciation for a good work.
- Sending deliverable small gift to their address as thank you.
- Sending online gift cards or credit to them as a thank you.
If the project is running on a Waterfall model, we need daily online huddles to hear everyone and let them share any news, concerns or questions. If the team is running Agile, then we should already have some sort of a daily get together to do that.
Agile teams meet more often so they find it easier to keep the team in synch the target dates in check. Waterfall teams don’t meet that often and may have long gaps between meetings.
Word of advice: Start transitioning to an Agile framework (such as Kanban or Scrum) to cover the much-needed synchronization of people and work as part of your practice. Otherwise, add daily and weekly occasions to do so with the team.
We should be aware of bad online habits, such as asking a sudden question out of the blue just because we have a communication tool which allows us to start a conversation whenever we want. As we don’t suddenly barge into someone’s cubicle and start asking for something without saying hello, when online we should start by saying hi or hello and a light greeting or comment and then ask your question or ask for something to be done.
If the team is meeting daily and throughout the day you can find reasons to contact team members directly to see how everything is going at least once a day, you don’t have to worry about trying to remote-micro-manage people. This would annoy and dishearten them.
Now I am not saying that everyone will be on their best work ethics 100% of the time, and no one will ever try to abuse the lack of line of sight and try to do personal chores or play online or watch a movie during working hours. All sorts of apples exist in that basket. You need to attend to the median of the team and see how it is performing. If the team is delivering the work and are ready to put in odd hours to make it happen without really getting paid for the extra hours, you may also want to take it easy on their daily routine for as long as it is not affecting the scope or performance or quality.
Also note that once an enterprise gets the taste of working remotely across its teams, it will start thinking about letting go of the commercial real estate that has been costing it quite heavily over the years. When they notice they can run the business and shrink the square footage they are paying for significantly, they will start making the remote work the new norm and downsize their commercial signature.
The great saving they benefit from can free up cash flow to pay for stronger networking infrastructure, hiring more people, adding to perks or at least not have to let people go the next time market is slowing down and they worry about the rents and other operational costs.
Published at pmmagazine.net with the consent of Arman Kamran