An Introduction to Remote Project Management

An Introduction to Remote Project Management

It’s official—the modern workforce is going remote.

70% of people globally work remotely at least once a week, and 99% of remote workers say they'd like it to stay that way for the rest of their careers.

For many remote teams, communication remains a critical challenge they are still trying to master. Coordinating workflows can be tricky when teammates are spread across the world, but your clients still expect you to deliver their projects on schedule. The good news is that with the right system in place, you can make remote work an effective option for your team.

In this piece, we're going to look at how remote project management differs from more traditional methods, and the steps you can take to manage your remote projects successfully.

What makes remote project management different?

If you're already managing a remote team (or are considering it) you know that there are a bunch of positives in doing so. Here are just a few:

  • Lower operating costs (no office means no rent!)
  • Improved work/life balance for your team
  • Ability to attract top talent regardless of geography

Managing projects and teams in different locations isn’t without its challenges, of course. Not only can it be harder to stay on top of tasks and deadlines, it can also be harder to keep your team on the same page. Without the regular meetings, lunches, and break room chats that happen in an office environment, it can be difficult to accurately gauge how a project is going, and what (if anything) your team needs help on.

That’s where project management techniques shine. By taking control of how your team operates and communicates, you're able to keep everyone working as if they were in the same office. Whether you need to talk about deliverables, budgets, or deadlines, communicating with your team is an essential part of keeping your business on track.

Three steps to making remote project management successful

The core ingredients for delivering a successful project are the same regardless of where a project is being worked on from. Some factors that can influence the success of a remote project include:

  • Outlining clear processes for each person’s role
  • Ensuring deadlines are agreed upon and set in advance
  • Finding a project management approach that empowers your team to get the job done on time and on budget

Step 1. Create a shared vision with a project spec

The best way to set a project up for success is to lay the right foundation.

While simple projects can often be managed with minimal effort, complex projects tend to have a lot of moving pieces—so it's helpful to give everyone a detailed rundown in a project spec before things kickoff. A detailed project spec can help you:

  • Define assumptions
  • Enable communication with your team and project stakeholders
  • Document project scope and budget
  • Schedule baselines

Giving your team a detailed spec not only helps get everyone on the same page, it also lets you set your expectations for each team member from the very beginning. As you’re likely already using cross-team collaboration tools like Google Docs or Dropbox to handle project documents, you can easily build a project spec using these tools as well.

An example of a project spec template from Dropbox Paper

The best thing about building your project specs in these cloud-based collaboration tools is that they are living, breathing documents. If you need to change a deadline or deliverable, you can jump into the document, make the change, and tag the necessary team members so they are notified. Think of it as a digital replacement for a project whiteboard—a single source of truth.

Your project specifications should include four key areas:

What goals are you working towards?

  • What problem are you solving for your client with this project? Figure it out and include it in your project brief, which will help keep everyone on the same page from conception to delivery.

What's the scope of the project?

  • What are you hoping the project will achieve? Map out deliverables that are achievable in the project's timescale. Don't try and squeeze everything into a project if it's not doable.

What's the project timeline?

  • How long do you have to complete the project? Define what the project's critical tasks are as opposed to the "nice-to-haves". Dates will inevitably change as the project progresses, yet it's important to highlight what parts of a project need to be completed at what stages to keep it on track.

Who's responsible for what?

  • Every key task should be assigned to a team member before a project kicks off. If you don't know who to assign to what yet, at the very minimum, have a list of each task before you conduct the project kickoff call. Adding tasks after you've handed out the project spec can confuse and overwhelm your team, so the clearer you are from the start, the better.

Using a project planning tool like Float, you can tentatively assign tasks to team members, or create tasks and mark them as unassigned to come back to later. Not only does this help you get a clearer idea of how tasks can be allocated amongst team members when the project kicks off, it also allows you to map out how far you can stretch the project's budget.

An example of a tentative task assigned to a team member in Float. The task is displayed as a color outline on the schedule to make it clear that it hasn’t been confirmed yet.

Once the project specifications have been figured out, send them out to your team. Everyone should be on the same page about the project's goals, scope, timeline, and individual responsibilities.

Step 2. Bring the team together before the project begins

Next, it’s time to bring your team together—virtually, of course!

Just like in step 1, cloud-based collaboration tools are essential here. Tools such as Zoom or Google Hangouts can provide you with a virtual meeting room for your team. Getting everyone together before a project kicks off ensures any potential issues or roadblocks are dealt with before they turn into bigger problems.

The Float team using Zoom for our quarterly Town Hall meetings

Meeting virtually instead of in person is not without its challenges. Body language cues and objections are more difficult to pick up on in a virtual meeting (the occasional connectivity issue doesn’t help either). However, there are a few processes you can use to make sure the meeting runs smoothly.

Make sure you can see (and hear) everyone

  • Nothing kills a meeting's vibe quicker than having a team member's audio cut in and out or having a faulty video connection. Make sure you do a quick ask around at the start of the meeting to ensure that  everybody is able to see and hear each other.

Make sure everyone receives the agenda before the start of the meeting

  • You can use templates from Google Docs or Dropbox Paper to easily build an agenda without spending hours on it. Sending out the meeting agenda beforehand helps keep things on track and lets team members prepare questions ahead of time.

Make sure meetings don't throw off your team's schedule

  • People are busy, and this meeting won't be the only task on your team’s calendars for the day. Just like in-person meetings have a set time limit, make sure that your virtual meetings do as well. If team members want to discuss things that aren't on the agenda, let them know that you'll note them, and they'll be dealt with at the next catch up. Otherwise, the meeting can get easily derailed.

Drew Ball from Postlight digital product studio says keeping meetings short is one of the ways project managers can maintain a strong remote team. "Remote employees don’t get the benefit of overhearing project chat around the office, but a company culture of quick, easy video chats makes ad hoc conversations a powerful tool."

"When everyone’s kept in the know, a team develops a sixth sense, a peripheral feeling of what’s going on with the whole product. It makes it easier to project our completion dates, and lets you quickly shift folks around without having to reorient each person."

Make sure you record the meeting

  • Following on from our "single source of truth" talk in step 1, it’s important to keep a record of the kickoff meetings. If you're using Zoom or Google Hangouts, this will be a breeze as both of the tools have a video recording feature. This is super handy for keeping meeting minutes if there are any team members who can't make the meeting, and it creates an automated filing system within each relevant channel.
The record feature in Zoom makes it easier than ever for teams to keep meeting records

Portland-based app design & development agency Infinite Red has a fully distributed team of 23, headed up by Justin Huskey. He says their design process runs so well because it’s remote, and that video chats are essential to its success.

"For client presentations, we set aside an hour each week to review that week’s work face-to-face (or as close as we can on video). The designers on the project hop on a Zoom call with the client, we review the timeline of the project, the work up to that point, and then frame our work in the context of the project’s goals.

At the end, clients know they can expect an InVision link to see the designs up close on their own time."

Make sure everybody is excited about the project

  • Sometimes it's hard for remote teams to kick off projects with the same excitement level that comes with in-house work. It's vital to build up as much enthusiasm as possible on the team call when you've got everyone together. Once the kickoff call is done, it's time to begin putting processes in place for what the day-to-day life cycle of the project is going to look like.

Step 3. Keep everyone on the same page and track every task and deadline

After kicking off the project, you’ll need a place to manage its day-to-day life cycle. Some teams choose to use spreadsheets or Google Docs to do this, while others will put their tasks and deadlines into a project planning tool. Let's take a look at how the latter can help your remote projects run more smoothly.

A project planning tool can help bring a project's "single source of truth" to life. Every billable hour, deadline, deliverable, and budget can be kept in one place. Not only can it help keep everybody on the same page, but it allows everybody on the team to see who is responsible for what, and where the project should be at certain stages of its life cycle.

Team members can't claim they haven't seen task assignments or didn't know something was due, and it makes it a lot harder for project managers to blow their budgets. After all, every billable hour and variable is being tracked and accounted for, and when the budget is nearly reached, a project manager will be warned.

Pro-tip: Using a communication tool like Slack in conjunction with a project management tool can keep your team connected, no matter where they're working from. Here at Float, we use a bunch of tools (including Slack) for day-to-day communications. We have chats set up for #customer-success and #product for individual departments. But we also have a #float team channel for anything business related, and our #general is where we talk about anything from our weekends to…basketball 🏀. Check out Float’s integration with Slack here.

What remote project management looks like in real life

When Bristol-based brand agency Halo launched, the company didn't have a single client on its books.

Now, the company has earned a spot as a Design Week Top 100 consultancy, working with household names and challenger brands in FMCG, lifestyle, music, and entertainment. Halo also has a team of 25 full-time staff, and working remotely is a big part of their culture.

Nick and Vern, co-founders of Halo agency

Halo uses remote project management tools to enable them to have flexible working hours and to collaborate.

"We believe it’s important to keep the working process as fluid as possible, which often means enabling a flexible approach, engaging with technology, and keeping an open mind," founders Nick Ellis and Vern Edmonds say.

"It's performance that matters, not geography."

Whether you've got a team of 25 or 250, managing projects remotely (and successfully) relies on the same core principles. With a project planning tool like Float, you can plan your projects and then assign tasks to team members' schedules. You can set different lengths for tasks to let your team know how long they have to complete each one.

Assigning tasks like this helps your team members focus on one thing at a time by time blocking their schedules, and gives a clear outline of how projects will progress towards the finish line.

To keep your project on track, each task is accounted for within your overall project budget, which can be measured in dollars spent or hours exhausted. Directing projects like this gives managers more control, and puts things like budget control on autopilot.

How to handle your global team’s schedules

Managing remote projects isn't just about setting deadlines and keeping budgets on track. You must also look after the most important resource within your business—your team.

Using a tool like Float, you can stay on top of things like time zone differences and regional holidays. For example, if you have a remote team member working from Brooklyn, you can import public holidays for New York and block them out on their schedule.

The days will be grayed out on their calendar, and the holiday details will display over the date at the top.  

Tasks assigned to your team are automatically adjusted to their local time zone, to ensure that your team is completing the right tasks on the right day. For example, if a Melbourne-based project manager assigns a task to a London-based designer at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, that task will display at 2 p.m. on Wednesday on your designer’s schedule as well (despite the 11-hour time difference).

Wrapping Up

Keeping a remote team on track requires setting guidelines and laying a new foundation at the beginning of every project. In the end, managing projects remotely isn't all that different from managing them in a high-rise somewhere.

Project managers must still compile a detailed project spec, hold a kickoff meeting, and track the project vigilantly until it's in the hands of the client. The real challenge of remote project management is making sure that a team that's spread out across the globe is able to come together to get the job done.

Remote project management tools help teams stay on the same page, even when they aren't in the same building. With the right arsenal, you can get your projects delivered on time—every time—no matter where your team is located.

Looking for a resource management tool to boost your remote team’s collaboration? Join the 1000's of creative agencies and teams that manage their remote teams using Float. Start your free trial here!

By Kimberlee Meier
In a previous life I was an award-winning Australian journalist. Now I live in Edinburgh and write research content for select B2B/SaaS companies. My workshop is located below.