Being a project manager is hard enough when your team members are all in the same place. Things get even more complicated when you are managing projects remotely.
The challenges of remote project management can seem endless, from communicating with team members to tracking progress without micromanaging to keeping team morale high. The good news is that with the right system in place, remote work can be an effective option for your team.
In this piece, we will share the techniques that have helped our fully remote team at Float successfully handle the challenges that come with managing projects remotely.
What are the challenges of remote project management?
One of the first issues you’ll run into is communication (or lack thereof). Team members might miss out on important information hidden in the labyrinth of Slack messages or emails, the nuances of face-to-face conversation can be lost (e.g., hand gestures and eye contact), and text might be misinterpreted. Unlike in colocated teams where it is easy to strike up a conversation with a colleague, people tend to keep to their circles when working remotely. To make up for low communication levels, you might find yourself in endless meetings 😨.
Coordinating workflows can be tricky when teammates are spread across the world, but your clients still expect you to deliver their projects on schedule. It is harder to find the right time for a meeting, as most people rely on a synchronous work model that’s incompatible with distributed teams. As a manager, you might also have less visibility into your team’s progress. Your team members could run into roadblocks that you are unaware of, and if you don’t find out on time, the project might grind to a halt!
And let’s not forget the well-being of your team. There are distractions associated with working from home (e.g., pets and family members), and some team members might start to feel isolated, which can affect their engagement.
Despite these challenges, teams all over the world are making remote work work. Our hypothesis? The core ingredients for delivering a successful project are the same regardless of where a project is being worked on from. Let’s talk about how you can successfully manage projects remotely.
How do you manage a project in a remote team?
By taking control of how your team operates and communicates, you can keep everyone motivated and on the same page, despite not being in the same place.
Here are some tips to help you manage your team and projects remotely.
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 but also lets you set your expectations for each team member from the beginning. As you're likely already using cross-team collaboration tools like Google Docs or Dropbox to handle project documents, you can quickly 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 the project's critical tasks 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. Placeholder roles can be created and tasks assigned for upcoming hires or where a resource is needed. Not only does this help you get a clearer idea of how tasks can be allocated amongst team members when the project kicks off but also allows you to map out how far you can stretch the project's budget.
Once the project specifications have been figured out, send them to your team. Everyone should be on the same page about the project's goals, scope, timeline, and individual responsibilities.
2. Bring the team together before the project begins
Next, it’s time to bring your team together—virtually, of course!
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 can 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 quickly 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 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 can be addressed at the next catch-up. Otherwise, the meeting can get derailed.
- Make sure you record the meeting
It’s important to keep a record of the kickoff meeting. 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 any team members 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
- 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. Building up as much enthusiasm as possible on the team call when you've got everyone together is vital. Once the kickoff call is over, 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.
3. Set guidelines around collaboration and communication
Before jumping into work, ensure that your team knows the rules to play by. It is important to set expectations about timelines, response times, status updates, hierarchies/structures, and the use of communication tools.
Set up a living document that outlines expected behavior and updates it as you learn more about how your team works best.
We use Notion as our single source of truth at Float, and it houses all of our important policies and processes. For example, all of our rules and best practices for communication are contained on a Notion page to help keep interactions between team members accessible and efficient.
It’s also used as a directory for each department’s individual guidelines. For instance, the engineering team has a standards and expectations page that they follow while developing and shipping new features.
The engineering team also has a standards and expectations page that guides them while they collaborate and ship products.
4. 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 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 like Float can help bring a project's single source of truth to life. Every billable hour, deadline, deliverable, and budget is kept in one place. That keeps everyone on the same page and allows the team to see who is responsible for what and where the project should be at certain stages of its life cycle.
Team members won’t miss a task assignment or due date, and it makes it a lot harder for project managers to blow their budgets. After all, every billable hour and project variable is being tracked and accounted for.
While it might seem hard to avoid micromanaging while working remotely, breathing down the necks of your team will only slow the pace of work.
Instead, create systems for tracking progress.
Use async updates to check in with your team. Slack is a great tool for this, as you can create dedicated channels for individual teams or projects and deal with any blockers.
Use Float to receive real time updates in Slack
Pro-tip: Float integrates with Slack to send real-time updates as tasks are scheduled or updated. You can also connect project management tools like Asana, Trello, Jira, and WorkflowMax to get a complete picture of who's working on what and when.Try for Free
5. Communicate as efficiently as possible
According to Buffer’s 2021 State State of Remote Work, the second most common challenge for remote workers is communication and collaboration.
Without efficient communication, everything unravels. A siloed-off developer might misunderstand a feature spec and then build something that doesn’t align with the project objective. To stay on track, communication is key.
As a manager, you must remember that communication is a two-way street. Ensure you have heard the other person out and understand them before jumping in to solve a problem or give an answer. Listen more than you speak!
Create a culture of documentation by encouraging the team to communicate openly. If a conversation in a private channel might benefit others, suggest moving it to the open. It could come in handy later for someone who needs an answer to the same question.
“Self-service documentation is critical in a remote, asynchronous working environment where it’s not possible to just tap someone on the shoulder to ask a quick question, or ping a teammate on Slack at 3 a.m. and expect a reply,” says Siobhan Hayes, director of marketing at Float.
Encourage the team to use other means of communication as well. Instead of sending a Slack message in response, the senior designer might record a video walking the team through their thought process.
It also never hurts to use emojis and GIFs to give dry text some personality. Not only is it fun, but it helps convey the mood the writer is in.
6. Have regular meetings with defined goals and timeframes
Notice we say regular, not more. Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic when a majority of people were working from home, the number of meetings increased by 70% according to a report by Reclaim.ai.
More time spent in meetings means more time not doing productive work. Those numbers bear out in Float’s Global Agency Productivity Report, where 66% of teams say they’ve put in extra hours because of too many meetings.
There’s a better way to do meetings! Before jumping in:
- Create an agenda.
- Decide what will be discussed and share it with the people who will be in the meeting.
- Take a look at the items added before the meeting and flag things that aren't relevant or could be discussed in Slack instead.
At Float, we add talking points before the meeting so we have enough time to prepare. The result is shorter meetings with no missed discussion points.
And if you discover that there’s no major topic to discuss, it’s okay to reschedule. “A simple and actionable rule of thumb for us at Float is that we don’t have meetings for the sake of meetings. This applies to our weekly status meets too. If there’s nothing to discuss that week, we cancel, and there’s no shame,” says Siobhan.
Ensure you only invite people who need to be in the meeting. You don't want bored team members browsing the internet while they sit through a meeting they're not interested in. Stick to the agenda and keep an eye on the clock. Look out for warning signs that the meeting is drifting off course. For example, if a team member raises an idea or issue that could be better discussed in a 1:1, you should step in and get things back on track.
7. Collaborate asynchronously when possible
Collaboration doesn’t have to happen in real-time to be effective. Remote project managers tend to spend a lot of time in meetings ensuring everyone is on the same page and the project is on track.
But too many virtual meetings can take a toll on your health. Aside from meetings, Slack messages and emails are waiting to be answered. It’s hard to focus on a task when you are constantly switching between screens.
“Each time a person comes out of their focus bubble to respond to a message or to check Slack, some context is lost, and it takes time to regain it. Even if replying to a message takes less than a minute, the time lost might be closer to an hour, depending on how deep the person was in their bubble,” explains Colin Ross, director of engineering at Float.
At Float, we reduce time in meetings and protect our team's time by communicating asynchronously. For instance, instead of weekly meetings, the engineering team shares async updates in a Notion doc. Rather than hopping on Zoom to discuss a new feature, we might record a Loom to give feedback or share an idea.
What about daily stand-ups? Well, those can be async too!
Using a Slack integration like Geekbot lets you send a prompt to team members asking them things like:
- What did you do yesterday?
- What will you do today?
- Is there anything blocking you from moving forward?
Keep in mind that not all communication should be asynchronous. You should define (and document) when to meet in real-time and when to use async communication. For example, at Float, we switch to synchronous communication when real-time communication is necessary.
“Working asynchronously doesn't mean we miss out on specific types of communication—we use asynchronous alternatives or choose synchronous communication if better suited," says Alan Miles, former senior product manager at Float. "For example, planning, documenting, collaborating, and stand-ups are all asynchronous. Some interactions like customer demos, partner exploration, or quarterly 1:1s are synchronous.”
Keep in mind that asynchronous communication only works if you trust your team. At some companies, team members are expected to reply within 24 hours, while others have a longer timeline. Determine what works best for you and your team and make sure everyone knows the expectations.
8. Use tools the right way
It’s impossible to manage projects remotely without technology.
At Float, we use Slack for our day-to-day communications, Asana to manage projects, and Float for time Tracking and capacity management. We store information in Notion and files in Google Drive.
While having a full tech stack is good, it can hamper your work if used incorrectly.
“While remote work can increase transparency, people can get overwhelmed if there's too much visibility. It's easy to get lost in Slack channels, Google Drive, and unlimited access to projects or clients,” says Anna Burgess Yang, a former director of customer success & product manager at a fintech company.
Yang suggests reducing noise by making sure your team members are not receiving emails or notifications they don’t need. For example, you can take someone off an email thread if they do not need to be part of the conversation. Another way to cut down on distracting notifications is to limit tagging everyone in Slack channels. The use of @here should be reserved for specific occasions like a team-wide announcement.
9. Keep team members motivated and engaged
Sometimes working remotely can get really lonely when team members are far away. It is common for remote workers to find it hard to unplug and to feel burned out as a result. According to the Buffer 2022 State of Remote work report, 24% of remote workers said they were lonely, and 25% can’t unplug.
If left unchecked, your team might become less engaged and productive. You can help your team navigate remote work by:
- Keeping an eye out for personal issues and blockers. Not everyone will be willing to share, but you can pick up on signals in their mood, tone, and facial expressions.
- Sharing personal tips for productivity and work-life balance. Don’t hesitate to tell your team what works for you!
- Being mindful of time zone differences and regional holidays while planning. For example, in Float, if you have remote team members working from Brooklyn, you can import public holidays for New York and block them out on their schedule.
- Encouraging calls and informal chats. We use the Slack extension Donut to pair team members randomly once a month for video chats. It’s a great way to get to know each other better outside of a work context.
- Meeting in real life. If the project lasts long enough and you have the funds, you can organize a remote team meetup.
- Celebrating all wins, both big and small. It helps your team to know the work they do is impactful. Praise them for a job well done, and when a milestone is reached, or the project comes to an end, have a virtual celebration.
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Manage remote projects like a pro using Float
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.
A dedicated resource management tool, like Float allows teams to see all planned work in one view. Project managers can see everyone's availability, skills, and capacity in one tool. This makes it easy to assign balanced and sustainable workloads, track project progress, and have a clear understanding of what everyone's working on.
Looking for a resource management tool to boost your remote team’s collaboration? Join the thousands of creative agencies and teams that manage their remote teams using Float. Start your free trial here!