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As a project manager, you may have a love-hate relationship with flexible work arrangements (FWAs).
While using a virtual team can help you attract and retain top talents from anywhere in the world, managing remote employees often adds significant complexity to projects and require PMs to employ new techniques, tools, and soft skills to overcome the challenges.
Here are some major challenges you may encounter when leading a remote team and what you can do overcome them.
1) Communicate Effectively Without In-Person Interactions
Most remote workers rely on written communications such as email and text messages. However, this can lead to misunderstanding because they don’t allow for verbal and non-verbal cues such as tone and inflection or facial expression and body language to communicate nuances in the messages.
Project managers should encourage and facilitate video conferencing among team members. There are a number of video conferencing platforms that are easy to set up and provide features like HD video, screensharing and recording. Make sure team members have access to the video conferencing platform and provide the necessary training so everyone can use the technology efficiently.
One of the most important components of communicating with remote teams is one-on-one meetings. These meetings can give managers insight into how each team member is doing and foreshadow issues that may become bigger problems.
During one-on-one meetings, look for cues that employees are facing challenges such as falling behind on their assignments or experiencing burnout. Here are a few ways to ensure these 1:1 meeting are effective:
Dedicate time for 1:1 meetings
Too many meetings is a plague for the business community, but for a project manager there should be very few things in their agenda that supersede managing their team. By canceling these meeting a manager may feel they are opening up time in their calendar for a more pressing issue. In fact, the opposite is true according to Elizabeth Grace Saunders, a time management coach.
Saunders wrote in a Harvard Business Review article that, “there are some obvious issues that come from cancelling these meetings with regards to your direct reports’ work. Not having a predictable scheduled time with you can lead employees to work on something incorrectly, which can cause unnecessary emergencies and wasted time fixing errors. Or it can lead to a decrease in productivity because employees are confused and unclear about their priorities and therefore don’t accomplish much.”
“Not having a predictable scheduled time with you can lead employees to work on something incorrectly, which can cause unnecessary emergencies and wasted time fixing errors.”
Set expectations for the 1:1 meeting beforehand
Don’t just have 1:1 meetings on your schedule because you’re due on or it’s company policy for managers. Use these meetings to build rapport with remote team members while providing valuable guidance and feedback.
Take the time to set an agenda prior to the meeting and ask your employees to do the same. Share that agenda with them ahead of time so you both have clear expectations about what will be discussed.
Provide clear action items
Just as important as building relationships and reviewing work, 1:1 meetings should end with action items for all involved. This ensures you and your employees derive value from each of these conversations. For example, you could have reviewed one of your writer’s latest blog post and an action item could be for them to write a new piece of content using the techniques you discussed with them.
Your next 1:1 meetings could involve reviewing how they implemented those techniques in their next piece.
It’s also important to involve your in-house team when communicating with groups of remote team members. In team meetings, encourage co-located team members to dial into the video calls so everyone can have the same experience and remote employees aren’t missing out on non-verbal cues.
2) Collaborate Across Different Locations and Time Zones
Remote team members can’t simply walk over to their colleagues’ desks to communicate and collaborate. To orchestrate remote teamwork effectively, you need to set expectations and use the right tools.
Implement cloud-based collaboration platforms for real-time communication, file sharing, and more. These applications include project management software (e.g., monday.com), unified communications platform (e.g., 8×8), team messaging application (e.g., Slack), and file sharing tool (e.g., Dropbox).
These platforms allow you to keep everything in one place to avoid miscommunications. Team members can log on any time and from anywhere to catch up with all the conversations to minimize errors and delays.
Also, aim for schedule overlap so team members from different time zones can set up real-time communications (e.g., video or voice calls) without requiring anyone to work odd hours. Document employee time zones and work hours, then highlight the overlapping time slots on shared calendars for efficient scheduling. For example, your headquarters could be in EST and you have remote team members spread out between the west coast and Europe. 10am EST could be a good time so the meeting isn’t too early or too late for anyone.
3) Create Well Defined Workflows
An assembly line comes to mind when I think of creating workflows. Your workflows should be easy to follow repeatable processes that spit out outstanding products or provide amazing customer experiences. These workflows create clear structure around work that remote teams engage in and are the lifeblood of any successful team.
Workflows can be created for an task or set of tasks being completed towards an end goal. For example, your overall content strategy should have clearly defined workflows from content ideation, to writing, publishing and ultimately promotion. Each step in the overall strategy may require multiple team members input. A potential workflow could look like:
- The marketing team performs research on topics that will resonate with their target customer persona.
- Those topics get reviewed and approved by management.
- The writing team produces the content.
- That content gets reviewed for any changes by the marketing team.
- The writing team makes any requested changes.
- The content gets approved by the marketing team.
- The writing team publishes the content.
- The marketing team promotes the content across social media channels and email.
This process would have taken multiple emails, phone call and meetings to accomplish in the past. Today, technology helps keep that all organized and automated with tools like monday.com and Hive. These project management platforms gives teams the ability to create repeatable workflows for specific projects, assign tasks out to team members, create deadlines and provide project managers with complete transparency.
4) Staff Your Projects With the Right Team Members
The biggest factor for success is definitely the team, but not everyone works well in a remote environment. An employee that performs well in an office environment may not necessarily be as effective in a remote team.
When recruiting for a project, make sure team members have the right combination of work ethic, technical competence, and personal attributes for remote work. Here are a few things to consider when looking for remote team members:
Doers just get stuff done. No matter if they are working from a secluded island or from their bed at home. These people don’t need any micro-management or task assignment other than the overall organizational goal and guidance on their direction. Adding doers will increase the overall work productivity of the team.
You can spot doers by how they react to an assignment. Let’s say that you just had an all hands meeting where you announced a new business line that the company will launch in 60 days. The doer will immediately go to work and approach their management team with ideas, strategies and questions. The non-doer will go on with their day waiting for new tasks associated with the announcement.
Find people you can trust
Trust is key in a remote workforce. You have to trust that the people working outside your office are doing what they say they’re doing. Sure, you can monitor some of that in the work product they deliver, but you don’t know if they’re putting in the hours or working half days at home to produce the bare minimum.
You have to trust remote workers for the entire concept to work. On the flip side, management has to exhibit trust with the people who are hired. Management needs to set clear and well defined expectation for remote works and then trust that they are meeting those expectations.
Find people who can write
Unlike a co-located office where information is shared vocally in person, a remote workforce shares most of the information through written email and chat. Remote workers who can explain things and provide instructions in written for is imperative for communication in remote teams.
Find people who can work without a social environment
There’s no doubt that remote work environments are less social than co-located ones. People on remote teams should naturally be comfortable working in that type of environment – even thrive in it. This doesn’t mean that your remote workers should be completely shut off from the rest of the team. You should still foster socializing through digital “water cooler” spaces like team wide Slack channels or Friday video conferencing happy hours. This will ensure morale and company culture between remote workers is reinforced.
Enlist the help from HR, as well as recruitment resources, to identify employees that are a good fit for the remote roles. Look for people that are self-motivated, have good verbal and written communication skills, comfortable with communication technologies, and have excellent time management skills.
When hiring for a remote role, conduct in-person or video interviews to gauge the candidates’ interpersonal skills. Also, use online assessments to evaluate their level of self-motivation and other attributes that will make them an effective member of your team.
5) Understand Your Technology
From that first moment of the remote onboarding process, a strong project manager must recognize that running an effective remote team means relying on technology that can create challenges from time to time. While these challenges may test you, they will certainly help you become a better leader for your remote team. We’ve laid out a few key areas that require a bit more attention to excel in the long term.
Provide Comprehensive Onboarding
Whether you’re hiring a new remote team member or transitioning a current employee to a virtual team, everyone should understand the various processes and policies associated with remote working.
Document all procedures and share them in a centralized location. Automate processes to streamline workflows, avoid bottlenecks, and ensure that nothing falls through the cracks. Establish communication guidelines so team members understand how to use the right tools for different purposes and the appropriate response time.
Provide comprehensive training on the various communication and collaboration platforms used by the virtual team and keep everyone updated on the latest features to improve cost-efficiency. It’s important that everyone keeps all the conversations in a centralized location to avoid miscommunication or having to repeat instructions.
Last but not least, as team members need to connect to your systems remotely using their own equipment and networks, don’t overlook the importance of cybersecurity so you can protect sensitive information and customer data to avoid the high cost of data breaches. Here are some of the cyber security protocols you can put in place with your remote teams:
Strong password management
Weak passwords caused 30% of ransomware infections in 2019 alone. Many people repeat passwords across many online accounts they use for both business and personal reasons. This creates a huge cyber security threat for individuals and businesses alike. In addition, only 12% of people take advantage of passwords managers. Businesses need to put password policies in place such as requiring team members to use password managers like LastPass. These password managers auto-generate very difficult passwords for each online account they have and encrypt them for security purposes.
Suspicious website avoidance
There’s no doubt that your remote team is going to search the internet for both business and personal reasons. This ultimately opens their devices up to potential cyber threats from malicious websites. COVID-19 is a perfect example of this currently with thousands of fake COVID-19 websites popping up constantly. In addition to having all remote team members install cyber security tools like McAfee on their devices, they should also receive training about approved sites where they can get their updates.
Your remote team may connect to the internet from unsecure locations when working on business tasks. This creates a huge cyber threat as hackers can easily intercept information over these end points. First, your policy should be for all remote workers to only access the internet from a secure connection point. Second, provide all remote team members with a VPN solution that they are required to use whenever connecting to the internet for business purposes.
Onboarding is a crucial step in getting new remote team members quickly acclimated to your tools, workflows and security protocols. Thoroughly onboarding in the beginning of them joining the team will lead to less headaches down the road.
Leading a remote team can be challenging at times. Yet, with the right strategies and technologies, you can access the best talents and tap into the many benefits of using a remote workforce by enabling your team to collaborate seamlessly and keeping your projects on time and on budget.