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Project Management Insights: Managing Remote Teams (Or During a Pandemic)

Christine Brack on April 13, 2020 - in Articles, Column

Depending on where you live and work, there may be a stay-in-place order recently issued by your state or local government. Your firm or office building manager may have closed facilities out of abundance of caution. Whatever the situation, you are more than likely now working from home. Since construction is considered an essential service in many states, projects are moving forward; as are most in the design phase.

A project manager develops some specific and unique skills to be successful, but many are suddenly adding a new dimensional challenge to the role: working and managing remotely. No one knows when the distancing restrictions will ease, but there are practices to incorporate that will help the team stay focused, connected and informed.

Shore up Communication

You can’t walk over to your colleague to discuss a solution. You can’t stop the Principal in the hall and ask to meet for a few minutes. You can’t huddle around a workstation and mentor, learn or delegate.

In your new remote world, communication frequency and format need to be established. Try a daily standup for your team at the same time of day, every day. Keep it short. Decide what mechanisms are most appropriate to use for general questions and commentary throughout the day—Skype, text, phone call, WebEx, chat, WhatsApp—and use only one or two.

Keep in mind that the spoken word delivers more context than written messages. In a time of anxiety, a voice from a colleague can be a reassuring connection. Typed messages create an expectation of an instant answer that, when there is a delay, may only generate additional unease.

Mitigate Distractions

You are rediscovering your home office or setting up camp at your dining table. Your kids are home, too. Everyone is home and just trying to do their thing. It’s a time of leniency, but you still have deadlines.

Establish some house rules that seal off your space and have others honor quiet time for calls when total privacy isn’t possible. Limit communication channels as mentioned. Inbound messages from every possible app and device are distracting. Collaboration tools and cloud-based software are valuable at this time, but personal organization in your new domestic workspace is essential to stay productive. Eliminate clutter that will divert your attention. Work in the quiet hours before the rest of the family becomes active.

Trust

We work in a visible and collaborative industry, and we rely heavily on team members to do their part to make a project successful. Before the world arrived at this point in time, the industry had mixed opinions on allowing employees to work from home. Now, there’s no choice.

But it’s not a time to keep constant tabs on employees. It’s counterproductive for you and them. Trust that your team is doing its best in the worst of scenarios. Use the firm’s existing management tiers to build engagement, communicate and keep projects progressing.

Don’t expect to deploy one way of doing everything. Let teams find their best way of working together. If you can’t develop this trust, assess later if the issue was real or perceived, and address it when folks return to the office.

Manage Information

With a majority of people working from home, your company now has as many “branch offices” as it has employees. In the coming weeks, leadership will not be able to stroll through the office, be visible, be present, lead by example or get a read on staff anxiety.

Just as there’s chatter in the break room or quiet pockets of gossip, employees working remotely also will be talking to each other—if not more so. Their conversations, however, will likely be emotionally charged and speculative. Rumors that get out of control are just another distraction and could be harmful to morale.

As a leader or project manager, keep information flowing down to the team—frequently and in spoken word. Don’t do all the talking; budget extra time in your day to listen. If you don’t have an answer to a tough question, be honest. No one has all the answers at a time like this. If you aren’t in a position to disseminate information in your firm, do your part by not conjecturing.

Be Flexible

There are new developments every day that impact you, your work and your ability to work. The same goes for your clients. Depending on the market sectors you serve, some projects may move forward unimpeded. Others might be put on hold.

If there was ever a time to be flexible, open-minded and ready to pitch-in, it’s now. Expect that things may turn on a dime. Expect to be asked to multi-task or assist on something above or below your experience level. You may discover you were better at something than you gave yourself credit for; or not as good as you thought you were. Expect and understand there will be some clumsiness as people work through this remote situation. When you return to the office, expect some disruption in that transition as well.

Pause, Breathe, Recharge

Adjusting to a new routine and burdening new stressors while trying to manage people and projects can be overwhelming even for the most seasoned professional. Just because you’re working from home doesn’t mean you are locked inside.

Get up every hour—step outside your front door, around your backyard, onto your balcony, around the neighborhood, down the hall or up the stairs. At lunch, pack in some exercise or complete an outside errand. Your mind and body will appreciate it. Infuse some levity during team conversations. It’s easy to work longer hours when you don’t have a commute. At the close of business day, turn off the computer. The rest of the day and evening is yours.

Focusing on your projects and connecting with your team may appear and feel like the most stable elements in the world right now—even with the hiccups of working remotely. Try a few things out, and take one day at a time.

 

Christine Brack

About Christine Brack

Christine Brack, PMP, is a Principal at ChrismarGroup, a training and consultancy firm; email: cbrack@chrismargroup.com.

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