If you thought that being a project manager was hard, try being a remote project manager. A remote project manager is someone who has people on his or her team who work remotely. Being a remote project manager is like being a project manager with blindfolds on and one arm tied behind your back, while walking backwards up the stairs, and not eating any gluten. Or dairy.
Okay, it’s not quite that hard. But it’s not easy, either.
There are all kinds of pitfalls, potential mistakes, points to remember, priorities to keep track of, and communication policies to keep in mind.
The plot thickens when you realize that some of your remote employees are asleep while you’re awake (and vice versa), some remote employees are from different cultures, and some remote employees are working with more than one manager and perhaps in more than one company business.
Don’t be afraid.
What I’m about to describe are common mistakes. You’ve made them. I’ve made them. We’ve all lived to tell about it. To spare you from some of the grief that I’ve dealt or felt, here are the common mistakes and how to avoid them.
1. You forgot about that...uh...what’s his name...that one guy…
“I think he’s in South Carolina. Maybe. Or was it North Carolina? Was it David...or Daniel?
Yep. That’s me. You forgot about me.
(I speak from experience.)
The mistake here is simple. You forgot about a remote worker. Out of sight, out of mind, right?
When a team is large and distributed, this can happen easily. it’s even more likely to happen when there are no clear management or communication protocols in place.
An article from Quickbase makes this same point:
Mistakes managers make when managing remote workers — You forget about them. Once you get over the person not being in the office, you don’t give them much thought beyond sending an email requesting information on a project. If you acted that way with someone in the office, it would be weird and rude.
Anyone who has remote work experience knows that there are obvious challenges. In one survey, remote workers indicated that “lack of direct communication” was one of the biggest challenges.
With the lack of communication comes the likelihood of forgetting that someone is even there. The consequences can be dire, depending on the remote worker’s role, work style, and contributions.
How can you avoid this mistake? Make a communication schedule, and commit to communicating with every remote worker at least once a week.
2. You don’t ask for their input.
Picture a meeting. You’re sitting around a conference table. Joe is sitting across from you. You speak to Joe. “So, what do you think, Joe? Can you give us your suggestion?”
Joe gives his input. Joe feels like he’s part of the team. He feels included, collaborative, and valuable.
Now, picture another meeting. You’re sitting at around a conference table, and that phone thing is in the middle.
You don’t see Joe. And you don’t ask for Joe’s input.
It’s weird. It’s awkward. It’s a different situation. You don’t have the same level of rapport, nonverbals, and give-and-take that you have during an in-person interaction.
And you lose something valuable: Joe’s input.
Gaining remote workers’ input is just as important as gaining the input of any other team member. In some cases, remote workers can provide better input because of their distanced perspective.
One of the apparent disadvantages of working remote is that the remote worker misses out on the company vibe and the culture. However, this “disadvantage” might actually be a good thing.
Company cultures have a way of breeding unhealthy groupthink. A remote worker is completely distanced from this . She’s not hearing the same chatter, reading the same motivational posters, feeling the same pressure, or getting the same hairy eyeballs.
She’s able to think independently, and therefore contribute in a different way. Do not devalue the input of remote workers. Their distance makes them an asset to brainstorming, not a liability.
Make time to intentionally request the input of your remote workers on a regular basis. They will feel more valuable and fulfilled, and you’ll gain some powerful insights.
3. You don’t deliver any perks.
You know that pizza party you threw for the office last week? The remote worker didn’t get any pizza.
She also couldn’t make it to your Christmas party, because she lives in the Philippines.
Many remote workers want to be involved in the life and culture of the business. It’s obvious that they can’t participate in the pizza party, sticky-note the CEO’s office, or gather around the Bunn coffee maker to chat.
But they can be involved in other ways. It’s important to show your remote workers that you’re thinking about them and that you appreciate them.
I recommend giving your remote workers some perks.
Since they couldn’t make it to the pizza party, why not send them a gift card with a message:
“We know you couldn’t make it to the pizza party, but maybe you and your family can go out to eat sometime this week!”
Here are some practical perks that you can use to reward your remote workers.
- Give them a free Kindle.
- Give them an unlimited digital book stipend to Amazon or Audible.
- Pay for a gym membership in their area.
- Pay for a remote office space, or upgrades to their home office.
- Provide them with a nice chair.
- Send them office swag — t-shirts, mugs, whatever you have on hand.
- Give them a Macbook.
- Send them a cake.
- Order a nice catered meal for their family.
- Pay for their Internet.
- Give them “paid time off” even if they’re a contract or 1099 worker.
- Provide additional reimbursement for family members (new or existing).
- Provide a vacation stipend each year.
4. You don’t communicate often enough.
How often should you communicate with your remote workers?
More often than you think.
If you must err in your communication, err on the side of over communication.
Remote workers are separated by a wide gulf of empty space. They feel it. Try to fill that space with frequent touch-bases, and hey-just-checking-ins.
Some practical advice:
- Schedule a weekly call. The power of a digital face-to-face can’t be overstated. Use Google Hangouts or Skype to see each other. If you opt for the phone model, that’s good, too. When you hold a weekly call, you’re able to maintain that communication by virtue of the scheduled time.
- Request a weekly update. This could be a bit onerous to some remote employees, but you may want to place the burden of communication upon them. Ask them for a description of what they worked on this week, or what they plan to work on in the coming week.
- Send an email once a week. A quick check-in is perfect. You don’t have to be all breathing-down-their-neck about it. Just ask them how their week is going and if there’s anything you can do to help.
Communication is the sine qua non of remote work management. Nothing — I repeat, nothing — is more important than regular, beneficial communication between a remote worker and his or her manager.
When communication begins to unravel or becomes less frequent, than your remote working relationships will deteriorate as well. Be careful not to let that happen.
Remote work management can be a tricky thing to navigate, but it’s also becoming the new norm.
Increasingly, being “a good project manager” requires being a good remote project manager.
Keep these pointers in mind, and commit no more mistakes.
- Don’t forget about that guy in South Carolina. Or wherever he is.
- Go after their feedback. You want their input. It’s valuable stuff.
- Send them swag, gift cards, remote pizza parties, and stuff that makes them feel special. Because they are.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate.
Don’t worry. You’ve got this.