Remote work is a popular topic in the business world. Maybe that’s because a greater percentage of the workforce are in an office and dream of the freedom that remote work presents. Let’s face it: the idea of avoiding a daily commute and the quiet of your in-home office sounds enticing. But along with the remote work structure brings it challenges. This was a topic we wanted to hit on--in addition to the fact that managing a remote team must come with its fair share of challenges as well. Thankfully, we knew just the person to discuss these matters!
Natalie Semczuk is a remote and contract project manager based in Upstate New York. Prior to working freelance, Natalie worked for a smaller digital agency and a large paper manufacturer, so she has experience with client and in-house project management.
In this episode of PM Matters, Natalie talks about her typical work day as a remote PM, and the challenges and joys of remote work. She also gives some great advice about project communications. Give a listen and read more about the topic on our blog, and check out Natalie’s session “Manage Your Remote Team” at the Digital PM Summit.
Brett: Hi. This is Brett Harned. Welcome to PM Matters, a Team Gantt interview series that raises the voice of the community and explores what matters to us.
Today I'm joined by Natalie Semczuk, who's a freelance PM from Upstate New York. She's an organizer of DPM Upstate, which is a meetup for digital project managers.
Hey, Natalie. How are you?
Natalie: I am good. How are you?
Brett: Good. Thanks so much for joining me. So I want to talk to you a bit about what matters to you when it comes to project management. Before we dig into that topic, could you share with us how you got into project management?
Natalie: Definitely. I think it's always interesting because PMs, for some reason, have such a unique path. I started as a graphic designer in school, and right after school I was freelancing. I got a position at an agency doing SEO research because I also had a background in graduate research and sociology; had the right know-how and just wanted to get in with a local agency any way I could.
Once I was there, an assistant project management position opened up and they told me if you really still want to do design you can do that on the side. If we have any need for extra design comps for a client you can work with our team. So I did, but at the same time I was working directly with clients and really enjoying the part of the communication where you have to interpret what their needs are in a way that works a real-world scenario with the project.
Being able to bridge that gap between educating the client, educating the team, and seeing a project come together, I really enjoyed that so much. I ended up getting promoted to project manager and kept going from there. I love it. It's very hands-on in a way that design is, but in a very different style.
That's awesome, and I'm sure those projects always come in on time.
Other than that, the aspect of being in the office alone in the morning the typical day is pretty similar to what I had in an agency. I'll have a lot of calls with clients, a lot of check-ins with internal teams. That might be on chat or via Google Hangout or Google Voice. That's sort of where that changes. I can be in my pajamas at my desk with a huge cup of coffee and no one knows. But it's still a lot of communication, a lot of chatting, a lot of emails, checking in on things, and making sure everything is running smoothing, and addressing new projects or project issues.
For sure. I think one of the biggest challenges I've faced is less of that immediate gratification needed when either addressing an issue or a question. Everyone works at their own pace, everyone signs on at their own time. I should mention I also work with a lot of other contractors, so our hours aren't dictated by the companies we work for. So it's mainly having the patience or the foresight to know that my questions will not be answered right away.
It's similar to an agency but the difference is that not everyone is going to be online at the same time, or around at the same time. If someone is working in Italy or India or the Philippines, I need to be very aware of their schedule or time zones in order to get things properly scheduled. That's one of the biggest differences, is always having that mind elsewhere about what my actual set up is, and what my time zone is.
Yeah. I used to be good at that.
I think it allows me to work with a lot of different setups and more companies than I was able to work with before, but also bring the knowledge I have from other companies. See how it really does work across a lot of different situations.
I think inherently most projects come up against the same issues. It's just in a different context. So using that knowledge and sort of pattern finding and applying it in all these different situations really sharpens my skills, I think, and brings a lot of other communication issues to the forefront. Communication as a remote and freelance PM is much more deliberate and it's not as subtle as it might be otherwise. It makes me very aware of where things break down or where I need to address things more, and how everyone's styles translate to asynchronous communication on chat or email.
I think it has to be the communication and maybe that's a broad and very easy answer, but it's all in how people talk to each other, and work together, and how a client understands what their needs are and what they're getting out of a project, and how I translate that to the team or get the team involved when I can't translate it or educate the client in what might be the easiest or best solution for them. It's all those puzzle pieces of the project really come out in the way it's communicated.
Sure. I think it's really important to get to know the people you're working with, even if they're contractors, even if it's remotely. People can be a lot more introverted that way naturally, but I always try to chat with people on my team, at least twice a week, just about how their week's going. If anything new is going on in their life, if they have any summer plans, things like that.
One of my developers got a new puppy so I'm asking how the puppy is. But being aware of the little things in their life, and having that ability to chat casually. You don't have to be best friends or even good friends, but just knowing that there's someone there who you can reach out to or have a nice conversation with separately is going to make it a lot easier when you have to have a difficult conversation, or ask someone to turn something over for you very quickly.
That's always helpful. Also being very clear and asking someone to either repeat back to you what you said to them, say do you understand, do you have any questions, can you give me a quick summary of what you'll work on tomorrow based on what I said, or something like that. Leaving those cues that you might not get otherwise, whereas, if we're in a meeting together on a video or in a room, they might be nodding. You might see them taking notes. But over chat or email it's not the same.
Making sure those lines of communication translate better, and the understanding is there, and the avenue is always open if they need to reach you for questions. It might be across a couple of hours or different time zones or a different level of understanding.
Yeah, I think so. I've been doing this for about a year, year-and-a-half now. It's gotten to be more of a habit for me. But I definitely have to work harder at communicating and fitting other peoples' communication styles, but also I have to work harder to remember that it's not the same. I worked in an office for so long and so many different companies that it's just normal to assume that everyone has the same level of understanding or everyone is on the same page about something.
When I work remotely or freelance, I think it's a lot more difficult to see that you're not on the same page, but it's difficult to remember that. It can bite you harder at the end without any realization. Just keeping that always at the front of mine, that this is different, and I have to be very deliberate and very clear about my intentions or my questions as it goes.
Brett: That absolutely makes sense. I want to shift gears a bit and put you in the hot seat as I've been doing in these interviews with PMs. We're often put in situations that are difficult and we have to come up with solutions often on our own, but sometimes also with our teams. I'm wondering how you would handle this scenario.
So your team is 100% remote, like you are now. Things are going well with your client and the project is fine, but you're sensing disagreement among team members about project-related decisions. Maybe it's about a deliverable, people aren't agreeing with the way things are going down, or what's being presented. It could possibly throw off your schedule, and probably annoy the rest of your team of two people are having an argument or disagreeing. And it could definitely disappoint your clients. How would you resolve project disagreements, specifically remotely?
I feel like I've come up against that very slightly recently, but I think the key again is getting rid of the asynchronous communication and finding a way for team members to either chat together live or have a video call or screen share, something like that. I'd want to take first each person separately and get a feel for where they're at. Maybe they're disagreeing about a deliverable because one person has a different idea of what the best practice is and they don't want to put something they don't believe is quality out there. That can be a problem with 0:12:06.7 projects.
Sometimes it doesn't jive with the budget so it's not possible, or the timeline. Just getting the chance for each team member to feel heard, and if it's someone who has more knowledge or experience than me, understanding why they're coming from where they're at. And if there's a reason I should be aware of, if I can consult with someone else on it, and then getting everyone together in a way to fully understand if there's a decision that needs to me made where we're going with that, or if someone can learn from the experience. If someone has less experience and they want to do something a certain way that doesn't make sense to someone with more experience. If they can watch each other code or design and learn from that, and try to really bring them all together to meet the goals of the project. Then address any education or anything like that along the way as an added benefit.
Right. And hopefully if there is disagreement, and project goals are met but people still aren't happy internally that can give you something more to work towards on future projects, or internally, or just a learning day or something.
Yeah. I was actually thinking about this the other day. I think I'm going to steal someone else's advice. Some of the best advice I ever got was don't be afraid to own the project and own the question. Something that was big for me when I was starting was any development-heavy project, I wasn't as familiar with that when I started.
Every time I switched projects, different 0:14:33.0 or different code that we're using, I'm even less familiar, having a design background. I think it's important to know your own limits and don't ever feel bad about asking questions to the client, to your team, to anyone else. It's your project and you need to know the things that will enable you to do the project well. Always ask for clarification or more understanding if you need it and don't apologize and feel bad or feel you have to know everything as a PM. That's totally not our jobs. We just have to know how to communicate what we need to know or what we actually know.
Awesome. Thank you so much, Natalie. I really appreciate you joining us today.
You can follow Natalie @talkanatalka on Twitter. Any other sites or companies you want to mention?
Natalie: Yeah, I guess DPM Upstate has a Twitter also (@DPMUpstate). I have a lot of fun working with Barrel Srength Design. They're one of the main people I contract with now. I have a cat photo blog called catphotosfrommymom.com. And I think that's about it.
Brett: Cool. Thanks so much, Natalie. I really appreciate it.
Natalie: Of course.