Project Managers had a planning factor they used years ago indicating that team members who are located more than fifty feet from each other should be treated as remote teams.  Remote teams were discouraged since communication was just too difficult to be effective.  Gradually, remote collaboration and communication tools have improved, yet the habits of individuals, especially management, have not helped to build competency in effectively using remote staff.  Then COVID 19 began to spread.

For some organizations, the use of online collaboration tools, storage of knowledge capital, access to individuals, and online meetings was already significant and increasing.  For some, however, tradition played a more significant role.  COVID changed all that!  For the while that few could even go to an office, the mode of operations had to be changed quickly.  Infrastructure did not always accommodate access for all individuals operating from remote locations.  Individuals had little effectiveness in meeting online with others due to less capable scheduling or coordinating technologies.  Individuals were not as familiar with technology tools to accomplish their work.  Online meetings ignored many of the participants that were not even known to be participating.  Managers could not go to individuals to talk about progress or activity.  Many habits were being forced to change.

This article is about the techniques that could help all of us to manage better in a more remote environment for projects in the future.  Techniques will be explained in three dimensions: management of people, management of work, and management of capabilities to enable remote work.  Key techniques are in Bold font.

Management of People

In case you didn’t notice, the last two decades have changed the management relationship with individuals within an organization.  If you believe you have to manage people, it is likely you have a lot of turnover, since individuals who are strong in capability to do their work need, and want, little “management.”  Leadership of people might be a better concept to operate from.  In general, the techniques to this section follow:

  • Hire and Retain the Right People: I know we have heard this over and over again. The difference now, is that people need to be not only qualified, but self-managed.  If people are doing what they need to do, we should find ways to retain them.  If not, we need to find other work where they are capable of meeting the outcome expectations.  Training may be important in some organizations.
  • Provide Clear Outcome Expectations: When you have the right people, they need to know the expected outcomes they need to achieve. This needs to be done with teams as much as individuals since remote work must rely on qualified, self-managed people and teams.  Outcomes need to have criteria like in projects that could be measured.  When things happen, there may be methods for negotiating what is acceptable.  The achievement cannot be totally negotiable since, then, any performance is acceptable.  If they are truly self-managed, they will come very close or exceed expectations every time.
  • Facilitate Success and Growth: Managers are no longer supervisors. If you have the right people you need to get impediments to work out of the way of the employees so they can manage the work.  Pay them appropriately for retention when they perform.  Train to remain ahead of market trends.  People are not disposable; find the right job for them and help them prove themselves by providing the right challenges.

Management of Work

If you hired the right people, and they know the required outcomes to achieve, they should be the ones managing the work.  Projects are different from operations; so, they are treated separately here:

  • Projects: The principles of project management have not changed. The importance and methods used for some areas have had to change.
    • Communication is one where the traps we fall in when in the office can become much worse using online technologies. Some of these traps follow:
      • Informed Misunderstanding: Those who cannot complete their work to the level required will often knowingly or unknowingly practice communication that is ambiguous. By providing some level of information that is not clearly tied to their lack of progress the in-person meetings tend to continue to rely on the individual though their communication is intended to provide their defense for not completing the expected work.  In an online environment, this can become worse; or techniques for tracking major pieces of work completion can clear the air more quickly and expose weakness that the team can adjust for; or, that encourage staffing with the appropriate skills.
    • Schedules have always been an illusion and likely false promise for projects since the level of ambiguity at the onset of the project is so high that estimates and schedules are mostly wrong. The beauty of remote tracking is that the work results become more pertinent.  If you know the work that needs to be done, and you track the rate at which work gets done, this becomes the demonstration of what schedule is possible rather than the unrealistic target set for those who need to feel in control.  Learning to use this technique provides a departure for past practice that is much more valuable than holding on to false hope.
    • Risk, Issues, and Related Impact: Quite often meetings on risks and issues focus on the assignment and a report of activity by the person assigned. The key factor for risks or issues is the avoidance of impact.  To avoid impact, track impact, not activity.  If you can’t explain the actual or potential impact to your project, then don’t worry about the item.  If you can define the actual or potential impact, take the action necessary to stop it.  By focusing on the appropriate data using remote systems, the focus can avoid the comfort of meeting together while discussing things that may never cause impact.
    • Scope and Requirements: These items need to be documented. Even then, there are arguments about scope statements and requirement details.  For this reason, it is more important to keep communication in documentation, but to ensure that acceptance criteria are added to ensure the definition of “done” can be better established at the onset.  Also, track changes since these highly impact cost and need to be documented when approved with the additional schedule and budget for each change.
    • Quality: You already know that you can’t build quality into results by testing at the end of development. One way to improve the quality in the process is in the conduct of reviews.  Haven’t you seen where circulating a document for review results in many people having changes to the same paragraphs.  When the document originator has no idea how to negotiate between the parties, it becomes clear that this form of review has low quality.  Conduct an online review with the fewest number of pertinent resources.  Let them hear their mutual comments, and let them determine and negotiate the right resolution to conflicting comments so that they are in complete agreement at the end of the review.
    • Integration: When more than single party is involved in a project, there has traditionally been an integrated schedule of all activity. The tracking of all activity can be time-consuming and can also distract you from managing what is important.  The only integration part of integrated tracking is for those items for which another party is dependent.  The answer is to track dependencies, not all tasks for teams.  They can manage their own tasks and the PM just needs to know when others will be impacted so they can act on the item causing the impact.
    • Cost: This factor is generally driven by scope, schedule, and quality. By using techniques above for these items, you have greater potential for controlling cost.  When other items indicate change, build a projection for cost for each change identified to ensure parties are informed on potential cost.
    • Configuration Management: Any project needs to understand the context of baseline information. Reporting needs to be based upon baselines.  The same baseline for requirements associated with an end product can be meaningful, but reporting on different baselines would lose meaning.  All related documentation to a project solution needs to be version controlled.  Allowing change without control prevents tracking authority for change and the associated schedule, budget, or other factors become mis-aligned.  For remote consistency keep all items controlled to a version stored in a central location available to stakeholders so they can review and use the appropriate versions for their work.
  • Operations:
    • In many cases, operations relies upon either self-managed teams or direct supervision. As work moves to the remote domain, where possible, the transition to self-managed teams, team rewards, and ensuring the right people are doing the work will provide the best possible case for effectiveness and efficiency.

Management of Capabilities to Enable Remote Work

When individuals are working remotely, the way they are enabled for their performance can be critical.  The techniques are in the following areas:

  • Tools and Infrastructure:
    • Have you noticed that online meetings are more difficult to provide the rich experience of communication? This is due to most communication being non-verbal.  Have smaller meetings and check in with each person as often as necessary.
    • Have you noticed that meetings in the office used to always go the full hour, yet meetings online tend to get shortened to only the time required? What a concept.  Keep it up.
    • Have you noticed that Internet connectivity is not the same from home as from the office? This is the one area that will need to be managed since the availability of connectivity will need to be much better and much less expensive to support the work requirements.
    • Have you noticed that individuals can’t take their desktop home and have it work? If computer work is essential, then a laptop is important.  Company software should not be placed on individuals’ machines, so there is still a sense of responsibility required for the software used to get work done.
  • Security: Cyber security has taken much greater emphasis in recent years. With remote performance, the security of individuals and the work performed needs to increase.  Ensure that each system (people, process, and technology) includes the appropriate authentication (possibly multi-factor and biometric) as well as time-out and other features are set to avoid unauthorized access.
  • Knowledge: It has always been a bit foolish to expect that knowledge actually existed to a high level within systems that capture documentation. Think about it; how much that you know, have you documented?  Very little!  So, knowledge is much, much more in people that in documents.  It is OK to capture and use documentation, but remote performance is demonstrating how much of a need there is to get to a person to obtain something necessary to excel in achieving work results.  Provide enhanced access to people as part of any knowledge management solution.
  • Actions:
    • Employees should not live in fear of their positions. Speak honestly with them about their ability and appropriate work and compensation.
    • Employees need a safe place to work. Home is not always a great environment; so, consider what it takes to ensure each person has a place to operate from that they agree is safe and compatible with work.

Summary

While remote collaboration for enterprise achievement was largely thrust upon us unexpectedly, most organizations are finding ways to achieve that are innovative and meaningful for all those involved.  Where some individuals struggle at first with technology, this is a short-lived challenge and techniques for managing effectiveness in these environments are the new domain of creativity and innovation.

The techniques included herein are just a start; please don’t hesitate to add your comments or suggestions to improve the remote effectiveness in your areas of business.

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