The coronavirus epidemic has caused enormous losses for the global economy as a whole and virtually in all areas, namely health, economy, production. It affected both, the small business owners and the global giants. COVID-19 has turned everyone’s life upside down and allowed to take a fresh look at the characteristics of companies that will become fundamental in this battle for survival. However, despite all the hardships of the pandemic, it has highlighted certain aspects of team culture that allow some people to thrive, while others will be left behind if they cannot adapt effectively to the new reality.
Profile analytical studies have shown that with the introduction of quarantine in 2020, about 75% of surveyed companies have transferred their employees in whole or in part to remote working.
Of course, the remote work is not an innovation of the quarantine. People have been working in a similar format since the 1970s. The number of people working remotely has increased by 400% since 2010 – and with the COVID-19 outbreak, that number will only increase.
Back in 2012, Stanford conducted a study of the phenomenon of the remote work. It turned out that remote work leads to the increase in the employees’ satisfaction and productivity, and if the increase in satisfaction seems logical and causes no doubts, the increase in productivity looks rather strange.
Stanford University Professor Nicholas Bloom conducted that study. A graduate student James Liang, co-founder and CEO of China’s largest travel company Ctrip assisted him. The study involved 16 thousand people.
“We have seen a significant increase in productivity. At home, people began to work on average 13% more efficiently. It’s almost an extra working day a week. “
From Nicholas Bloom’s speech at TEDx talk in 2017
Nevertheless, as we have all seen in recent months the remote work has many challenges: communicating with team members, accessing technology, dealing with distractions at home, protecting mental well-being, and this is by no means an exhaustive list.
At the same time, despite all the obstacles, projects need to be performed with the same quality and according to plan, but it is difficult to coordinate the work when team members are scattered around their homes.
For example, a study conducted by Monday Company, which provides project management services to more than 100,000 companies worldwide, found that during the quarantine, 37% of employees began to spend more time calling and meeting online, and 26% of employees experienced loss of communication with the rest of the team and asynchrony in action, 25% complained about lack of transparency, 22% faced difficulties in communication, 21% of respondents noted a decrease in involvement and 19% suffered from lack of access to necessary data and information.
The question arises how is it possible to achieve the level of efficiency that was discussed in Bloom’s study.
Of course, the “right way” to manage the projects remotely will be different for each company, product and team. But in the process of our teambuilding, we came to the conclusion that managers should follow a few key principles at different stages of project management to help their teams cope with an unplanned turn of events.
- Launching the project
– choosing the right team for a remote project: the project team can be dynamic and bring together diverse specialists (designers, developers, consultants, marketeering experts) involved in solving individual project issues at a particular stage. This type of virtual team is common in consulting and IT companies;
– holding a constituent meeting (kick-off) to create a common project vision based on the project specification
The main kick-off goals are a) achieving common understanding of the purpose of the project; b) management of expectations; c) acquaintance with the working group.
At this stage, it is necessary to clearly state the objectives of the project and give a brief description, including a high-level project plan, to introduce the members of the working group, to propose basic rules of communication and outline further actions. If a customer representative is present at the kick-off, it is important to have a short communication within the team so that the members of the working group do not learn about the very existence of the project only at the kick-off. This will relieve the members of the remote team from additional stress.
Planning is the most important part of project management. According to RMBOK classical methodology, planning should take about 50% of the time during project implementation. The difficulty is that during this stage all the actions that the team must take to achieve the goal are carefully prescribed. To do this, the project shall be first of all divided into parts and into a set of small tasks.
After launching the project, specific tasks are added to the high-level plan, an appropriate deadline is set and a responsible team member is assigned. In the remote implementation of the project, it is especially important that all project participants are familiar with the list and status of tasks in real time and understand their area of responsibility.
Depending on the method of project management used in the organization (classical management, Six Sigma, Agile, etc.) and types of projects, it is possible to use various planning tools.
For example, “boards” are a very flexible and convenient way to distribute project tasks among the direct executors and control their status. Today there are many tools such as Trello, Zenkit, Basecamp, Jira for task management. However, remote teams may be prone to untimely status updates in the system, so it is especially important to communicate to the team members the need to follow specified communication rules.
However, the disadvantage of such tools is that the manager’s attention may be distracted by the performance of individual tasks and, as a result, there may be difficulties in long-term planning, especially if there are several projects at once.
Therefore, if financial resources are available, the possibility of implementing a single project management system should be considered, especially if the organization implements a large number of similar projects in parallel. Such systems, unlike boards and other handy tools, allow to form a single picture of the project profile, to track the stages of its implementation at different levels, to control the budget and deadlines, to effectively plan the time and to allocate labor between different projects, avoiding overlays. Such solutions include such systems as Monday, Planview, Asana and others.
The use of such tools eliminates the need for unnecessary meetings and allows the employees to focus on important tasks, which, in turn, helps the remote employees to work smoothly, maintain a fast pace of work and quickly adapt to change.
- Providing a single information space
In terms of remote project implementation it is important to ensure access to project information and open communications.
The use of project management systems improves the transparency for the team members and increases their involvement. Familiarity with business goals, measures of efficiency and related data helps people to better understand the meaning of their role and see the impact of their personal contribution, which in turn increases motivation.
Project team members should have access to project documentation, all issues, decisions and tasks discussed during the meetings should also be recorded and available in a joint document (minutes of the meeting) shortly after the meeting so that the team members can refer to them later without loosing key information, even if they were sick or on vacation.
- Project implementation and control
In an ideal project management system everything looks like this: setting a task, completing it, controlling it, making the necessary adjustments to the plan, setting a new task etc.
But if the team’s presence in the office is taken for granted and one can quickly find out the status by talking to a colleague near the cooler or in the dining room, or approach the team member’s workplace with a question “how is it going”, or just quickly gather everyone in the conference room, when working from home the possibility of such contacts is limited.
Therefore, remote project management requires an even more careful and transparent approach to setting priorities, monitoring the implementation of tasks, deadlines and processes. Remember to inform the project team about the progress (or vice versa – delays) at least once a week.
It is necessary to constantly monitor the main indicators of productivity, control the workload of employees and labor costs for implementation of certain tasks, while not overloading colleagues with excessive communications. It is also important to balance control with trust and ensure a comfortable level of autonomy in performing tasks and making decisions within the authority of each team member. It is clear that you begin to trust people when they do what they promise. And trust in the team is formed when everyone contributes to common ideas and goals. But if you do not believe that your team will do the work without constant supervision in the office – remote work is not for you.
- Properly constructed communications
Many studies show that increasing efficiency in the remote work is largely a by-product of asynchronous communication, meaning that employees decide when to communicate with colleagues.
Sometimes it is very difficult to focus on something – everyone knows that. Now try to remember how many times a day you are usually distracted at the office, and … multiply that number by 23. According to Gloria Mark of the University of California, that is on the average, the amount of minutes required to get back to work you were distracted from (especially if the topic you are distracted by is not related to what you were doing). When you are distracted, you have to switch to something completely different, and the brain spends energy on it.
Asynchrony not only provides the best result, but allows people to do more important work and live a freer and fuller life.
According to a Collaborative Overload article in the Harvard Business Review, employees have spent 50% more time communicating with colleagues over the past twenty years. This tendency to communicate almost constantly means that the average employee has to plan a working day around several meetings, and in between they work inattentively, distracted by e-mail.
The manager’s task in managing a project remotely is to enable employees to perform their work effectively, minimizing inefficient communications.
The combination of asynchronous and synchronous communications can look like this:
70% – asynchronous communication via e-mails or other tools;
25% – in synchronous mode through online communication tools (Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts, etc.).
5% – live meetings to maintain team spirit.
It is important to focus on trust, organization, independence and timely reporting. Without this, asynchronous communication will never work properly.
- Psychological support of employees
The coronavirus pandemic and other challenges this year are also having a severe impact on mental health – and the long-term consequences could be inevitable. According to a global Oracle study, 2020 is considered the most stressful year in history, and 78% of workers say the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health.
Not everyone likes working from home, and although many respondents report a greater level of freedom than working in an office, others may suffer from such isolation. Therefore, the support of such people will be a key factor in the success of the whole team.
Use communication channels such as thematic chats (for example, Whatsapp or Viber groups), set up emergency communication channels, pay attention to informal communications, resolve conflicts by voice, check how team members feel, conduct regular surveys. In times of remote work, it is especially necessary to constantly maintain the feeling of a single team, to ensure a high level of employee involvement in projects, to show everyone its impact on the overall result.
In conclusion we can only add, that remote work has become an integral part of our lives to one degree or another. Therefore, project management should not be a burden for remote teams, a distraction from the work itself. With the right tools and well-established processes, you will be more likely to enjoy successful projects, and team members will improve their competencies in an environment based on autonomy, flexibility and trust.