Work At Home Project Teams

Dick Billows, PMP

CEO 4pm.com

Technology over the last 10 years and the recent pandemic have allowed/forced large numbers of project team members to work at home.  Using solid technology with your at-home team members is the easy part.  Managing remote teams requires changes to your project manager style and leadership techniques.

First, having an at-home team is like “Kid’s Day” at work every day. You need to coach your team members on how to manage their children so they can get their work done.  With mommy or daddy home all day, it is not unreasonable for kids to expect more of their parent’s time. But a good balance can be struck by using discipline and rewards for the children

Second, if you are weak in defining the measures of success for your team members’ assignments, you will fail at managing at-home workers.  Your team members must to have a crystal-clear understanding of how you will measure success.  You will no longer have the luxury of walking by a team member’s desk and eye-balling their work.  Also they may not be working the same shift at home so you will need to schedule your calls with them.

Third, there is another new issue. People working at home get lonely.  They can lose all feeling of being part of the team.  So you need to create interaction opportunities that make everyone feel they are still members of the team.

Those are the three big issues. The most frequent mistake we see is thinking that having team members working from home is no different than having them in the office.   You can’t believe that technology will let you manage the team the same way you did when everyone was in the same office.  Leading Teams Main Page

The truth is that your leadership style still has to accomplish 4 things with all your team members, no matter where they work. You must:

  1. Give them clear performance expectations and explain how you will measure their work.
  2. Gain their commitment to the team’s goal and understanding of how their assignment(s) fit in.
  3. Ensure that they understand the status of the project and their assignment(s) each weekly.
  4. Practice giving praise publicly. That’s your most valuable reward.
Live Video Conferences

Project managers can use live video conferences to make their leadership effective for remote team members.  When you use the video conference as a substitute for face-to-face meetings,  you need to avoid falling into the video conference “Tar Pit.” Let me explain what I mean.

Video Conference Tar Pit

In the Tar Pit, managers start the video conference off by logging into the meeting, saying hello and then turning down the sound.  Then they proceed to catch up on emails and phone calls while occasionally glancing at the screen and listening to the muttering voices.  The Tar Pit spreads like the flu when these managers mistakenly call their subordinates who are in the same video conference. Oops! People quickly realize that faking their attendance and attention is the “cool” thing to do.  Soon no one is listening.

The project manager realizes that the absence of any questions from the attendees is an early symptom of the Tar Pit.   So they start asking questions of random people or threatening the group with a test.  That works for a while until an attendee answers the question with, “I can’t hear you; there’s too much static” or “Excuse me, I need to use the restroom.”  The excuses and their entertainment value skyrocket until the PM stops asking questions.

Here’s how you can avoid the Tar Pit:

  1. Limit the size of your video conferences to 1-4 people.
  2. Limit the video conference time to 30 minutes.
  3. Use the conferencing software feature to display everyone’s image, not just yours or the speakers.
  4.  Keep the conversation interesting. Schedule 1-on-1 sessions to discuss details that aren’t of interest to the entire group.
  5. Keep the meeting moving by asking people’s opinions.

You should also leave the video conference open to other team members. You can decide whether to admit them based on the topic being discussed. That gives the meeting a social boost which people working at home need.

Collaboration between remote team members

Working remotely can create some challenges when working as a team. You need to give your team members tools to work with each other.  This collaboration is important for both efficiency and social bonding.  It’s how remote workers are made to feel they’re part of the team.

Most of the “remote team” software products provide several communication tools that can function between team members, working from home, in different offices, or in other countries.  In addition to video conferencing, they include: texting, email, Twitter, Facebook, live streaming of meetings (like Zoom) and much more. These tools enable remote team members to collaborate effectively. But some programs have a few bad features. Among the worst are the “drop in” communication packages. They let you or a team member connect directly with another team member’s PC.  That team member is rudely interrupted (and possibly frightened) when someone’s face appears in a window on their screen.

Successfully managing remote teams requires keeping up with technology and producing the same, if not better, results than if you were working with your team locally.  Here are five suggestions for effectively managing your remote teams.

  1. Conduct the Remote Project Team’s Kick-Off Meeting as You Would for Local Projects
    Managing a project remotely may not allow for a face-to-face initial kick-off meeting. But the same principles should apply during initiation, determining scope, etc.  Brainstorming sessions, although potentially easier in person, can still be conducted thoroughly via video conference.  This is an opportunity to identify as many questions, concerns, ideas, timelines, constraints, etc., as possible to help ensure clarity toward the end goal throughout the project.
    Other Suggestions:  Kick-off with a clear agenda that includes project purpose, goals, and success factors. Ensure team member roles are established and explained and include appropriate stakeholders to positively support the project.
  2. Form Strong Remote Project Teams
    If you have the opportunity to build your own remote project team, seek motivated, positive, self-sufficient and knowledgeable people.  Self-sufficient and motivated team members will help offset the potential communication challenges of the non-face-to-face environment.  An opportunity to work with the most qualified people increases with the pool of employees from across the country or even the globe. This is a big advantage of managing a remote team.
    Other Suggestions:  Invest time in your project team.  Get to know your team members. You can use LinkedIn to learn something about them.  Also, it’s best to speak with your team members about more complicated items rather than using email or texts.
  3. Conduct Regularly Scheduled Meetings (as needed – daily, weekly, etc.)
    Communication is key, especially when distance exists among your team.  Project team members can easily get distracted and focus on other tasks or projects when “out of sight, out of mind.”  Detailed status reports containing issues, items for attention, etc. should continue to be sent before each meeting and used as an agenda for the meeting. This helps keep meetings at an appropriate length. I have never heard anyone complain about a meeting being too short.  Please be mindful of time zone differences (if needed) to accommodate the entire team as much as possible.
    Other Suggestions:  Gain a reputation for being reliable and dependable.  These characteristics become even more important when working in a remote environment.  Respond to inquiries and issues in a timely manner.  This behavior typically becomes the norm for all team members and benefits the entire project.
  4. Set Expectations Throughout the Entire Project Lifecycle
    Similar to an exercise program, consistency is crucial.  In addition to regularly scheduled meetings, project statuses and updates should be communicated frequently. The team must be aware of exactly where the project is on the overall timeline, which tasks remain open, and the status of each task for each team member.  Consistent and appropriate communication should occur at both the individual and team level.
    Other Suggestions:  Customize for individual expectations.  Work with each member individually, as needed, to ensure expectations are clear.  While some members may prefer and even excel in multi-tasking various responsibilities, other members may be more effective with a shorter list of tasks.
  5. Recognize Team Members for Positive Performance
    Most people enjoy some type of positive recognition.  Recognition can be tailored to each individual team member depending on their preference.  For example, a team member might finish their task early, which could correlate to an earlier project finish time.  That person might appreciate even more responsibility and assisting with another task. Another person might appreciate getting the “extra time” to work on other projects. In addition, an email to their immediate superior recognizing their good work is always appreciated.
    Other Suggestions:  During each (weekly) meeting, do a “shout out” in praise of at least one team member. Document the recognition of their achievement in the meeting minutes and inform their immediate superior.

Managing a unique project from start to finish, with a remote project team always presents challenges.  Working with a motivated team through appropriate and timely communication channels can help overcome at least some of these challenges.

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Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 90 short project management training videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows, PMP are on Amazon.com