3 secrets to success for project managers working remotely

Email is not enough to stay in touch with clients and keep projects on time and on budget in an all-virtual world.

project management concept

Image: lucadp, Getty Images/iStockphoto

It's always a challenge to keep people and projects on track. The difficulty levels up significantly when you can't walk down the hall for a quick check-in or an in-person meeting with a client. 
Although some offices are reopening, remote work is here to stay. That means remote project management is part of the new normal. 

If you've had trouble shifting your project management style to an all-virtual working world, here is some advice about how to refine your approach. These project managers have worked extensively with clients on remote projects and kept complex efforts on track.

SEE: Top 100+ tips for telecommuters and managers (free PDF) (TechRepublic) 

The three keys to success are clear and consistent communication, the right set of tools, and strong relationship building skills. 

Mastering communication

Project management is all about communication, and email alone is not enough to get the job done. Zack Arnold, a film and television editor, said relying on email to communicate with your team is a terrible approach. 

"Email is the single greatest time suck to creativity, and it is the worst possible way to track notes and changes," he said.

Heather Lilly, director of project management at Jacob Tyler, a brand and digital agency in San Diego, said her team meets as a group at the start of each work day.

"Because we aren't sitting next to each other asking questions, we have a daily huddle first thing in the morning with the entire team to review priorities and communicate any project concerns," Lilly said.

Her team also uses Whereby for quick calls between small groups; the browser-based video conferencing software also has an integration with Slack. 

Once you've got the right mix of communication tools, think about the timing and content of your emails, texts, and conversation.

Nick Peterson, a senior project coordinator at Leighton Interactive, a digital marketing agency based in St. Cloud, MN, said two tactics he uses are to overcommunicate with good intentions and to avoid bottlenecks by waiting for someone's advice or opinion.

"Be straight-forward and persistent with your communication to avoid confusion or unnecessary back-and-forth," he said. "Move forward on a project until you absolutely can't anymore. Then, ask for input or feedback with a deadline."

Kristen Buerman, an account coordinator at Leighton Interactive, said follow-up is key with both internal team members and clients.

"Being available and resourceful keeps projects moving forward," she said.

Finding the right tools

Arnold, the film editor, works remotely with many clients, and uses Frame.io to organize creative feedback and keep clients and collaborators on the same page. The cloud-based platform is designed for managing images and video, and one example of the kind of project management software that is another key to success. Projects managers interviewed for this article said they use these tools to stay on project timetables, track progress, and share updates with clients:

The key to success with any of these platforms is organization.

Lilly said her team creates Slack channels for each project so that communication is specific and everyone has visibility to that communication.

"This is especially beneficial when working with hybrid teams that are not in our time zone," she said. 

Lilly said that TeamGantt is another invaluable tool.

"It takes a lot of effort on the project management side to maintain, but it is a critical tool to keep projects on track and to set expectations both internally and for clients," she said.

Lilly's team also uses Basecamp to track the status of any project by using a thread-naming process. The title of each thread indicates the state of the project, including internal review, client feedback, and final review. 

"That process makes it easier for the team to find answers so that we don't get bogged down with internal communication," she said. "It also provides clarity to the client and all other parties involved."

Lilly said this approach makes it easy to identify scope creep.  

Developing strong connections with coworkers

If you have a strong communication plan and the right set of tools, check your relationship building skills. The best project managers respect their colleagues and invest time and effort in building connections. Lilly said that strong relationships among team members is an important component of effective remote project management.

"We laugh, try and take a solutions-oriented approach, refrain from pointing fingers when things get sticky, and know when to pick up the phone when the other tools aren't enough to communicate in a way that maintains harmony," she said.

Julia Brolin, an account coordinator and PR specialist at Leighton Interactive, said it's important to be flexible and to remember that you are working with humans not robots.

"We often buffer our tasks by a few days to account for unexpected roadblocks or client delays," Brolin said. "They happen, and the best PMs are creative when finding solutions to issues." 

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