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Managing Projects (& Clients!) Remotely

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Process, Strategy
A quick, simple guide on some of the basic project management (PM) tricks to help guide your clients and team members through our new COVID-19 remote work reality.
Ben Huizinga 1

Ben Huizinga

Project Manager | Producer
Ben is a Project Manager that loves to get his hands dirty. With experience in design, development, UX, information architecture, and client management, he speaks to all parts of the…

Let’s talk about the overly addressed elephant in the room: COVID-19. The rapidly spreading pandemic has universally disrupted lives and changed the day-to-day habits of people from China to the United States. No more going out to restaurants or bars, grocery stores running out of toilet paper and bread, and the death of the morning commute to work.

For most people, the new remote work reality has been a significant adjustment as employers and employees quickly scrambled to adapt to shelter in place orders. Personally, I am now set up at a plastic folding table in my living room - exchanging awkward glances with the construction workers outside my window as I take client calls and participate in virtual happy hours. It has certainly not been a seamless adjustment. Still, my job allows me to be flexible and my coworkers have banded together to create a social environment that is supportive, engaging, and excited about the challenges that face us. But not everyone is so lucky.

The purpose of this article is to share some of the tips and tricks that other project managers (PMs) can use to keep engaging their coworkers, stimulating their clients, and (perhaps most importantly) challenging themselves to maintain the same level of excellence that they champion when physically in the office.

This is not to say that I am an expert at working from home (I’m not), but rather that one of the ways that the collective ‘we’ will learn and grow from this pandemic is the proliferation and exchange of information. I spend at least 15 minutes every day trying to read something stimulating and hope that this blog post could offer some insight and impetus for other PMs that are struggling to adapt to a challenging new environment.

The pandemic won’t last forever, but it is an incredible opportunity to learn, adapt, and grow within a framework that will make you a more successful employee, manager, or boss in the long term. So get excited to rise up to the challenge, read through some of the things I have found most helpful, and challenge my perspective with thoughts of your own!

1. Be Patient & Understanding

As someone that does not have children, it is hard for me to imagine what parents must be going through at the moment. The previous divisions between their work and personal lives have seemingly disappeared and their homes are now operating as daycare/school, restaurant, and office for a group of people that really do not want to be cooped up together. Even for those with young dogs, like my 10-month-old puppy, being isolated inside can be a tricky experience.

This is why it is important to remember to exercise patience and understanding, even with yourself, while everyone adjusts to a completely new way of working. Don’t get frustrated when your coworker’s kids interrupt a call to ask for an afternoon snack, give your clients five extra minutes to join a call while they deal with a slow internet connection, and take a deep breath when your all-hands meeting turns into a free-for-all because nobody is used to doing such a large Zoom meeting.

At the end of the day, you never know what circumstances your clients, coworkers, or even friends are dealing with and there is a decent chance that they are juggling more than they are willing to share with you. Giving patience and understanding will hopefully get you the same in return when it comes to some of those things in your life that make working from home a little more difficult.

2. Turn the Video On & Encourage Others to Do the Same

There are an incredible number of articles and longtime remote work specialists that extol the virtues of maintaining a routine while working from home. From starting your day with a shower to getting out of the sweatpants you have been wearing for the last two weeks, acting like you have to go into work has the added benefit of helping your mind to adjust and reshape your day - even if you are working from home.

Turning on your video camera when joining your daily stand-up meeting might seem like a pain and you might even be excused for thinking that nobody will notice your camera is off, but making sure that everyone can see you is a good way to ensure some level of accountability for your appearance and, by association, your mental engagement and preparedness for the day.

For Example: I work with a developer, Nick Wilde, who works 100% remote from Canada. Aside from being a literal Drupal genius, Nick also shows me up almost every day by wearing a button-down shirt and tie when he joins for our morning stand-up meetings. For the longest time, I didn’t really understand why he chose to dress so formally when he was remote, but after working from home for a few weeks, I began to understand that this is part of his process. It is a step that he takes in his day to make sure that he is awake and prepared for whatever the day might throw at him.

Additionally, encouraging your teammates and clients to turn on their cameras can help to ensure the same level of accountability across your teams, build camaraderie through face-to-face contact, and offer an additional level of social insight into your discussions.

3. Over-Communicate

As a project manager, I’m always striving to over-communicate with my clients. Getting an update over before it is requested, providing helpful strategy recommendations, and generally being the team’s guide through a project is pretty much in the job description. But when dealing with not only remote team members, but clients as well, it is important to add more frequent touchpoints with clients to make sure that they (a) don’t feel like you are slacking off just because you are at home and (b) aren’t letting things slip on their end for the same reason (more on that in #4).

These frequent touchpoints become even more important if the project is in a phase that typically involves less communication with clients (i.e. development or design) as your team is hustling to get things done. Don’t waste your time sending ‘how are you?’ emails, but a quick note to let the client know ‘this is what the team has been working on and this is the progress we have made’ will go a long way. For those PMs working on retainer or maintenance-based contracts, communication might be better served in the form of unique, meaningful suggestions for how your clients could better leverage their current position to create a more robust digital engagement strategy.

Keeping the lines of communication open with your clients (and colleagues) can help to ensure that your projects continue smoothly, and your relationships are not only preserved but strengthened. Plus, who knows, maybe you will develop communication skills and habits that help to serve you long after the quarantine is over.

4. Stay Extra Vigilant on Project Delays

Delays: the project killer. Every PM has worked on a project that kept on slipping despite their best attempts to keep it on track. Whether it was feedback delivered weeks late or additional design updates at the request of a random executive that inserted themselves at the end of the approval process, there is an inordinate number of things that can delay a project and each of them has the potential to put you over budget.

Explaining the real cost of delays could be a blog post in itself, but when working remotely, it is especially important to avoid the costs associated with delays - mostly because there is a much higher risk of inattentive clients, confusing communication via exclusively digital mediums, and a lack of accountability that comes with face-to-face interaction. Clients that were previously quick to gather approvals may need extra time to herd executives, coworkers may have children that don’t care about their deadlines, and even you might have a tendency to allow things to drag on for a little longer than you otherwise might.

This isn’t to say that you should become a natural skeptic that puts the screws to everyone (please don’t), but more of a reminder that there are parts of your projects that may be slightly more difficult to manage remotely. By being aware of these things and dedicating yourself to paying extra attention to them, you will avoid pushing your budget and timeline to the brink - likely saving yourself and your coworkers from a stressful situation.

5. Be Social, Especially When You Don’t Want To

One of the pleasant surprises of this quarantine has been the rise in virtual happy hours and the number of ‘lost’ friends with whom I have been able to reconnect. These social interactions also serve a meaningful purpose in allowing me to keep feeling fresh and engaged, which in turn makes me more effective in handling clients and coworkers on a day-to-day basis.

For Example: My colleagues at Taoti have been doing a weekly happy hour on Friday afternoons to help celebrate the end of the week. Everyone grabs a drink and hops on the Zoom Meeting, bringing together folks from Brazil, Colombia, Canada, Spain, England, and the U.S. (to name a few) to talk about how their week has been and what is going on in their personal lives. Work is generally avoided as a topic, but sometimes ‘kudos’ are given out to standout performers from the week. This digital campfire really brings everyone together and establishes a team cohesion similar to that of our yearly ‘retreat week’.

It may not be the easiest thing to continue rustling up social activities, and digital happy hours can be a little difficult with larger groups, but make sure to keep building some opportunities to connect with the people that make your life a little more enjoyable.