In your day so far, how many people have you interacted with who weren’t in the same room as you? The ease of communication has increased the amount of remote workers and distributed teams. This trend will continue, despite recent moves made by BestBuy and Yahoo to curb remote workers.
This is the situation for the team behind PMRobot and part of the inspiration for our online project management app. Our team members work from their homes or in co-working spaces across 3 time zones in Canada. These are some of the things that we’ve learned about making it work.
1. DO use collaborative tools that promote simplicity of interaction
Google Drive (formerly Docs) is our favorite tool for creating and sharing documents. The ability to collaboratively edit and comment, as well as store any kind of file, in seemingly unlimited amounts are hugely useful.
Skype is ideal when higher bandwidth communications are needed. If you need a longer phone call, you might as well go for a Skype conversation – using video adds an extra layer of context.
Google Hangouts is emerging as another very useful tool, which is easy to get into if you’re already using Google Apps, and doesn’t require a desktop client. In the past, I’ve have had some trouble with the connection, so if you’re attending an important meeting with a client or other external contact, I’d recommend using Skype.
For wireframing, we use Moqups, which at this point is completely free and very user-friendly, but doesn’t yet support collaboration. For collaborative wireframing, Balsamiq is a great option.
A tool for managing your projects is also helpful, much better than a random assortment of spreadsheets and to-do lists. If you’re a digital agency or software consulting firm, PMRobot has been powering remote teams for three years now.
2. DO meet in person at the beginning of the project
In truth, communicating complex ideas and building relationships is more difficult over distances. Meeting in person beforehand is important for developing trust and alignment of goals.
You have a lot to accomplish during a project kickoff meeting: Trust is established, goals and expectations are hammered out. Even if you’re not following a waterfall model, a common understanding and preliminary specifications need to be determined at the beginning.
3. DO ask for estimated deadlines, and follow-up if they aren’t met
When you’re not co-located, you can’t simply turn to the desk beside you and ask about a piece of work. Similar to a kickoff meeting, individual tasks or stories require more communication before work begins. Asking the person doing the work to choose his or her deadline not only sets expectations, but empowers him or her to set their own bar and succeed on his or her own terms.
If the problem turns out to be more work than expected, it might not be worth doing. Getting an estimated deadline from the person doing the work ensures they’re working toward a finite goal. Following up after the deadline reinforces accountability, provides a check-in, just in case things aren’t going as planned.
4. DO use a chat tool
Email communication has its strengths, but it’s also time consuming and has a slow feedback loop. A simple chat tool removes a lot of the friction to initiating a discussion and has the advantage over email of a faster response time.
Anything works, Hipchat, Google talk, AIM, Skype or even mIRC. Just make sure you play by the common chat rules of conduct. Respect your colleagues’ “busy” status so they can dive deeply into a problem without interruption, but also ensure you make yourself “available” when you’re checking and sending emails or other less involved tasks.
5. DO set up a phone call if the email conversation is getting emotional
An over reliance on email drags things out and causes tension and writing an email probably takes longer than you think. A few 20-minute emails add up to a few hours pretty quickly – eating up your time and the recipient’s! Emotional emails can take even longer to write, and then more time still spent picking up after the fallout later on.
As soon as you realize that you’re about to send an emotionally charged email, get into your chat tool and set up a call instead.
6. DO Answer questions within a MAXIMUM of 24 hours
Unanswered questions lead to stalled tasks. Stalled tasks lead workers to start new tasks. Further stalled tasks compound, creating a pileup of unfinished business. Having too much work in progress is distracting and demoralizing. Be prompt in your responses to keep open loops from accumulating.
Knowing how important this promptness is, we built a question-asking feature into PMRobot, it gently follows up by email, and allows a response to be sent back via email.
7. DO Have additional work spec’d and queued up
Inevitably, some tasks are bound to be stalled due to unavoidable circumstances. Have other work ready to go for when that happens. If you’re using an agile project management methodology like Scrum or Kanban, you must be disciplined about having your tickets, or stories, planned and ready to go in advance.
8. DON’T email file attachments
This common practice is without a doubt THE fastest way to create mass confusion and ensure that you spend a lot of time digging through your inbox searching for version-control salvation.
This is why we use Google Drive to make changes and add comments within a single, shared document – it’s simple. Dealing with files appended with “-r2”, “-rev3” or “-jm-edit4” is frustrating and it’s rare that anyone actually goes back to the old files for reference.
Keep everyone on the same page, literally, by avoiding unnecessary version-control issues with email attachments.
9. DON’T interrupt people unless absolutely necessary
The biggest advantage of working remotely is the ability to work uninterrupted and make your own choices about when to focus on the work and when to delve into communication with your team members.
If there is something you need to get clarity on and need higher bandwidth voice communication for, use a chat tool to set up a time to talk on the phone. This has the additional benefit of letting people prepare, instead of having to suddenly switch gears for an unexpected call.
When in doubt, practice a little role reversal in your head. Would YOU want to be interrupted for this specific topic or could it wait?
10. DON’T bring in more people than necessary on conference calls
Meetings are rampant and massively time consuming. Play to the strengths of being distributed and let team members focus on their work. If a meeting needs 20 minutes, schedule it for 20 minutes, not 30, and respect that time allotment. If a participant on a call has said their piece and is no longer needed, let them drop off. Otherwise, you’re wasting their time, and draining their energy to listen in on an irrelevant call.
To pull this off, set a timer on your phone for ten minute increments. Each time the timer goes off, look at the attendee list and see if anyone can be spared.
11. DON’T let roadblocks hold up the project
Overcoming roadblocks is a high priority. It’s tempting to move on to a new piece of work, and in rare cases, that’s all that can be done. However, focusing on pushing through roadblocks helps limit the work in progress and actually get things done more effectively. If there is a project manager or product owner, let them know as soon as you’ve done all you can to move forward, so that they can begin clearing the block.
PMRobot lets you mark a blocked ticket once you’ve done all you can for the time being, letting you move on, but keeping it present and within view so you remember to resolve the issue as soon as possible.
12. DON’T send emails when you’re angry or frustrated
Queue them up as a draft, wait an hour, then edit. Delay again if you’re still angry.
Negative emotions can be one of the most time-consuming and inefficient time sucks, and anger inevitably clouds your better judgement. If you’re writing it in an email, then it’s not urgent, right? So stop staring at it and thinking about whether or not to hit send. Walk away from it for an hour.
Depending on your disposition, you may have to repeat this a few times. Just remember, it’s better to err on the side of caution. You’re less likely to regret a witty retort you didn’t make, than an offensive email that gets BCCd to all of your upper management and HR.
13. DON’T do it all in email
You may have noticed a recurrent theme in this article; encouraging you to find alternatives to email when possible. DO NOT keep your email client open at all times, this is the best way to spend all your time reacting to outside forces and wonder what you got done at the end of the day. Email is in many ways the lowest common denominator for communication. Consider who you’re emailing and for what purpose – and then consider your alternatives.
Used properly; however, email can be very powerful, allowing you the time you need to express your ideas clearly and pull together all the links and other information needed to get your point across. Make sure you’re writing clear emails, use numbered lists/bullets more often than paragraphs and when it gets really long, write a short introduction so the receiver knows what they’re about to wade into.
Email is just one of many tools on your program management communications tool belt – prove you are a true master of project communications by knowing when NOT to use email as your most effective strategy.
Author: John Madlin