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In 2020, we witnessed the coronavirus pandemic affect almost every aspect of our daily lives.
In the business world, we saw many companies transitioning to working remotely out of pure necessity. Some of them plan on staying fully remote permanently.
With everything that happened, we wanted to find out how companies have adapted to remote work, along with how the switch to working remotely has affected project management.
We surveyed respondents on remote project management challenges they’re dealing with, and any advice they had in regards to managing projects remotely.
The findings — along with the advice shared — from our 2021 Remote Project Management Report makes it a must-read for teams, project managers, and executives.
The companies in our survey ranged from small businesses (with less than 10 employees) to large enterprises with more than 1,000 employees.
Nearly 50% of respondents came from businesses with over 30 employees.
Out of those, 40% were completely remote companies, and 31% were temporarily remote due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Another 19% offered partially remote or flexible work environments.
From this survey, we learned what the biggest challenges to managing remote work are, along with how teams operate.
Here are some of the findings.
A common belief is that it’s a lot easier to communicate with team members when you all work in the same office. You can just walk over to someone’s desk and ask a question.
(Why you should avoid walking up to someone in order to encourage focused work time is a topic for another day.)
When the entire team is remote, there’s a fear that efficient communication is much harder to achieve.
It turned out to be the most common challenge teams are facing today.
When asked what their biggest challenges are when managing remote work, 45% of respondents said a lack of communication.
It seems that even with all the technology and software solutions available to remote teams, they’re still struggling with communicating effectively when working off-site.
It’s safe to say that this will be a focus of remote teams now and in the future.
Communication isn’t the only thing that can suffer when companies move to operating remotely.
Remote workers also seem to be having issues with motivation.
41% of them admit that staying motivated without teammate interaction is a challenge.
Keep in mind that we conducted our survey in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, so the lack of motivation remote workers are feeling is likely not caused solely by the fact that they’re working remotely.
Uncertainty, fear of illness, disconnection from others, lack of childcare or school for their children — all of these ongoing concerns can roll into an overall decrease in motivation at work.
Some businesses choose to go remote because it offers more flexibility than a traditional 9-to-5 office environment.
But that can present challenges, as well.
36% of respondents state that it’s difficult for them to know what each team member is working on, as well as when they’re working.
This obviously makes remote collaboration more difficult. It can also slow down workflows and result in remote teams missing project deadlines.
We suspect that this is largely the result of companies still adapting to working remotely and not taking advantage of the variety of online collaboration tools currently available on the market.
Some businesses might not have relied on instant chat apps, time tracking software, or daily stand-up meetings before going remote because they could easily see who was working and start discussions at any time.
Which leads to our next finding.
Not being able to see employees working makes it difficult to know if projects are on track. It also makes it hard to determine whether you’re underutilizing particular employees.
We’ve found that more than a third of remote project managers are struggling with finding ways to check on team members.
34% claim that checking in on people is a challenge when working remotely.
As one respondent stated, “In the office, we could see when someone was focusing. Now it's all digital so there's a bit of an issue with task prioritization and interruption.”
Adjusting to this environment takes careful planning, plus an ability to adapt to what works for your team. Some processes will translate while others will involve trial and error.
Nearly a quarter of respondents said each of the following were hurdles to overcome as a remote team:
Working in different time zones (26%)
Lack of accountability (25%)
Not having visibility into project status (25%)
Even more specifically, missed deadlines (18%)
When you look at these concerns together, it’s easy to see why transparency is a crucial value in remote work.
This is how Justine Shu, marketing and community manager at WE WORK REMOTELY, encourages transparency and communication.
"Successful projects begin with setting super clear expectations for each contributor/stakeholder. The combination of self-sufficiency in remote workers and the ‘all hands on deck’ mentality on small teams can potentially lead to unnecessary consequences, such as contributors overlapping in their work and miscommunication.
Creating a project scope and really identifying the tasks that each contributor will take the lead on and implement ahead of time is crucial.
Despite all of these challenges, most companies still believe they handle remote projects well.
On a scale of 1 to 5, 45% of respondents rated their remote project management efforts a 4, while 24% gave themselves a 5 out of 5.
Not a single respondent rated their company’s remote management as being poor (a rating of 1).
This is encouraging because it shows that teams know they have challenges — as evidenced in previous findings — but are working hard to address them.
39% of respondents claim they use multiple PM approaches.
After that, most teams rely on Agile (36%), Scrum (24%), and Kanban (20%).
We’ve found that companies are taking advantage of time tracking solutions to keep track of employees’ hours and activity, as well as gain insight into what’s been worked on and when.
61% of companies are using a time tracking solution for all their employees, while 11% use it for freelancers and hourly staff only.
Most of those who use a time tracking solution (61%) also state that it integrates with their project management tool, allowing them to track project status and productivity from a central location.
Apart from seeing what types of issues businesses are dealing with at the moment, we also wanted to find out what kind of advice long-standing and newly remote companies could offer.
Here’s what we’ve found out.
Remote teams need to focus on communication, company culture, and encouraging a sense of ownership to ensure remote project success.
Most of the 250 answers we’ve gathered emphasize three things: communication, company culture, and a sense of ownership. According to our respondents, these three are crucial for ensuring remote project success.
Our respondents emphasize the importance of communication when working remotely and stress how important it is to constantly work on improving it.
“Without proper communication, everything breaks down.”
They recommend working on keeping communication channels open at all times, as well as having regular meetings to understand project progress and deal with roadblocks and challenges.
Matt Hollingsworth, head of operations at WE WORK REMOTELY, thinks about it this way.
"Where remote project management is uniquely challenging is communication. Be honest about where you’re at, challenges you’re facing and potential roadblocks you think might present themselves. It won’t ‘just figure itself out.’ If you’re unclear, feeling pressured or uncertain, you have to go out of your way to make sure your voice is heard.”
It’s equally important to make sure employees can communicate challenges without fear of being judged.
Another common theme we’ve encountered is the importance of company culture in making remote teams resilient.
Remote project managers recommend building team rapport and fostering a good company culture to keep teams in sync.
They stress the importance of creating more opportunities for team members to interact informally. This allows people to learn more about their coworkers and connect on a more personal level, which, in turn, helps to make teams resilient during difficult times.
Finally, respondents recommend encouraging a sense of ownership among remote workers and ensuring that everyone understands their responsibilities.
This is crucial for making sure that projects will go as planned, and that workers will be able to complete all their tasks and meet deadlines.
We also wanted to find out what respondents consider to be the biggest issues holding remote teams from being effective at completing projects and meeting deadlines.
We found the most common issues to be a lack of trust, rigid processes, micromanagement, and not having access to key information.
Respondents claim that a lack of trust is one of the main things that keep companies away from remote work success.
Project managers need to have more faith in their remote team members, as well as develop reporting processes to ensure they’ll be able to understand how everyone on the team is handling their responsibilities.
It’s a balance of trust and accountability, which can be aided by setting clear expectations, formal onboarding, and flexible processes that encourage each person to take ownership of their work.
Those who have successfully adjusted to remote work stress the importance of avoiding rigid processes, as well as giving processes room to grow.
They advise staying as flexible as possible, especially when first transitioning to remote work.
Fio Dossetto, senior editor from Hotjar, finds combining multiple approaches and tools makes for better communication.
“I usually record a 5-10 minute Loom video where I share my screen and go over a topic so my colleagues get an overview and explanation of what I'm doing, and what I'm needing from them. Then, I write a bullet point list or quick paragraphs to summarize the main point(s) I made in the video, and deliver this video + written combo to whoever needs it. This way, anybody can watch in their own time and come back to me with questions.”
What might seem like overkill at first can become ingrained in your company culture. Try out different methods like Dossetto’s combo approach, and see which one leads to the best results.
Micromanagement seems to be another common issue holding companies back from effective remote project management.
This ties in with the overall lack of trust we’ve already mentioned. Both of these issues need to be addressed if companies want to take on remote work successfully.
Finally, we’ve also seen respondents cite information asymmetry or missing information as being one of the biggest problems remote teams need to avoid.
Remote teams should avoid locking important details and discussions in private messages and Zoom calls.
Default to a mindset where you are not dependent on someone responding for you to push that project ahead. This means providing enough context and information for anyone to move it forward without having to be working at the same time. Try to work completely asynchronously — that’s going to set everyone up for success.
If you got this far, you probably understand that you need to pay special attention to communication, transparency, tools, and processes when managing projects remotely.
You also need to be aware of the risks that lack of trust, rigid processes, micromanagement, and hidden information pose for your remote projects.
These are all things that can be dealt with and vastly improved by using solutions such as Hubstaff and Hubstaff Tasks.
These two tools combined can help you track employee productivity, stay on top of scheduling and project budgets, as well as keep track of progress on all tasks and projects you need to complete.
Sync Agile project management with time tracking for smart, productive remote work.