If you’re new to managing remote teams, or just trying to help yours work better, you’ve probably already seen the pitfalls — communication breakdowns, confusion about who’s doing what, and a general feeling that no one is on the same page. It can be enough to make an organization give up on the whole idea. Not to mention, searching the Internet for answers can be confusing and just plain wrong.
We’ve seen self-proclaimed experts on Reddit, Twitter and Facebook recommend getting everyone on chat channels all the time, having more meetings, and buying multiple tools to manage your team — all of which sounds crazy (and expensive!) to us. But the good news is, with a few tried-and-true guidelines, and software to manage the work, any team can get back on track, and enjoy the benefits of remote work. We know this is true because our co-founders literally wrote the book on remote work a decade ago, and at 37signals (the company that makes Basecamp and HEY), we’ve been working this way for years.
Projects are different in-person v. remote. There are beneficial elements to projects that come naturally in-person - elements you must work at to replicate with remote teams. Given that everyone may have different remote or hybrid work schedules from one another, you’ll need tools to recreate this experience and effectively manage projects.
Remote Project Management Tips: How to Manage Remote Project Teams
Managing remote teams is different than in-person, and successfully managing them starts with recognizing that the rules are different. Here are a few that we believe make the difference.
All Out in the Open
What do I have to do next? Where are the files for the thing tomorrow? Is Chad free to work on this with me next week? Where’s the email from Scott with the new designs? These are easy questions when we sit next to each other and work the same hours. You just turn around and ask. But what about when we’re not in the same place at the same time?
Here’s the key: you need everything available to everyone at all times, a problem that’s completely solvable by technology. In fact, it’s the reason we invented Basecamp (for ourselves) to begin with. Basecamp is a single, centralized place to put all the relevant files, discussions, to-do lists and calendars that keep the workflow ticking. If you’ve used Github (as we do), it’s like the non-code version of that.
Put all the important stuff out in the open and no one will get stuck figuring out where to find things or what to do next.
When you and your coworkers are sitting in the same place it’s easy to feel that you’re up to speed on what’s going on in the company. You stop and chat with office mates while making coffee and discuss the latest progress over lunch. There’s a constant flow of information running through the office, or at least it feels like that.
Working remotely doesn’t automatically create the flow. To instill a sense of cohesion and to share forward motion, everyone needs to feel that they’re in the loop. There are several different ways to do this. In addition to Kanban boards and other “overview” features, like The Lineup, at 37signals we use a weekly discussion thread with the subject “What have you been working on?” Everyone chimes in with a few lines about what they’ve done over the past week and what’s intended for the next week. It’s not meant to be precise, Big Brotherly or to coordinate anything. It simply aims to make everyone feel like they’re part of the same effort, and contributing to it.
Level the Playing Field (especially for hybrid teams)
If you treat remote workers like second class citizens, you’re all going to have a bad time. The lower the ratio of remote worker to office worker, the more likely this is to happen. A roomful of local people and a bad speakerphone makes it hard for remote people to hear what’s going on and even harder to participate. And how many times will the local folks meet separately and leave the remote team out completely?
The mechanics of leveling the playing field are pretty simple. Use live meetings sparingly, and use Zoom or other video conferencing and desktop sharing apps to ensure everyone is seeing the same thing while collaborating. In between those times, rely more heavily on a platform like Basecamp that keeps all project documents and discussions together in one place.
Remote Project Management Tools & Software
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t want to have several types of software to run your remote team. The opposite is actually true - more isn’t better when it comes to software.
You do need something, though. Something has to keep your team moving in the same direction on the same deadline. But most tools touted as “breakthroughs” for remote work are nothing more than glorified distractions.
How can you tell which software is worthwhile and which is going to do more harm than good? Here’s what to look for in a remote project management software solution:
A Single, Comprehensive System
More than likely, the project you’re running has individual tasks, some related documents, important dates, etc. And the fastest way to disorganization is keeping these spread across different applications and trying to piece it all together, especially when different team members need different parts of it to get their job done.
You’ll want a place where you store all the resources in the same place, but also where everyone involved can see the ongoing discussion, comments, chats, edits and live updates. Everything related to a project is accessible to everyone on a project. Say goodbye to that “who’s on first?” feeling and the “where’s that thing?” treasure hunt when you have one tool that covers all your bases.
To-Do Lists or Kanban Boards
Inside your projects, you want a way to create action items, assign them to an owner, and schedule due dates. They should also be organized in a way that allows your team to have an overview of the whole project, spend more time focused on the work, and less time figuring out what to work on.
A couple of options for organization are: individual lists, categories, or a card table/kanban board style layout.
The benefits of these really depend on your industry and how your team best operates. Kanban boards are visually appealing and can be useful for processes with varying steps, like content creation, video editing, or social media management. But to-do lists allow you to group types of work, which is convenient when working with various departments or more complex initiatives.
Of course, if you’re working remotely, you need a space to communicate with your team, and there are a lot of ways to do that – direct messages for quick interactions, emails for longer messages, group chats for something that a whole team might want to jump in on. But keeping that all in line with the thing you’re working on, or the team you’re working with, can be tricky. On top of that, consider the one-to-many announcements or status updates you might want to make.
The more screens someone needs to have open, the more they’re likely to get distracted and spend their day jumping from one inbound message to another. Try to only utilize a single software for communication, even with your clients. It saves time in the switching, and also when you’re looking for old messages later.
Whatever you choose, keep it simple.
Project Management Calendars and/or Syncing
If you already operate largely out of a calendar app like Google or iCloud, finding a software with syncing capabilities will streamline your workload. If not, then at least look for a software that allows you to visualize your workload over a longer period of time, ideally a month.
Ultimately, this aids in your team’s ability to plan, including when the best times to collaborate on any given action item is. It’s all out in the open. And, unlike Google or iCloud, you won’t be mixing your personal appointments and due dates with those of the broader project.
Here are a couple examples of what this looks like in a project management software:
View or Access Management
Your entire organization doesn’t need access to every project on your company’s account. They only need to see and operate out of the ones they’re a part of. Look for this feature when choosing your remote team software.
If you work directly with clients, you can go a step further and choose a software that will loop your clients directly into their respective projects, which will cut down on client communication.
File Upload & Sharing
Projects have deliverables. And those deliverables need a place to live. Prioritize a software that allows you to easily upload and share these features, both within individual to-dos as well as a dedicated section in each project for deliverables.
When you can’t do 100% of work inside your project management software, the next best option is integrating the third party access from inside the project. For example, you might need to access a CRM to complete the project if you’re on the sales team. But what you don’t want is to force your team to memorize every additional software or app needed to complete a project. Find a tool that will integrate what you need seamlessly.
Managing projects for a remote team can be easy if you know the biggest challenges teams face. The rules above are meant as a guide, based on what’s been most important at 37signals, and what we’ve seen works for more than 20 years. In a nutshell, it’s about keeping things in one place, accessible to everyone. Then, consistently collecting all the asynchronous comments and communications in that same place, attached to the work you’re talking about.
Project Management for Remote Teams FAQs
How to manage a large remote team and ensure maximum productivity?
If you’re managing a large team, you might be worried about making sure everyone is getting things done, and that there aren’t any hidden roadblocks. There are a few ways to address this. First, realize that the job of a manager isn’t to herd cats, but to lead and verify the work. This isn’t about managing the chairs or the time clock, but watching over the process and the end results.
Basecamp has a few tools that make this easier.
For keeping track of multiple projects, the Lineup shows you what was just worked on, what’s in play now, and what’s coming up next. Or, for an individual project, you might try Hill Charts, that give you a sense of where things really stand holistically, not just based on the number of small to-do’s completed.
Finally, if you’re trying to keep tabs on stages of a process, you might want to be notified every time a task is completed, or hits a “review” stage. You can do this seamlessly by setting up “watching” mode for any column in the Card Table feature of Basecamp.
What is the preferred method of collaboration when working remotely?
There are several ways to collaborate remotely, but meetings should be the last resort, not the first option. Too many meetings (in person, or virtual), can destroy morale and motivation. Plus, they’re a major distraction. They require multiple people to drop whatever it is they’re doing and instead do something else. If you’re calling a meeting, you better be sure pulling seven people away from their work for an hour is worth seven hours of lost productivity.
Instead, try writing. Long form writing (not quick chat messages) encourages you to think through your ideas completely before sharing them. That’s a benefit to the creator and the recipient. Writing also creates a permanent record of the discussion and the context in which it happened. Saying the right thing in the wrong place, or without proper detail, leads to double work and messages being missed.
In Basecamp, everything related to that project is communicated inside that project. All the tasks, all the discussions, all the documents, all the debates, and all the decisions happen inside those walls. And then, everyone who needs access, has access, and knows what happened, even if they weren’t “in the meeting.”
What’s the key to making sure a project is successful when working remotely?
Whether you’re working remotely or in-person, you’ll know if a project is successful based on the pitch and expectations you set out at the beginning. If it’s a new marketing project, what results are we expecting to see, and in what timeframe? If it’s a new feature to build, what problem do we expect it to solve and in what timeframe? At 37signals, every proactive piece of work we take on has a pitch that outlines these expectations. And if we decide to do it, it’s the first Message that appears for that project.
How to plan to stay connected to Team & Manager when working remotely?
For any specific project, everyone on the team can stay in the loop with notifications of the most recent changes, comments and additions to a project.
For less formal, or more adhoc communications, each project also includes “Chat”, which is a group chat for that specific project. Got a quick question or heads up for the team? Do you start each morning with a virtual “hi?” Those are all great uses for the Chat and help keep everyone connected.
What type of projects do remote project managers do?
With technology, project managers can manage almost any project remotely. Software tools give you ways to communicate live (video or chat) or asynchronously. And things like to-do lists, schedules, files and process trackers can be found in a wide variety of solutions. This means that the biggest challenge isn’t managing the work, it’s finding the tool that’s right-sized for the projects you’re working on. You wouldn’t buy an XL-sized shirt for a medium-sized person. It wouldn’t be comfortable. Same thing goes here. Find a tool that makes things easier, not one that creates work just to use it.