In this article we're going to look at and discuss everything about being a remote project manager. For the most part, it will likely apply to other members of the project team. I’ve made little secret of the fact that I believe remote project management is good, is practical for many situations, is green, and can be very rewarding. However, it must be done by the right individual with the right intentions, under the right conditions and for the right reasons.
Table of content overview
Over the article, I intend to cover the following topics (however, I make no guarantees that I won’t shift course, remove parts or add parts depending on how the discussion is progressing):
Will it work for you?
What type of job enables remote PM?
What setup do you need?
Negotiating when it’s not an obvious move
Staying the course
Recognizing that remote work is not in everyone’s interest level and it’s not for everyone, I’d like to cover these topics in order and get feedback from readers on their own thoughts and experiences. It’s not a secret that this economy lends well to creativity in the workplace – it’s often necessary to stay employed and for companies to keep as many employees as possible.
In the coming articles, we’ll examine why you should work remotely (both from the employee viewpoint and from the employer), what type of individual and mindset it takes to successfully work remotely, what type of projects work well in a remote management situation, what do you need to setup shop to work remotely, how to go about negotiating a remote situation when it’s not an obvious option, and staying on course and remaining both happy in this type environment as well as relevant in the workplace and to your employer or clients.
Some Interesting Data
Before move any further in the discussion of remote project management – here are some interesting numbers on remote IT workers (source in parentheses):
- 70% said they would rather get their work done on a secure connection even if it meant their work would be late (CIO.com)
- 78% say their IT dept. has provided them with the technology to work remotely on their own PC rather than needing to rely on a company-issued laptop (I personally don’t see this as a good thing) (CIO.com)
- 43% of downloaded personal pictures, videos, or software for their own use on company-issued laptops (CIO.com)
- 25% admitted they’ve visited blacklisted of inappropriate websites on their company-issued laptops (CIO.com)
- 74% said they can’t get their work down without the internet (CIO.com)
- 65% said it would be easier to live without their car for a week than live without the internet for a week (CIO.com)
- 12% admit hacking a neighbor’s wireless connection when necessary (Cisco study)
- 21% allow friends and family to access the internet on their work-supplied computer (unknown source)
These figures weren’t meant to scare anyone away from remote work but rather to inform you of what’s going on in and out of the workplace. Whether you use your own equipment or company-supplied equipment, be aware that you’re responsible for critical data and for the timelines of the projects you manage – be prudent in the way you handle yourself and the resources you utilize.
In this first part of what I plan to be a six-part series, we ask the question why remote? Why would you want to cut yourself off from your co-workers and hermit-up (is that a word?) in your house to work? Why would you want to hang around your family and have them interfere with your productivity? Can you separate work from home?
These are all good questions and must be asked – and answered - before you decide to go remote or even try to go remote. First let’s look at why someone would want to go remote. Some of those other questions above will be discussed in future installments in this series.
For me, when I first started managing projects remotely it seemed like a no-brainer. I was managing large projects with teams of resources who were already dispersed around the country. It didn’t make much sense for me to drive to an office that was nearly an hour’s drive away and spend nearly $250/month in gasoline alone just for the privilege of sitting at a desk surrounded by people making noise and distracting me. It didn’t add up. By going remote, I gained back about 90 minutes of my life – and potential work time – just by not driving to the office. Over the course of a full month of workdays, that’s about 30 hours.
Not every situation is going to be that cut and dried, but mine was. I would go to the main office on occasion, but 95% of the time I was able to do everything I needed to do from my home office – not including, of course, the onsite customer kickoff sessions, etc.
In my situation, it was common sense. Each person needs to look at their own situation and their own reasons. Let’s say, for example, that you want to manage projects remotely because you have small kids and want to help out around the house. That’s nice and depending on your projects and call schedules, you can probably pull that off and remain fully productive. However, using that as a reason isn’t likely to fly with your executive management team. And it also doesn’t mean you’ll be a productive leader of your project resources. It doesn’t mean you won’t, but if that is your PRIMARY reason for wanting this working situation, then that’s not good.
Another reason may be health-related. There are definitely good reasons related to health issues that either just came up or have already existed for a long time to make you want to or need to work remotely and ones that your employer should probably understand and work to accommodate. That, of course, is between you and your employer…and possibly your lawyer – your call.
The bottom line is – you need to figure out why you want to do it and see if it’s a good enough reason to do it. And will your situation let you be productive in a remote working or telecommuting situation? Those are the things you need to ask yourself. Oh, and don’t forget to ask you family….you may think they want you around only to find out that they’re more productive with you gone. I’ve faced that reality a time or two!
Will it work for you?
I keep calling this remote but I should probably call it telecommuting – or at least refer to it that way occasionally for the benefit of search engines.
When trying to decide if telecommuting or remote project management will work for you, it is necessary to examine it from all angles:
- Management and corporate policy
- Project scenario
- Home setup
Let’s look at each of these in more detail:
Management and Corporate Policy
If you’re just coming onboard with an organization, you can sometimes make this part of the negotiation process. However, introducing it as an option that interests you too early on in negotiations can turn off the hiring manager and may end the process right there. If you're already an employee and want to bring it up, make sure the time is right and the scenario is the right one (see the next section). Asking to work remotely on a project when it doesn't make sense at all will make you look like you've lost touch with reality or are not concerned enough with your project's needs.
One final thought on this - know what your corporate policy is on this...assuming there is one. There may not be anything in place, but if there is, it will be helpful to know that before bring up the subject to your manager or HR.
The next thing to consider – will your project work with a remote project manager? Is the project such that you can maintain control of it from afar and you don’t need the hands-on, in-person representation with the customer and/or the customer team on a daily basis?
If the project is for an external customer and it’s of a long duration, the answer is probably yes. If it’s an internal customer or of a relatively short duration, the answer is likely going to be no. Internal customers want you there, interacting with them so they can reach out and touch you when they need to. I suppose that’s not always the case, but in my experience it has been.
If you’re running a project for an external customer and it’s a long-term engagement, then it’s likely that you can do most of it remotely with some hands-on, onsite time with the customer…especially to kickoff the project. It depends on several things – the type of project, the amount of detailed meetings that need to be held on a weekly basis and the customer themselves (we’ll discuss that next). Projects involve a long-term software implementation with a geographically dispersed team make it relatively easy to handle remotely.
The customer and their preferences play into the decision-making process of whether or not you can manage a given project remotely. For the past three years, I’ve managed all of my projects remotely, but I’ve had two customers that demanded an onsite resource 24/7. In the case of these two projects, they were not PM resources they needed onsite. One required that a Business Analyst be available 24/7 and they paid dearly for it through the change order process as it was not part of the original agreement. In the other case, the customer requested that a development resource be onsite for an extended period of time to work through software modifications with them. In neither case did they have the budget available to also afford having a PM onsite 24/7, however.
Your home situation also plays a role – actually, a major role – in whether or not you can pull off the telecommuting scenario. First, you must have a place to call your own – the high-speed home office. You don’t have to work in it full-time…I certainly don’t. But you do need that availability for seclusion to handle conference calls and just to be able to have a quiet place to get work done fast when necessary.
Secondly, your family must be supportive. You don’t have to be childless…I’m certainly not…but they need to understand your boundaries and the work demands on your time. I’m stating the obvious here, but the bottom line is they need to understand that you have to work and that you can’t always be ‘dad’ or ‘mom’ when you’re home.
As with answering the question of ‘why remote?’, it’s very important to know if it will work for you before trying it or before even bringing it to the attention of your hiring manager or your current employer. If you’re an independent consultant, then it’s all up to you and whether you can pull it off given your distractions at home. The decision, for the most part, is often yours.
What type of job enables remote PM?
I touched a little bit on this in above section on both the customer and the project scenario, but will go into further detail here.
When Will It Work?
Obviously, there are a lot of jobs that cannot be effectively performed remotely. But I’ve always felt that in many cases – especially with large, long-term IT implementations – many PM jobs and projects can be performed in a telecommuting capacity.
After all, the primary communication points for the project manager are:
- Status reporting
- Project schedule delivery and discussion
- Project status calls
- Team communications and status calls
- PMO weekly calls
I don’t see anything on this list that, given the right circumstances, can’t be done remotely. I know there are going to be cases and certain organizational cultures where it just won’t be possible or ever allowed, but logically speaking, these should often be able to be performed remotely.
In fact, with the development of new technologies over the past 5-10 years, much IT work can be done in a telecommuting capacity. With the proper setup, most developers should be able to work remotely. Most other peripheral IT personnel should also be able to perform their primary functions remotely 80-90% of the time. It’s a given that most people and positions need face time with co-workers from time to time and for critical company or customer meetings, but the day-to-day work can usually be done independently and remotely.
On the flip side, jobs or projects that require a close-knit hands-on team will not work. Sometimes that’s a short-term project where the customer is demanding 24/7 access to the project team and it’s just best to take the team onsite and work hand-in-hand with the customer and successful run the implementation. Sometimes that’s a project where access to your company’s support team is critical and it just makes sense to work onsite and have immediate access to those team members that you’re going to need. It goes without saying that, if yours is a face they see often, then it’s hard for those support personnel to not give you priority over other requests for support that they are receiving.
When considering a remote option, it’s important to know if your job is one that would even make it possible. There’s no sense bringing it up to management or attempting to perform it remotely if it doesn’t make any sense. Usually, that’s not going to be the case, however. Assess it professionally, and if it makes sense…try it.
What setup do you need?
There is not likely to be anything groundbreaking discussed here. What you probably assume you need is exactly what I’m going to list here. In fact, if I leave something out, I’d appreciate hearing from you, but I’ll list what’s worked for me:
- High-speed cable modem or similar internet connection
- Secured wireless router
- Laptop (or two…I’ll explain)
- Mobile phone (go Blackberry or similar if you can with access to email)
- Regular phone with a good speaker phone option connected either to a land-line or to a VoiP option
- All-in-one printer for printing, scanning and the rare need to fax
- Free online fax sending (easier than using your all-in-one)
- Freeconferencecall.com account (good for a backup if your company conference line is tied up or if you are independent)
I won’t go into detail on all of these…most are pretty self-explanatory. However, there are a few I’ll touch on in a little more detail:
I’ve gone Mac and love it. But I hang on to my XP machine just in case. And I probably will always make sure I have one around as a backup. MS Project isn’t made for the Mac at this point and it may never be. There are other options available to the PM like Open Projects and many web-based options including ProjectOffice.net. However, having that option - just in case there’s a problem and I’m at the 11th hour - to utilize a legit copy of MS Project on a Windows machine makes me feel more comfortable. I’ve not needed to do that since I purchased my Macbook in March of this year, but it’s nice to know I can if I ever have to.
Free Online Faxing
I hate using my HP All-in-one printer for faxing because I only have one home line – no dedicated fax line. Using one of the free sending services where you’re essentially uploading a pdf file and faxing it is very easy and it’s never let me down. I highly recommend it. Receiving faxes can be a little trickier – I usually have to talk the sender into scanning it in and sending it as a pdf or an image file. If they want me to have it bad enough, they’ll usually do it.
Home Phones with a Good Speaker Phone Option
This one was on my critical list. I was recently on a six-month project that required nearly daily conference calls. Some were vendor demos through webex meetings with associated conference calls and they could last up to six hours. I needed a good speaker phone option so that I could hear and sound like I was on a regular phone. There was no way I was going to wear a headset for that long! I found a setup – ultimately going with an offering from Philips.
The key is to have all the communication methods available to you just as you would if you were at the office. It doesn’t need to be high-end, it just needs to work. This is basically the setup I’ve had for the past three years and it’s not let me down yet.
Negotiating when it’s not an obvious move
Timing is everything. You’ve heard that before and no truer words were ever spoken when it comes to trying to negotiate a remote working situation in your project management role.
Sometimes it will just happen, as with it did for a role I had for over two years with one organization. My project resources were dispersed across the country, the clients I was running the implementations for were all over the country with locations globally as well. The home office is here in Las Vegas, but rarely was it a benefit to me so I rarely worked from a location at the home office. And that was ok with them – well, most of the time. There were a couple of projects where my key resources were located here in Las Vegas and they pushed for me to spend some time at the office...which I did. But 95% of the time, I was managing everything remotely.
When You’re Coming In
When you’re coming onboard at an organization, look for a time to mention it during the hiring process. If you wait till you accept the job, it may be too late. You need to ask yourself, “would I accept this position even if they won’t allow me to telecommute?” If the answer is 'yes', then it may be better to accept and then try to ‘sell’ the idea after you’ve been there awhile. If the answer is 'no', then you’ve got nothing to lose – bring it up late in the discussions when it’s apparent that they love you and want you badly. You may even offer to take the position for less money if you want that telecommuting option bad enough – they may see it as a win-win for them.
When You’re Already In
If you’re already inside an organization and want to change to a telecommuting/remote working situation, then you’ve got a different beast on your hands. Your best route is to put together some assumptions and numbers to help you sell the concept to your supervisor or executive management staff. Ballpark some overhead numbers that you’ll be saving them and if you can’t come up with numbers, at least be sure to provide a lengthy bullet list of benefits to you working remotely. And none of them should focus on YOUR benefits…they must all focus on the company’s benefits. That’s all they’re going to care about. The list should include:
- Increased productivity (stress your productive home office setup) due to fewer office distractions
- No driving time means more available work hours
- Greener setup – less fuel consumption, less pollution, smaller carbon footprint for the company (heck, they should allow all their workers to do it!)
- Decreased overhead for the company
- Healthier work environment – fewer sick days because as we all know many sick days aren’t really ‘sick’ days
Get creative, there are a lot more things that can be included on this list. And if you want it bad enough, you can always revert to requesting a pay cut in order to have the telecommuting option. One key note – if you think your request is going to meet heavy resistance, just go in initially asking for 2-3 days per week of remote work. Eventually move it to 5 days if it’s been successful.
Your approach is important. Be sure to stress to your management staff how much this situation will benefit them, not you. Point to your work record and your trustworthiness, and your dependability. Ensure them that they’ll always see that same level of leadership from you, but this new situation will make you even more available to their main concern – the external customer who you are ultimately running the project for.
Staying the course
Finally, we’re to the topic of what I call “staying the course.” What does that mean in this context? Where I’m going with this is the idea of both staying productive and doing your best to maintain a good balance with your executive team and their plans and expectations. In other words…are you and your projects thriving in this role and serving the needs of both your company and your client?
Maintaining the Balance
Once you’ve decided to work remotely and it’s been approved, you must be sure to assess the situation periodically. If you don’t, your superiors will…actually they will anyway. Keep the situation in check – otherwise it’s easy to move forward while not realizing where you may be failing your customers or your company.
Periodically consider each of the following carefully:
- Am I still maintaining a proper balance between work and home?
- Are my designated office hours productive?
- Are my customers being served well by my working situation?
- Am I free from distractions while conducting work?
- Are deadlines being missed or postponed due to my telecommuting situation?
If you find that any of these areas – or other key areas I may have missed – are indeed suffering, then it is critical that you take swift corrective action. It may be a simple as rethinking your schedule and what’s conflicting with it home, or moving your home office to a different location in the house. Or it may be as significant as scraping the telecommuting concept altogether. Remember, it’s definitely not for everyone, and it’s definitely not for every working situation. Be proactive in fixing the situation before it reflects poorly on your work performance.
Looking back, we’ve covered six key concepts of getting you from thinking about telecommuting to actually doing it. Always re-assess your situation because as PMs we know that our environment changes, our customers change and our project needs and demands change. Even if it’s been working well on most of our projects to work remotely, keep in mind that a particular project may come along that it won’t work for. It’s happened to me – when most of my team for a particular project was here in Las Vegas. Those are the times you shift gears and do whatever you need to do to be successful on the project.