Effective Collaboration in Remote Project Management

Collaborating remotely is nothing new; neither are the challenges. Caralyn shares how project managers can build connection and collaboration when we're not sitting next to one another each day.

Sparkbox has been a hybrid—co-located and distributed—company for several years now. Our employees have for the most part called Dayton, Ohio home, but have long had the option to work remotely. As one of five remote Sparkboxers based in Pittsburgh, I am now part of the 37% of U.S. workers who work from home at least part of the time.

This distributed arrangement presents incredible opportunities, but also some organizational growing pains. How do we build connection and collaboration into our work lives when we’re not sitting next to one another each day?

As a Project Manager (PM) and UX strategist, people are the core of my work. Here are some techniques I’ve found to maintain the humanity in effectively collaborating with people and managing projects remotely.

Connect As People First

So much of project management is managing people. And so much of connecting with one another is sharing vulnerability. This disclosure of vulnerability becomes even more important when you’re doing most of your relationship-building across screens.

Make sure your clients and team know one another as humans, rather than just talking heads on laptops. Ask about the weather, weekend plans, upcoming travel. Share a story about your dog, a concern about a deliverable that’s keeping you up at night. This is not wasted time; in sharing our humanity, we build connections, respect, understanding, and a culture of support.

Take time to connect with your team outside of stand-ups and demos. At Sparkbox, we connect on a weekly basis through Know Your Company, a tool where employees can share feedback directly with leadership or with the whole company, either anonymously or publicly. Questions can range from the professional (“What are you working on?”) to personal (“Anybody willing to share a defining moment in their life and what they learned from it?”) to silly (“What's the most comfortable piece of furniture you own?”).

We also like to use optional lunches to connect with team members in different offices, including home offices. Through the magic of videoconferencing, remote employees participate in lunch-time trivia competitions, personal finance seminars, monthly lunch and learns, and even casual meals where we just “hang out,” talking about the difference between content strategy and UX, and what Netflix shows to binge next.

And whenever possible, we like to roadtrip to connect in person, whether it’s gathering across state lines for a mid-year review, a company picnic, or a Thanksgiving potluck.

When people feel known and appreciated, rather than like cogs in a machine, they feel more invested in—and responsible for—the whole team’s success.

Trust Your Team

When you’re in the same physical space as your team, there are so many opportunities to check in on progress. You can pass by designers' screens and see them iterating on mockups, or chat with developers over morning coffee about code they’re troubleshooting. As a remote PM, it can be tempting to check in with your distributed team even more frequently than usual. Are they doing what they said they would? Are they accomplishing their goals as efficiently as possible? Are they blocking someone else’s progress?

But when you’re in another city or state or even country, it becomes more important than ever to trust that your team members are doing the work they need to be doing, and doing it well.

It takes time to build that trust, and it takes work to maintain it. A few ways we build trust at Sparkbox include hiring for fluency, humility, and empathy, and investing in skills, people, and lives.

When you give someone the space and support to do their best, they tend to rise to the occasion. By assuming that everyone is doing the best they can, you are creating an environment in which your team can challenge themselves, learn, grow, and succeed.

Create Opportunities for Communication

While it benefits no one to “helicopter PM,” you also don’t want to be totally hands-off in your project management style. A big risk of managing a remote team is the potential for team members to feel invisible or ignored. In fact, 19% of people on distributed teams say that one of the biggest challenges of remote collaboration is that they don’t have a lot of awareness of what their colleagues are working on. Make sure to establish a communication cadence that sheds light on the hard work your team is putting in and gives them opportunities to open up about with one another about challenges they’re facing.

Just like with teams that share a workspace, daily stand-ups are a good baseline for setting priorities and synchronizing efforts. Use that time to coordinate efforts and build team culture. Then, add in time for one-on-one check-ins, both scheduled and spontaneous, to give team members the opportunity to share concerns they wouldn’t necessarily voice in larger groups. Ask people not just what they’re working on, but also how they feel about it (for instance, “What’s keeping you up at night?” is a good way to get to the bottom of it). And don’t stop asking until you believe them. What people don’t say can matter as much as what they do say. Pay close attention to silences, head tilts, bitten lips. These cues speak volumes and can indicate who may need that one-on-one check-in more immediately.

Let your remote team members know that you’re available if they have questions or just want to talk through a process or deliverable. You may not be as immediately visible as someone who sits next to them, but you’re just as accessible and interested in helping.

Pay Close Attention To Your Words

Sparkbox values writing as a way to make us smarter. But our writing is not just limited to Foundry posts. If you’re part of a remote team, you will find that writing is one of your primary ways of communicating with team members. You will write Basecamp updates, Jira issues, meeting invitations, expense reports, project timelines, and countless Slack messages.

But as anyone who’s ever stared at a blank screen or immediately regretted sending an unproofed email can attest, writing is hard. There’s a slippery slope between being succinct and curt, breezy and sloppy, honest and insensitive. Jokes often do not translate over a screen. Typos can create confusion. A hastily written response can be sent before you’ve taken a beat to consider its accuracy or appropriateness.

Always take that beat. Consider whether you’re ready to hit “send” on what you’ve written. Consider how someone could interpret your words, your meaning. Language matters, and without immediate facial cues or body language, your written word is everything. And when in doubt, pick up the phone or send that Zoom video chat invite.

How Do You Manage Your Remote Team?

Virtual teams are no longer a rarity. Our web work as Sparkboxers is no longer just to build for the web. Our work now actually occurs on the web, through the web. We connect and collaborate through technology, but those connections and collaborations are based on the relationships we establish as people first and foremost—the respect and empathy we have for one another as humans.

How do you bring humanity into managing remote teams? We’d love to hear from you.