The Project Manager’s Guide to Working Remotely – Part 1

Michał Ziętek

Project Manager

Working in IT is great. There are lots of career opportunities and the money is decent. What’s more, if you have internet access, remote work allows you to work from anywhere: a cosy wooden house in the mountains, a boat by the Cretian shore or a beach in Hawaii…

Welcome home – working remotely as never before

And so, I’m writing to you stuck in my apartment as the Covid-19-related lockdown goes into week 8. Is it fun? Not necessarily. Am I complaining? No.

Well… Maybe sometimes. But then I quickly remind myself that I am one of the lucky ones. I have a job, my company switched to working from home immediately without any complications, and each of team members has experience with remote work. The first week was cool, the second - a little challenging, but it’s going to be 2 months soon and this, I must say, is a totally different kind of animal.

I do realise that for some of you it might be your everyday reality but for most of us having the whole team working remotely is something we needed to adjust to. As a project manager, it was my duty to make sure the team doesn’t decrease productivity and that we stay in touch. Since this is the journey we’ve successfully completed, I would like to share how we managed to stay on track with the project while facing this new challenge of not sharing a workspace.

Please note that this article is part 1 of a longer project management series that I’ll be publishing on the Spyrosoft blog.

Home office is – you guessed it - at home. But still, it’s an office

The first thing you can do to boost your productivity when working from home is to setup your workplace. Try to remove distractors from your sight (distraction is bad, MKAAAY?), close your social media, turn off the TV, clean your desk. It sounds really simple, yet it is quite common to forget that creating a space associated purely with your work is essential if you want to avoid problems with your focus and separating work time with down time.

‘Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?’ a.k.a. work-life balance

I don’t' know about you, but I’ve noticed that right at the beginning of my working-from-home journey, I used to pepper my daily activities with some household duties. And then, at the end of the day, I would realise that I still needed to work a little longer to complete my 8 hours working day. This is how for the first few days; I stayed tied to my computer from 8am to 8pm and my spare time was becoming a fantasy.

How did I fight it?

I now know one thing for certain. It is important to set boundaries between private life and business life to be productive while working and to rest while resting.

First, if at all possible, use your business computer to work and private computer for fun (gaming, movies, social media). That will allow you to enter the work environment when you start working and to ‘leave the office’ when finishing. You will have less distractions during work, and no business emails, no communicator notifications when relaxing. It also helps your brain to get into the right mode. You will stop associating funny videos with your business laptop or answering emails sitting on the couch with a pint in your hand.

No separate computers – no problem!

Create two different users, set different wallpapers for each user, create work-related shortcuts to one of them and fun-related to the other one. Always log into your working environment when starting work and log out when you finish the work.

Another thing is that, even though it might be very tempting, don’t start your work as soon as you open your eyes in the morning. Have a breakfast away from the computer, do whatever you’d usually do in the morning, clean your space and start working without any morning tasks in your head.

As soon as you start working, timebox your working hours. That will help not to extend your business involvement overtime and to introduce some discipline, so you won’t to get distracted during the day: no, you won’t be able to finish that later in the evening. In the evening you are out of (home)office, so get it done now.

When finishing work, turn off all work-related notifications on your mobile phone. Regardless of how good you might be with your computer; this little traitor will let you know about new emails or messages on communicators. Don’t let it be your pocket office in your spare time, you need to recharge your batteries and unless you agree to be reachable during longer hours – it’s your time!

Finally, when you’re done with work, leave the office space. Turn off your business computer or change the user. Sit in the different area or if that’s not possible – make something that will distinguish this time from last 8 hours. Leave your office at least mentally and don’t come back until tomorrow.

Focus on focusing, nothing else matters

Have I mentioned focusing ? After communication this is, in my opinion, the biggest challenge while working at home. If you cleared your workplace, of you have your working environment separated from your private area and you are still having trouble staying on the task and pushing it forward, try timeboxing your tasks.

It is a good practice to do that anyway, but it comes super handy when working from home. A time limit gives that extra boost, the sense of achieving a goal, inner motivation not to get easily distracted and to achieve what you planned to deliver in a certain period.

‘I’m alive!’ – staying visible as a team member

If the whole team is working remotely, it is more crucial than ever to be on the same page, especially when it comes to rules the whole team is following.

Agree to timeboxing when everyone is working. The whole team doesn’t need to have the same working hours yet knowing the time when everyone is online is extremely helpful for not having tasks postponed due to the lack of communication.

Discuss with the team what the best communication channel could be and set it as the official one.

Exchanging information when most of it will be written is important, and that single source of information and not splitting between many channels will make this exchange so much easier.

I can’t stress enough how crucial communication is when working remotely. If you think you’re communicating enough, then communicate some more!

Make a habit of letting everyone know when you are starting to work and when you’re finishing. And expect the same from the rest of the team.

Need to have break to see a doctor? Let your team know. Cooking a meal? Message them so they know why you’ve left. Leaving to pick up your child from school? You already know what to do. Keep in mind that usually, your project team is not the only team you belong to, so keep your line managers and other people in loop too unless they ask you not to do that.

One of the most annoying things is sending a message and not knowing if it is read or not. It is very good practice to always answer to every message you receive. If you can’t take care of the issue right away, answer with the confirmation that you’ve already started working on it.

If you are busy at that moment – just let others know you’ve received the message and when you can take care of that issue. It’s good to agree on such an approach among the whole team. It will help you - as a project manager – to not get stuck in the void of misinformation.

Changing the status on the communicator of your choice is a very simple and underrated tool, but these days, I can see how much power it has. Knowing that the message I wrote probably will not get replied to because someone is in a meeting or away from the computer provides clarity and peace of mind since I don’t need to guess. Encourage your team to always keep their communicator status up to date, and yes – be the example! If you cannot follow certain rules the team is unlikely to follow them either.

If possible, exchange phone numbers within your team - sometimes we need to act fast and in case of having no response on the communicator, this might save a lot of time, and your nerves.

Wrapping up

Hopefully by now, you know how important good team communication is, and why setting yourself up for success is the first step in becoming a productive project manager.

As I’ve mentioned above, this is part 1 of the remote project management series. Part 2 coming soon!