Where is everyone?! - Five tips for the Remote Project Manager

Picture this: you're gazing over your three 21" monitors, out the bay windows onto the quiet lake in your backyard. Behind you in the kitchen, cookies are baking. An ergonomic keyboard sits at exactly the right height for that slight slouch when you're hacking away. Or maybe you're on an island in the Bahamas. Or perhaps a cafe in Paris? Whatever your dream locale might be, you're working remotely and getting paid. You scale massive websites and leap tall requirements with little more than a flick of a wrist and a wifi connection.

You didn't think it was really that easy, did you?

Now picture this: the project you're managing is launching in three hours. Your stakeholders just found a nasty bug and your lead developer is nowhere to be found. Is he at his desk? You have no idea, because his desk is 3,000 miles away. You look around and quickly realize that Rover is not going to be able to fix this for you. And there's no coffee because you haven't left the house in three days. What do you do?!

At Intridea, we often find ourselves collaborating with developers, designers, clients, and QA engineers from different continents, let alone different desks. Avoid getting yourself into a pickle by trying these five preventative tips for managing distributed teams, including useful tools and easy habits to get the communication flowing and deadlines met.

  1. Set one time, every day, when everyone meets virtually. Keep it simple with a Campfire chatroom, or talk on Skype. Or mix it up for one day a week! The point is knowing for certain that everyone can be reached at that time every day, even if settling on this time is tricky. A recent team of mine met at 9am California time, 11am Central, noon East Coast, and...11pm China. But being in various stages of our day kept the call quick and the project moving forward. It's an opportunity for team members to report what they're working on and bring up concerns (Scrum offers a snappy format for this and deserves its own blog post). Soon everyone will get in the habit of jotting down their accomplishments throughout the day and thinking ahead. The key here is repetitiveness -- don't miss a day!

  2. If I had a clock for every timezone... If you work on a Mac, you probably have a clock widget on your Dashboard. Why not add another clock for every timezone in your team? Sure it may feel like cheating, but you're not a better Manager just because you can calculate London time in your head. You'll save valuable brain cycles trying to figure out if its dinner time in Omaha or middle of the night in Beijing. Also get used to including EST, CST, PST, etc whenever proposing a time. Don't wait till the day your designer (or client, or boss) gets mad at you for missing that meeting you think is three hours from now.

  3. Invest in a good headset. You're going to spend more time on conference calls than the average office bee. Nobody wants to hear your dog barking or the barista calling out drink orders in the background (I enjoy the Jawbone Icon in conjunction with Skype or Teamspeak).

  4. Have everyone's mobile #'s. It should go without saying that you already have everyone's email, GChat, Skype username; and are friends on Facebook (kidding). Much like how cell phone is the quickest way to reach your server guru on his lunch break when your site goes down, the cell phone will be your surest bet in case of emergencies. On the receiving end, being flexible with your cell phone availability is the trade-off for also being able to pick up dry cleaning on a Tuesday afternoon without filing paperwork at HR first. Also, if you are a good Project Manager, you will already know not to abuse this.

  5. Hang out. Use a service like Campfire to give team members a place to be while working. Discuss issues, collaborate on solutions; brainstorm together. Laugh at non-work-related things. Prompt for questions. As the Project Manager, make it a point to be present in this room as much as possible. For teams in drastically different timezones, the night shift can skim through the day's conversations to quickly get up-to-speed on the current state of the project.

Even if you've mastered these five tips, working remotely with distributed teams isn't for everyone. Project Managers in particular have an affinity for order and control. But learning to plan ahead and communicate effectively with your team can lead to even greater success and happiness than a room full of cubicles -- all from the comfort of your favorite chair.