PM trends: remote servants with many masters

When reading the proverbial chicken livers for 2016, project management trend-spotters overwhelmingly tagged two growing challenges for the field: a growing number of contributors will be working remotely and they will be working on more projects simultaneously.

That prospect excites you if you believe telecommuters labor longer and better than their on-premise counterparts. It appalls you if you believe remote workers only make life less productive and more difficult for everyone on the team.

It’s one thing to glower across the conference table at the junior developer who has just missed his third consecutive deadline. It’s another to manage a diverse team whose attention is divided and whose eyes are on three different screens halfway around the globe. But it’s the encroaching reality.


Here’s why it’s happening

After a brief falloff during the global banking crisis, the share of workers who have done at least some telecommuting is back on the rise, now at 37% in the US alone.

Millennials, raised in a time when remote communication technologies exploded in sophistication and popularity, are widely seen as expecting, if not demanding, the ability to work remotely. “Newer entrants to the workforce are looking to balance their work and life,” says Rajeev Mishra, Epson‘s VP of North American commercial marketing.

Remote project workers are also being pulled in as organizations focus more on building teams based on the best available strengths to fulfill requirements, rather than filling project slots based on title and role. Instead of staffing up with a precisely-defined ratio of developers to analysts to managers, PMs are turning to the best-available resources off the bench, no matter where those resources are located. “My larger enterprise customers keep saying that their priority is to get the best talent together, no matter where that talent is located,” Mishra says.


Here’s what PMs can do about it

For starters, embrace the positives and use what time you do get with project teams to your best advantage. Face-to-face meetings are not inherently more productive. For years, Epson’s product development briefings were lengthy, in-person affairs, with Japanese engineering teams traveling to meet with US counterparts in management and marketing for a one-sided briefing.

“We would listen, they would go back home, and three months later we would get something new to discuss. It was not very efficient for launching products with just a six to nine month development cycle,” Mishra says.

Taking those development meetings virtual actually improved the two-way flow of information, with positive business results. “We’re getting questions answered faster, we’re revising roadmaps faster, and it’s improving our time to market,” Mishra says.

Remote collaboration tools and markup technologies can actually equalize the playing field and make it easier for more personality types to be heard during a discussion. It’s easier for an introvert to scribble an important note on a shared virtual whiteboard than it is to stride purposefully from a chair, take up a dry-erase marker, and draw the entire focus of the room.

Juggling more remote workers who are not completely beholden to a single master also requires some additional finesse. Project managers will increasingly be valued for their ability to execute on softer skills. The Project Management Institute’s 2016 Pulse of the Profession report finds that project managers with a more well-rounded skillset help their organizations reach goals and achieve intended outcomes at a much higher rate than those with purely technical backgrounds.

Those soft skills will come in handy when it is time to communicate with stakeholders and other PMs about shifting requirements and work out-of-scope. When fewer contributors have slack hours in a given week, it is even more important to be aggressive and prompt in raising alerts and objections, and finding ways to correct imbalances.

Megan Shroy, president of Approach PR & Marketing, says that her all-virtual business model has made her acutely aware of budgets and hourly allocations. “I’m much more cognizant of staying within scope in this model,” she says. “It makes it even more important to check on what’s coming down the pipe and to know if special projects will be coming in addition to our retainer requirements.”

Finally, don’t ignore the flesh-and-blood people on the other side of the conference call.

“Building relationships is critical to success and while it’s tricky to do working remotely, it’s not impossible,” Shroy says. “I try to get my entire team in the same room at least once a year and I invest in social time whenever I’m with teammates in person.”

Post by Jason Compton

Jason Compton is a writer with over 15 years of experience covering marketing, sales, and service. Based in Madison, WI, he is a regular contributor to Direct Marketing News, previously served as executive editor of CRM Magazine, and has been published in over 50 outlets.