August 13, 2020 | 9min read
A Guide to Remote Project Management—Useful Tools and Tips
There are numerous guides about working remotely—especially since the COVID-19 outbreak that sent many of us to home offices. So how is this blogpost any different? First of all, it’s focused on the Project Manager’s perspective. Second of all, it’s not an extensive guide to managing projects remotely, written from a neutral, generic perspective. It’s about what has worked for us at Polidea, and what might work for you if you’re cooperating with distributed teams. Apart from that, I’ll also share a list of smart online tools that have made our life easier, saving our time and bringing more joy to our everyday duties. In this article I focus on the basics, however if you find some tool or approach particularly interesting feel free to ping us so we can chat more!
At Polidea, we had always encouraged working remotely when someone needed to focus on a tougher task, and required more silence than our open space office could provide. We worked from home one or more days a week, finding it a useful change of atmosphere and pace. But we have also believed that meeting face to face is important, that we can achieve more during meetings in person than on a call. Do we still think so? Well, we are strongly convinced that e.g. feedback meetings or brainstorming sessions go smoother when everyone is in the same room. But since it’s not on the table anymore, we simply focused on making our online communication—both direct, on a call, and asynchronous, via emails, communicators etc.—more effective.
Depending on a tool that you are using on a daily basis for communication purposes there are quite different expectations you should have.
As a project manager your calendar is probably full of meetings. Do they actually bring value to your work? Have you ever caught yourself doing something else instead of being fully focused during the meeting? You may blame your busy schedule—you’re too busy to address every single item in one day. But how about we take a step back and think through whether all of those meetings are crucial.
Face to face meetings or a call in a remote work environment are usually beneficial when you need to sell an idea, talk through a complex task or just do a couple of iterations in certain matters with a person or team. Instead, if it is just something that might be fully addressed with a single email or a Slack message, then organizing a meeting is just a waste of time. What works best in assessing such cases and improving meetings or even getting rid of them is a modified retrospective. During this yet another meeting you and your team might ask yourselves questions like: Which of the meetings we have are beneficial? Which of them might be improved? Does it make sense to cancel some of them? This way you can assess the team’s satisfaction and have some further great Action Points that, when wisely used, will improve the way you cooperate.
When working remotely, you often need to obtain information from a team member or a client to remove impediments. First thought you might have is to call this person. But what if they don’t pick up? You send a message. For example: “call me back asap”. Alternatively, “I need xyz asap” might work even better. If you work on a small project, where a team has a well established workflow based on i.e. Kanban methodology, getting a response over Slack a few hours later might be fine in some cases. However, for a team of 40+ members with tasks highly related to each other it can lead to a disaster or a delay (in the best scenario). Given all the circumstances and project variables you need to assess what is reasonable and acceptable, then establish a process and a communication protocol/rules that you and your team will agree on and will feel comfortable with.
Now, as we discussed the approaches, let’s jump into a simple question—what can go wrong during an online meeting? The short answer is everything, but do not worry, it’s usually not that bad :)
- Depending on the importance of a meeting, you need to make sure that everything is set and will work like a charm. Ever been to a meeting where you could not hear someone or the person on the other side couldn’t hear you? Even if you tested all the setup twice in a row, something can fail in the most unexpected moment. So, what to do?
- Have a backup device (computer, phone, tablet etc.) that you can use to connect to a meeting.
- Make sure you’re an expert when it comes to browser’s microphone and camera permissions, tools that you are using, device settings plus that you have an extra microphone or headphones.
- If anything goes wrong during the important meeting, set a short timebox for fixing the issue and ask someone from your team (if you have such a possibility) to take over for a moment. In case you’re not able to fix it, change the device, ask participants to change the tool or just call in with your mobile device.
Below you can find a couple of tools that might be helpful, especially during remote work.
There are at least a few of them available on the market. The ones I’m mentioning below have some pros and cons, and it’s definitely worth testing them out to see if there is a match between your needs and the features that Parabol and Fun Retro provide.
Source: Parabol website
Parabol is a tool designed for free (up to two teams for personal usage) online retrospectives. It’s super easy to use, you just start a meeting and pick either a pre-designed template or create your own. Then you and your team can write some reflections anonymously using cards. Once you’re done, the cards are becoming visible to all participants. As a facilitator, you can drag cards to group common themes and then vote on topics you want to discuss, exactly like you would do at a regular face to face meeting. There is also a special area for creating takeaway tasks (Action Points) for the improvements.
Fun Retro is another interesting online tool for retrospectives. Here you can create unlimited (3 with a free plan) public or team boards with 5 pre-defined formats. The boards are fully customizable, which means you can change a board name and context, create unlimited columns, rename them and change their color. There is also a voting feature, and a drag and drop for merging reflections and easier card navigation between columns. In the end you can use the sorting feature to expose most popular cards after the voting session and export your board or set up a Slack integration.
The common area between these tools is a huge whiteboard space. The difference is with implemented features, integrated plugins and capabilities. Jump into both of them and pick the one that will suit your needs!
Source: Mural website
Mural is a digital workspace for visual collaboration, although it can also be used as a retro tool. You can start with a large empty digital whiteboard space. With the zooming in and zooming out capability, it’s quite easy to navigate and organize all the items as you wish. There is also a set of templates that you can use. They are divided into the following categories: reflect, agile, brainstorm, learn, icebreaker, understand, evaluate, design, plan. Another interesting feature is the possibility to see cursors of other meeting participants in real time. It eases up the collaboration and can be a basic substitute of a real face to face meeting. After testing it in a couple of online workshops and retrospective, I can definitely recommend it.
“The online collaborative whiteboard platform to bring teams together, anytime, anywhere.” According to Miro website, the potential use cases of Miro are: Meetings and Workshops, Ideation and Brainstorming, Agile Workflows, Research and Design, Strategy and Planning, Mapping and Diagramming, Product Management, Mind Mapping, Sticky Notes Capture, UX Research & Design. Just like in Mural the variety of templates that can be used is impressive! If, for some reason, you will not find the one you’re looking for, you can create your own!
You will be able to create a fancy poster faster than ever! It may act as a meeting agenda, project’s timeline visualization or a presentation. In both tools all you need to do is just pick up correct dimensions and background and adjust it according to your needs!
Canva is a perfect tool for designing… almost anything. With this tool you can create a poster, timeline infographic, presentation, Instagram post, video, logo and more. It provides you with templates for different resolutions that are easily and quickly modifiable. The number of styles is just amazing.
Source: Crello website
According to Crello’s website it is “the easiest online design tool to create animations and graphics for social and web.” With a variety of templates to choose from, you will definitely find the one you need for your business use case. No design skills needed!
Whether you’re working remotely or sitting in an office, a stable online communicator is a must-have. At Polidea, we’re using Slack and Google Meet (Hangouts).
Source: Slack website
Slack is an online communicator tool that makes collaboration easy and allows to track threads in a convenient way. With public and private channels, messages, group mentions and diverse integrations it’s a powerful work tool. Have you ever had a problem finding a conversation within email threads? Using Slack you can have dedicated channels for certain topics. What’s more, within the channels and private conversations you can use threads that make the communication even cleaner and easier to follow. If you still can’t find what you’re looking for, then Slack provides you with a search feature full of filters.
Google Meet is a video-communication service. It is important for business usage to have a stable connection and avoid any video/audio glitches. Google takes care of that for you. With Google Meet you can record a meeting, share the screen, window or even a single Chrome tab—now, that is convenient! They also recently added a noise cancellation feature that filters any sound that isn’t speech. At Polidea we’ve been successfully running All Hands meetings via Google Meet with around 70 participants.
Source: Trello website
According to the Trello website: “Trello’s boards, lists, and cards enable you to organize and prioritize your projects in a fun, flexible, and rewarding way.” Trello helps with tracking the status of a project. It’s super easy to use—just adjust the number of columns for your needs and simply add and assign people to cards (tasks). Use drag and drop to move the ticket around the board. Moreover, you can add extra labels with different colors to better categorize tickets in your to-do list.
Trello is a perfect match for smaller teams using Kanban methodology. If your team is bigger and you would like to proceed within Scrum, consider different tools like Jira instead.
MeisterTask is an online task management tool. It’s similar to Trello, although here it’s easier to navigate from the task creation list view to the project management view. With MeisterTask you can set priorities of issues and add links between related tasks.
MeisterTask offers numerous integrations: Slack, GitHub, Outlook, Office 365, Zendesk, Dropbox, Box, just to mention a few. The dashboard is user-friendly and easy to navigate so you can start working right away, without spending much time figuring it out. It will be a perfect tool for you if you’re working on agile projects as MeisterTask was created with agile teams in mind.
The above tools and practices have been working for us, however each project and company requires a customized approach. Feel free to get inspired by our list and if you have any questions regarding remote project management at Polidea—get in touch!
Director of Delivery