The COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of many offices, and even as we see the virus waning, companies are still allowing their workforces to stay at home, creating management challenges to overcome.

For many, this is a new practice that requires trial and error in order to find the most efficient remote management strategy. Even then, project managers and employees find themselves battling new challenges. According to Bill Palombi, head of product at the dataflow automation organization Prefect, these hardships vary depending on what stage a company is at in terms of growth. 

“I would say the most substantial challenge by far is onboarding people and gelling different teams together,” Palombi said.  “The processes that you need to be successful [remotely] simply change as a company grows.” 

According to Palombi, the struggle with onboarding teams remotely is compounded by the fact that team members and managers, or even team members and other team members, struggle to form a solid relationship without meeting in person. “Particularly, those informal ties within an organization are sometimes hard to develop with a remote team… when everybody is in the same workspace, there’s a propensity to lean on more informal ways of doing things,” he said. Without those informal bonds and methods that in-person work offers, project managers overseeing remote teams must leverage certain tools that are well suited for collaboration. 

Palombi believes that any kind of task and project management software that allows managers and team members to keep track of in-progress tasks, has become an essential part of managing teams remotely.  “There’s a tool that we use to capture tasks, assign those tasks to people, and then use that task… as a point to share status updates relevant to the completion of the task,” he said. These types of tools can be a huge benefit to project managers as they not only allow for a certain level of collaboration, but also the tracking of different team members’ work.

Another struggle Palombi highlighted was that of the mental health and the home life of team members and managers alike. “I don’t know that it’s any more important now [to offer mental health resources] than it always has been, but I do think that is it getting more attention,” he began, “We have a lot of informal conversations at Prefect that act as opportunities for those with challenges to come forward.” Creating an environment where team members feel comfortable going to their managers with personal problems that can have an effect on their work is more important now than ever. 

Ahva Sadeghi, co-founder and CEO of Symba, a women-founded tech startup that helps organizations streamline the management of their talent development programs, also emphasized the importance of forming this personal connection with employees when managing teams remotely. According to Sadeghi, the major challenges of managing a remote team can be broken up into two aspects: clear communication and mental health support. “One aspect is managing the workload, the workflow and communication,” she said. “It’s about making sure that project managers are in touch with their team, that there are clear expectations, and that their team is well suited to deliver on projects.” 

She explained that this can be harder to accomplish in a remote setting as managers no longer have full access to their team members. According to Sadeghi, without the option to knock on someone’s door and see how they are doing with the work they are assigned, managers can be left feeling slightly out of touch with how things are going. 

However, Sadeghi said the solution to this problem is striking the right balance between being overbearing and being too hands off. “It’s been challenging for some of these project managers whether they are overstepping and creating a micromanaging environment or if they’re not giving enough direction and their employees and teams feel lost,” she said. 

The next challenge Sadeghi highlighted was that of the mental health of team members working remotely, specifically during the pandemic. “I think the second biggest challenge is definitely around mental health because not only have we been in a remote setting where we don’t have a lot of the culture and experiences that we had in a workplace setting, but going through the pandemic we find ourselves isolated from other aspects of our social environment,” she explained. 

Throughout the pandemic, millions of people around the world found themselves disconnected from their friends and family. This social detachment paired with a remote work environment can leave people feeling alone, putting a strain on their mental health. According to Sadeghi, there are some ways organizations can combat this. She said, “The first thing is really treating your employees and team as people rather than just employees.” 

For project managers and team leaders operating in a remote setting it can be easy to fall into the trap of viewing team members as employees only. One way Sadeghi thinks organizations can prevent this is by hosting regular mental health check-ins with team members. Having this culture in place and making your employees feel heard and cared for will undoubtedly improve their experience and by extension, their work.

One tip Sadeghi had for project managers trying to make these mental health check-ins as effective as possible was her “red, yellow, green” system. “This is one thing that we do where we just ask how their doing and they categorize their feelings into either red, yellow, or green,” she explained, “red meaning things are on fire, I need to stop what I’m doing and I need to focus on something else. Yellow meaning I’m struggling with things, or green meaning I’m doing really great.” Having simplified terms for team members to express their feelings to their managers makes them feel supported throughout this challenging time. “This allows us to really understand and support our remote team,” Sadeghi said. “You can really create space for those feelings and see if certain employees need to take a step away or would benefit from a mental health day.” 

Sadeghi believes that offering employees the option to take a day to focus on getting back in the right headspace will help to avoid burnout, and this does not just go for employees but managers and team leaders as well. “One other thing that’s really important as a manager is to take your own paid time off and encourage people to sign off when the day is done; that really sets a tone for the organization,” she said. Burnout and fatigue are struggles for everyone. As a project manager working remotely, taking care of your own mental health and well-being will inevitably have a domino effect on team members. This will create a culture of inclusivity and care, ultimately leading to the production of better work as well as a healthier and happier work environment.

Another challenge of working from home is setting boundaries around working hours. According to Sadeghi, “It is so important to respect peoples hours. “If someone is working from 8 to 5, as a manager, you have to be sure not to reach out to them before or after those hours unless it is incredibly urgent.” This works to help team members accomplish a better work/life balance when working from their own homes. Without a separate work setting, it can be difficult for an employee to set those boundaries and differentiate their personal time from their working time. As a remote manager, helping team members find that boundary becomes an incredibly important aspect of the job. 

In that same vein, Sadeghi believes that working hours should be used methodically and meetings should be scheduled in a way that allows for the most productivity. “You have to make sure you’re scheduling efficient meetings that are mindful of everyone’s time,” she began. “Knowing the right people are there and knowing when to leverage certain communication tools will save people’s time in the end.” 

Sadeghi also stressed the importance of letting team members know that their hard work is valued in the organization. “I think in this remote setting it’s so important to give kudos or shoutouts to different teams,” she said. Sadeghi uses this in her own organization and she believes that having this model of positive reinforcement and employee recognition helps to set a positive tone. Showing team members that you appreciate their work gives them a feeling of pride and accomplishment and will, in turn, lead to more commendable work in the future. Having open communication pathways to express both positive and constructive feedback offers organizations a level of transparency that will help them thrive.

With this transparency, Sadeghi said that another struggle of managing a remote team can be staying on top of the work each person is assigned. “I think that it’s really important to have a structure within your team,” she began, “One thing we do is design OKRs to understand what the objective is and what key results we hope to accomplish with each task.” 

Sadeghi believes that as a manager, especially one working remotely, it is essential to know what is on every team member’s plate to ensure that the workload is being evenly divided. This is another place where she cites her “red, yellow, green” method, but in a professional way. “As a good manager you have to understand how you’re delegating tasks,” she said. “And beyond that, you have to ask your team for feedback; another part of that ‘red, yellow, green’ thing is the professional side.” This offers team members a way to let their manager know if they feel overloaded with tasks and projects. 

One-to-one meetings ‘powerful’

Hazim Macky, vice president of engineering for the cryptocurrency platform Coinme, believes that the most effective way to manage a team remotely is through personalized one-to-one meetings with team members.

“I think in general that one-to-one meetings are a very powerful tool for any leader,” Macky said. “It is an opportunity for both the leader or the manager and the employee to connect on so many levels.” 

Unfortunately, this personal connection between managers and their employees can seem unattainable in the remote working world we now live in. According to Macky, one-to-one meetings might be the solution for the disconnect that many companies are facing because they allow employees and managers to personally share expectations and work on plans for growth and development. 

When working remotely, it can sometimes be difficult to find motivation and intention to put behind different tasks. The same goes for the practice of one-to-one meetings in a remote setting. “This type of meeting is a great tool for any manager to have in their toolkit, however, there needs to be intentionality to back it up,” Macky said. He placed an emphasis on the effectiveness of these types of meetings for both the employee and the manager — both parties need to leave the meeting feeling as if they got something out of it and that it was a productive use of time. This becomes especially important when managing a team remotely because face time with your employees becomes more rare. 

This leads to the question of how to conduct one-to-one meetings remotely in the most effective way possible. Macky’s strategy for this is to schedule one-to-one meetings not as a method to get updates on certain projects, but rather as an avenue to invite open communication and form a trusting relationship between manager and employee. 

According to Macky, shared understanding is an important place to start. “They come from a ground of understanding, meaning that the manager understands what the employee wants to address,” he explained. “What are the expectations? How does the employee want the manager to behave? Do they want suggestions or do they want the manager to merely listen and hold a space for them?” For a manager, taking this time to hear employee feedback and understand their experience within the organization can be just as important for company growth and overall progress as hearing about updates on different projects. 

“There is a great opportunity with one-to-ones for the manager to see how they can best provide support for their employees during this challenging time,” Macky said. He placed an emphasis on the effect of COVID-19 on the mental health of the masses and how employees’ struggles in that regard may negatively affect their work, especially when that work is being conducted remotely. “It is important to create the environment to really let the employees know that they are heard,” he said. “If needed, the manager can offer some resources that either the company provides or that I just want you to know about.” Macky said this is oftentimes uncharted territory for managers, as they most likely have never had a need to be exposed to or trained in mental health services prior to the past year. Now, in the remote work setting, addressing these concerns becomes a more pertinent issue than ever before. 

When an employee is granted this kind of one-on-one, open communication, it also helps to build company loyalty, something that can be challenging to accomplish in a remote setting. According to Macky, using one-to-one meetings to let your employees know that you care about them as people rather than just as workers will motivate them to work harder and boost company morale. “Letting the employee know that they’re heard and being listened to [by the manager] is a powerful tool,” he said. “It creates a culture of inclusivity and belonging within the organization that I think every company should be striving for.” 

90% of project teams working remotely

According to the new Global Trends in Project Management 2022 report, nearly 90% of project teams are working remotely in multiple locations. Of those surveyed, 48% reported that they operate in multiple locations within the same country while 39% said that their teams function in multiple different countries.

 It was also revealed that only 26% of respondents are working with an established project or work methodology, such as agile or waterfall. Meaning, that there are many scattered teams operating without a uniform method in their organizations. 39% reported that they use a combination of Agile and Waterfall, 18% used many different styles within a single project, and 17% operate with no established methodology at all. 

When it comes to managing remote hybrid teams, there are many challenges for a leader to consider. According to the survey, the number one challenge these teams find themselves faced with is poor cross team collaboration. 26% of respondents reported that their organization struggled with this while operating remotely, meaning that many organizations are still learning to successfully accommodate hybrid teams. In addition to this, respondents reported that organizations also faced challenges such as outdated or ill-suited processes, overall difficulty working in a remote environment, and ineffective scheduling. 

In an attempt to try and mend these issues, 50% of organizations operating remotely use scheduled meetings as the primary way to collaborate within the team while 25% reported that they use chat or email to foster team communication. In terms of tracking project progress, 29% of those surveyed reported that they also use in-person or virtual meetings in this way while 20% use project management software to stay up to date with projects, and lastly, 13% said they utilize spreadsheets. 

In a hybrid work environment, project managers also find themselves facing the issue of balancing the wide range of skill sets displayed across team members. This becomes a bigger problem when many of those expected to manage projects in the remote environment were never formally trained in project management. According to the survey, almost 30% of respondents reported that they were not specifically hired to be a project manager, however, they consistently find themselves in these kinds of leadership roles. In addition, nearly 30% of those surveyed also said that they never participated in a formal management certification program.