Challenges of Remote Project Management

Despite the fact that remote project work has not been uncommon in the times of globalisation, it is only since the Covid-19 crisis that it has become what many call the new normal. The exceptional situation brought about so abruptly by the pandemic caught most companies unprepared for such a scenario and forced them to have their employees working from home, which happened more or less overnight. What started so suddenly, has now become the new reality because of the ongoing restrictions in many countries. 

The implication for project management is that projects are most likely carried out by virtual teams, distributed globally and often spanning multiple continents and time zones. That applies especially to multinational companies and their large projects. Even project managers with long-standing experience may find it difficult to undertake a project 100% remotely, leading a group of people they have never met in person. Such a special project setup may feel like playing an online game in the quest for providing value to their customers by achieving the project goals.

This article reflects about the challenges and requirements of remote project management, mainly from the perspective of the project manager. These challenges do not always apply exclusively to remote project management, but they are bigger in such a purely virtual setup. The thoughts shared are divided into the 8 topic areas listed below, each including a list of (often interrelated) topics that need to be considered / challenges that need to be solved: 

Challenges related with the Project Team:

  • Team building in a virtual environment without personal contact
  • Building trust between the project manager and the team as well as within the team
  • Developing team synergies and building team dynamics
  • Resolving conflicts within the team
  • Rewarding the team for success, e.g. by means of team events such as a common dinner (which is impossible)
  • Synchronisation between team members and sub-teams
  • From a team member's perspective: Identification with a virtual team never met in person
  • Building agile teams (e.g. following Scrum), which should ideally be co-located

Challenges related with Communication:

  • Impersonal communication
  • No or very limited face-to-face communication (only via video)
  • No or very limited body language (only via video)
  • For the above reasons: Communication is normally less effective and less efficient
  • Need for more written communication (i.e. documentation) as a substitute for the limited personal / face-to-face communication

Challenges related with Location / Project Organisation: 

  • Distributed / Virtual teams (no co-location), making effective and productive work more difficult
  • Multiple time zones
  • Because of the above points, more meetings will be needed (overhead)
  • Project team members need to have home office capabilities available (space, costs, etc.)
  • Cross-cultural challenges are more likely to occur (multiple countries, continents, and cultures involved)

Challenges related with providing Leadership:

  • No personal interaction with the team
  • Building and conveying a common project vision to the team without personal contact
  • Acting as a remote mentor
  • Motivating team members from a distance
  • Participating in internal company politics (to protect the team)
  • Gut feeling is hampered by lack of personal contact

Challenges related with Project and Team Management: 

  • Setting expectations (e.g. assignment of tasks) and getting commitment from remote team members
  • Defining clear roles and responsibilities from a distance
  • Monitoring and controlling what people are doing
  • Anticipating issues and risks
  • Involvement of the project steering level without personal contact
  • Vendor management
  • Stakeholder engagement
  • Exchange with other projects to identify and manage dependencies

Challenges related with Technology & Tools:

  • Role of technology becomes vital in a virtual global environment
  • Digital readiness of the company, i.e. its ability to provide the technological infrastructure for conducting virtual projects from home (especially for SMEs)
  • Availability of laptops for employees / project members
  • Need for fast Internet connection for team members to enable work from home
  • Access to all company resources and tools from home to enable remote work
  • Availability of technical support to assist with technical issues
  • Ensuring IT security with team members working from home
  • Ensuring data privacy
  • Ensuring privacy of remote project team members (i.e. no surveillance by the company)

Challenges related with Productivity: 

  • Conducting remote and distributed workshops, e.g. requirements workshops, planning workshops
  • Productive home office space is crucial (enough space, no noise, undisturbed work, etc.)
  • Risk of doing too many other things at home (low focus)
  • As a result of the above, risk of working long hours, but with a lower productivity

Challenges related with Psychological Aspects / Health: 

  • Difficulty to separate work from private life when working at home. As a result, work-life balance could suffer instead of being improved
  • Project team members may feel isolated
  • Possible feeling of alienation
  • Need for orientation from remote project team members
  • Identification with project vision, goals, and tasks may become difficult, resulting in a lack of motivation and a lack of drive
  • Because of the above risks, project team members need to have mental strength
  • Other required personal traits to operate successfully in a virtual project environment are self-discipline, ability to work independently, flexibility, self-motivation, self-driven personality, high level of focus, and a professional way of working 

Author: Paraschos Pentas, Date: 31 August 2020