Obstacles for the Remote Project Manager

The project manager is the project leader, the go-to person on the project, the one everyone is supposed to look to and listen to for direction and status. What about the project customer who can’t reach out and touch the project manager whenever they want to? Do they have concerns? Is their money being well spent? And what about the project manager? What obstacles does the remote PM face that would otherwise not be present if he was sitting at the customer site on a daily basis? 

Let’s examine four key obstacles that can easily become an issue on any remotely managed project. I’m certain there are many more possible obstacles, but these are some of the most common ones that I’ve encountered. 

Lack of face time. The customer can’t control the project manager nor do they really want to. The mere term ‘consultant’ or ‘project manager’ can sometimes give a hands-off type feeling to the customer and to staff at the customer’s site. But the one thing the customer often feels they can control is just being aware of how much time the project manager is spending on the project and where that PM is at any given time. ‘Seeing’ the PM and project team assures the customer that the PM is actually doing something for all that money they’re spending on him and the team. Take the visibility out of the equation and now you have a customer who has no idea how much time the project resources are working on the project, and they may even feel uneasy about getting their money’s worth. It’s an obstacle the remote project manager must overcome and they’re likely going to feel that extra need to show significant value in the absence of face-to-face interaction. 

The best way I’ve found to combat this situation is to have a weekly status discussion – either by phone or in person – with the project customer and to also provide a detailed weekly status report prior to the meeting that will serve as a basis for discussion. This way, the customer has a document to refer to that identifies the current project status showing what’s been completed, what’s in progress, and what’s coming up in the future. They have the documented frame of reference they’re looking for as justification for them money they’re spending on the project. 

Time zone issues. Depending on where the project manager is located in relation to the customer, there may be time zone issues to overcome. Of course, that can happen in just about any employee scenario these days because of the diversified nature and global presence of many larger companies. But with the project manager, since there is no employer-employee relationship already in place, the time zone issue can become an even bigger obstacle. The key is to be as flexible as possible for your customer. If they are six hours ahead of you and need an 11:00 a.m. meeting, you may need to actually be on a call at 5:00 a.m. your time. Thankfully, I was only dealing with US time zones on a similar issue and the difference was three hours, but those 6:30 a.m. design sessions twice a week were still painful…but necessary.

 Management of other project resources. Remote management of project resources can be challenging enough, but overseeing resources remotely that report to an organization that you yourself do not directly work for can present even more problems. The authority factor is gone. Yes, you’re the PM guru brought in to consult, but you have no direct “official” working relationship with your project resources’ supervisors so that area of accountability can be somewhat grey. 

In a situation where you’re managing a project with a customer remotely and you’ll also be overseeing work of some of their resources on the project, it’s important to lay some ground rules at the outset of the engagement. Jointly meet – even if it’s by phone – with the resources you’ll be using and their direct supervisors to establish availability and reporting accountability. The key is to get everyone on the same page and of the understanding that – for the purposes of their work on this project – they are accountable to you and that you will have direct access to their supervisor should issues arise. 

Communication. Finally, communication is always a concern. How communication will happen, when it will happen, who will initiate, and who is ultimately responsible for it all needs to be established at the beginning of the process. For consulting project managers who regularly work with remote customers on longer-term engagements, I highly recommend establishing how various communications like status reporting, emails, and conference calls will happen by documenting these processes in the form of a formal project communications plan. 

Summary / call for input. There are obstacles, but they can be overcome. Remote project management is not for everyone...you must be flexible, a good communicator, and organized. But it is possible and can actually work very well as you can perform tasks in a timeframe that works best for the project, not just on a 9-5 schedule. 

Readers – please share your thoughts and experiences and discuss.

Online 12/27/2021
Brad Egeland
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