If you’re managing a remote team for the first time, due to the COVID-19 crisis, there’s a lot to work out.

It would have been nice to ease into this. But here you are, adapting fast to your new circumstances. You’re doing great. And with the right tools and processes, many of you will ultimately find remote leadership to be more effective than the series of under-documented conversations that often dominate an office setting.  

I’ve worked from my home office for most of my career. I have led the development of digital products with entirely remote, distributed teams. I’ve collaborated with overseas team members whose spoken English was tenuous, but our communication was crystal clear.  

In this article, I’m taking my branding and marketing hats off and sharing tips to help you better manage remote products, projects, processes, and people. This is a whirlwind tour, but there’s nothing abstract here. These are practical steps you can take today that will make management more joyful and effective by improving the following: 

  1. Organization – Set your online project tracker up for success.
  2. Clarity – Share business needs, set acceptance criteria, and visualize tasks.
  3. Prioritization – Use a R.I.C.E. framework to determine which projects make the cut.
  4. Accuracy – Improve project estimates by asking a better question.
  5. Motivation – Keep your team engaged by trumpeting their successes.

Organization 

First and foremost, no more excuses—you need an online project tracker. If you’ve gotten by without one up until now, it’s time to stop screwing around and take the one step that will help you track an exponentially greater number of tasks without feeling overwhelmed. Trello, Asana, JIRA, Microsoft Planner, and dozens of other tools offer a “Kanban board” (or card-based view) of projects, the tasks within each project, and subtasks within those tasks.

Here’s my strong recommendation for how to organize each project board in your project tracker. Use the Kanban view and create these columns first: Concept, Assigned, Doing, Review, Done. You can add more columns as needed, but these are all essential. 

  • Concept – Most tasks start as abstract ideas, and many stay that way for long stretches. You don’t want these clouding your board. If you have a concept you don’t want to lose track of, put it here. Don’t assign it to anyone yet. 
  • Assigned – When a concept is defined enough for action, assign it to an owner, give it a due date, and drag it to the Assigned column. If you’re more comfortable calling this column “To Do,” go for it. But “Assigned” serves as reminder not to put unassigned tasks in this column.  
  • Doing – When the owner starts work on the task, they drag it here. This way, on any given day you can look at the Doing column and have a pretty good sense of what your team is working on.  
  • Review – The great failure of many task status frameworks is that they exclude “review.” Look, once you’ve been using this tracker for a while, the completed column will have hundreds of completed tasks in it. That’s no place for your team to push tasks that are ready for review. When the task owner is “done,” they should put it in the review column. For many teams, it’s beneficial for the owner to then assign the task to whoever should review the work. If that’s you, you’ll get a notification. In some cases, the reviewer might be a client or internal stakeholder. No matter what, very few tasks are “complete” until they have been reviewed. If you find errors, you’ll leave a comment about it, assign it back to the owner, and drag it back into the doing column (or the Assign column, if you prefer). 
  • Done – When the task is really complete, drag it here. But, don’t click the “complete” box in the task yet. If it’s practical to do so, meet with your team at the end of each week and celebrate everyone’s progress. All the finished tasks will be in the Done column. Open each one up during the meeting, talk about it, and check the Complete box. As you do, complete tasks will disappear, creating a cleaner board. It’s a good feeling, and one you should share with the team. 

Scrum masters, please feel free to share your best practices in the comments. Mine are obviously not the only game in town, but they are time tested.


Clarity

When leaders assign tasks, we often have a vision for what the task owner will produce. But we also want to give the owner creative freedom. Managers get the balance wrong on this front all the time. The result is that we get back results that miss the mark and are either unusable or require rushed iteration, often by the manager. Think back. How many hours of your team’s time and your own time has been wasted in the last week, month, and year on reworking something that just wasn’t defined clearly enough? 

Here’s how to improve that. 

Give each task a distinct title or headline that makes it easy to identify and recognize. Give it a description (and images) that not only explain what you need done, but what you expect the task will achieve for the business. Explaining what you expect to achieve accomplishes three things: 

  1. It helps the owner look at the task the way you do, which improves the odds of them producing the output you are expecting. 
  2. It puts them in a position to help you reduce redundancy. Maybe the problem you’re looking to solve has already been solved, or they are aware of a simpler or better way to solve it.  
  3. Frequently sharing business needs will help you develop a self-directed team.

Next, in the task description, take the extra time to type these words: “Acceptance Criteria.” Below that, create a bulleted list (or set of checkboxes) of pass/fail conditions that the deliverable must meet. You will get better at this the more you do it. Actively participating in this exercise will help you anticipate how your team thinks about tasks. And it will help them understand what you expect. Ultimately, this step doesn’t just help with efficiency, it helps with morale. 

Before an owner passes the task back to you for review, they should get in the habit of double-checking their work against the acceptance criteria.

One more simple suggestion about clarity: Include images if you can. Whether it’s a photo of a paper napkin sketch, an online wireframe, a screen capture of the steps needed within an application—take the time to include visuals in your tasks. If you’re using Asana and Google Chrome, install this extension that lets you copy/paste images easily into a task.


Prioritization 

Not every concept is worthy of being realized. But humans, in isolation, really struggle with setting priority. That’s because our overwhelming biases trick us into focusing on one aspect of the concept. There are several frameworks that can help you consider the big picture and pick the best priorities. In the engineering and tech worlds, many product managers use the R.I.C.E. framework as we develop product roadmaps, and you can benefit from this same framework. R.I.C.E. stands for ReachImpactConfidence, and Effort.  

Consider each of these factors as you assess a potential project.  

  • Reach – How many customers or employees will benefit from the realization of this concept?  
  • Impact – How big of a difference will this really make?  
  • Confidence – How sure are you about the reach, impact, and effort involved in realizing this concept? In discussing this, you may find that some stakeholders aren’t even confident it can be realized. That needs to be accounted for in your prioritization. 
  • Effort – How many hours will this take to realize? And how much will it cost?  

In enterprise product development, new features are often prioritized because the loudest member of the sales team has one prospective client that really, really wants it. Make sure concepts that every client wants (although perhaps less passionately) get attention as well, by considering both impact and reach. Developers often weight effort heavily because they aren’t aware of the reach and impact. Keep all of these perspectives in mind and you’ll pick better priorities (which will translate to a healthier business). 


Accuracy 

I’ve spoken to many smart people who believe “estimates are worthless.” I disagree. 

An estimate isn’t a perfect precognition. It certainly doesn’t escape the binding physics of overconfidence bias, and it has no window into the constant influx of unexpected disruptions that plague the typical worker.  

So, when you say “how long will this take” your task owner is rightly indignant. When you press through that indignation to force an answer, the accuracy of the estimate suffers from an instinct your task owner has to hurt you back for the torture this question has brought upon them.

Here’s where the communication disconnect comes from. They think you’re asking them exactly how many months this project will take, and they don’t think there is a knowable answer to that question.

What they don’t understand is that you didn’t even know that months was the right unit of measurement to consider. To you, the mere fact that this project should be measured in months is helpful information that you did not have. You didn’t know. They didn’t know you didn’t know.  

Say this instead: “Is this more like hours, days, weeks, months, or years of work?” 

A funny thing tends to happen when you ask this way. First, they have an immediate answer to this question. “Oh! Months.” Second, once they have started to answer the question, they tend to keep thinking it through, and they very often will offer up a range. “It’s probably like 2-3 months.” And, I’m telling you from decades of experience, that’s a more accurate answer than you would have gotten by asking “How long will this take?”

Now set a goal and ask the task owner if it is a reasonable one. “Can we make June 1 our goal for completing a first draft of this?” They will likely agree, and you will set that as the due date in your project tracker.  

One last step—if you’re promising this deliverable to another stakeholder, pad the estimate as much as you can without putting sales or customer relationships directly at risk.  

When you’re under pressure to deliver, it is tempting to keep asking for a different estimate until you get the answer you want. Don’t do that. If you need a project to go faster, ask what obstacles you can remove.  


Motivation 

When everyone works in different spaces, it’s more important than ever that positive energy cycles through the hierarchies of your organization. 

Get in the habit of giving your team at least as much credit as they deserve for taking initiative and achieving success. When you speak positively about your team, it’s good for everybody. Your boss will see you as a strong team leader. Your team will see you as a hero. And you will feel better at the end of the day.

Do this even when your team isn’t watching. Do it frequently and it will get back to them.


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