When I ask project managers what their biggest challenges are, at the top of the list is “making sure people are doing their tasks.” Actually, what they say is, “Are they really working?”; but I know what they mean and I assume they don’t mean to sound paranoid. Actually, as a PM of a remote team, that’s relatively low on the list of things you need to worry about.

Study after study shows that when people work from home (or at Starbucks or on a plane somewhere), they get tasks completed at a higher rate than the poor slobs who go into the office and are constantly interrupted. If simply checking a task off your project plan is the goal, they’re probably ahead of the game.

Of course, mere completion probably isn’t the goal. Quality of the work, smooth hand-offs for output, making sure everyone is aware of the larger picture and getting the whole project completed on time and on budget are what you’re really trying to accomplish.

So how does project work differ when you’re all remote from each other? Yes, tasks get checked off the list at about the same rate, or a little better, than a co-located team. There are other questions, though, you need to ask:

  • Are the people awaiting hand-offs in contact with each other? Will the output meet expectations or be in a form the next person can actually use? How do you know? Don’t assume that an email or a quick scan of the “red, yellow, green” chart really tells people what they need to know. If people aren’t talking to each other, you as the PM may have to facilitate those discussions.
  • Is everyone aware of how their work fits into the big picture? How do you know? Periodic updates are essential, and they can’t be simply emails or online documents. Real discussions with real questions and sometimes real conflict are vital to ensure buy-in, understanding and help the team hold themselves and each other accountable.
  • Are you asking the open-ended questions that really give you valuable information, or are you simply asking “yes or no” questions. “Will you finish on time?” is a very different question than, “What might get in the way of you finishing on time?” or “How good do you feel about the quality of the work?”

The hard truth is that checking a task off a list isn’t really what you’re trying to accomplish, but odds are that’s the metric you and your team are using.

How are you ensuring the quality of the work and the communication on your remote team?

If you’d like help in that regard, check out the upcoming Remote Leadership Certificate Series or the “How to Create and Manage Remote Teams” open enrollment class. PMI members can receive 10% off the cost by using the promo code PMI.

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