A Project Management Framework for Startups Managing Remote Workers

How do you keep telecommuters from watching the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills?

Although it’s still little too early to eulogize the corporate office, telecommuting is on the rise.   According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost 23% of workers performed some or all of their job at home.  And that’s not all.  There is a myriad of data that shows businesses saving money and benefiting from higher employee productivity from this trend.   When it comes to startups short on resources, it is often easier to hire people in remote locations who work virtually.

Now before you celebrate with a Starbucks Peppermint Mocha Frappuccino (assuming you also work via remote), let’s take a detour and figure out if all this is really good for your business.   I’ll put this a different way:  for every worker putting in a 12 hour day and not wasting time in the coffee room there is someone else watching the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills also known as RHOBH.

I know that the statistics tell us otherwise, but as someone who has managed projects for both multinationals and startups while working via remote, I have come to a (startling) conclusion:  not everyone should work from home!   If this is the most obvious thing that you have read today, I wouldn’t blame you if you stopped reading now.   But if you want to figure out which employees should work from home and how you should manage them, then you have come to the right place.

What traits make a team member suitable for remote project work?

Let’s start with who makes the ideal work-from-home candidate.   Based on my experience about 25% of employees can work at home effectively.  When it comes to Collaborative Project Management, the good news is that there are only two things to look for when selecting the remote worker.  One, their level of motivation; and two their ability to collaborate.

Table 1:  Remote Project Management Matrix

framework for selecting project management tool

In Table 1, I have categorized workers based on both motivation and collaboration, resulting in four types of employees:

High Collaboration/High Motivation:  Simply stated, these are the folks that you want to work on your project.    As a practitioner of Collaborative Project Management, I’ve decided to call this group “Collaborative Project Management” because these guys can work independently with little supervision and also contribute to the group.

Low Collaboration/High Motivation:   Employees in this category can work from home and do a good job.  But, if you include them in a project don’t expect them to add to the group.  Sometimes you need someone who excels in a discipline and requires little supervision.   We call these people “Individual Contributors.”   Some of my best programmers fall into this category – they get the job done on time but they work alone.

High Collaboration/Low Motivation:  If you find yourself managing a team member who understands collaboration but does not show motivation then he or she will require management oversight.   Employees in the “Supervised Project Management” category can make a contribution to the group but should not work via remote.   These people will need support and guidance from the Project Manager.

Low Collaboration/Low Motivation:    The “Supervised Task Management” category is comprised of people who do not add to the group and also require close supervision.    Keep these employees in your line of vision and away from the home office.

How to manage your remote workers?

Let’s assume that you only hire highly collaborative and highly motivated people on your projects.  You can stop reading this now because all your problems are solved.  Not exactly.  First, even the most self-motivated employees require supervision.  Second, even if you are blessed with the perfect product or service, you won’t always get the perfect team.

Based on my experience and that of my team here are the most important things to consider when managing remote workers:

There is no such thing as autopilot:  Your job is to manage so don’t assume that your team members are independent.    Weekly status reports keep everyone on their toes and is completely reasonable to request.  Don’t worry about the fact that you work for a startup where too much red tape is frowned upon.  Employees are still paid wages and need to document the work that they are doing.

Use online project management software:   Yes, I am the CEO of Binfire so you should expect me to pitch my solution.   But the rationale for building our online project management software was based on a need for online collaboration on the part of remote workers.   If you choose a software (whether it’s Binfire, Microsoft Project or any other project tracking software), make sure that it includes a Virtual Whiteboard, Task Management with automatic updates to team members and Document Collaboration functionalities.  On the subject of Binfire (we’re a business after all) please click on this link to start using our software for free.  If you are looking for a list of alternative project management software solutions, you may find this buyer’s guide useful.

Communicate, communicate, communicate:    Schedule time for team members to review progress both in person and via teleconferencing such as Skype.   If you have the budget, I find offsite meetings to be good for team building and for in-person collaboration.   Conference calls are ok, but the ability to see someone helps foster better relations.  Good communications = more problems solved = higher productivity.

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David Robins

David Robins is the founder and CEO of Binfire. David studied at both Cornell and MIT, and was the Director of Software Engineering at Polaroid for 11 years.

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