This article is written by Dave Nevogt, co-founder of Hubstaff, a time tracking software for remote teams. Hubstaff allows managers to see time spent on projects, screenshots, activity levels, in-depth reports, and timesheets. Dave has been founding companies since 2004 with his first success coming at 23, two years after graduating from Indiana University.
Managing business projects remotely is a tough gig. Doing it well is a learned skill, and chances are good that it’s going to take you a few tries before you get it right.
Here is a simple six-step system that will help you ensure that your remote projects hit their deadlines — and come in at or under budget. After all, keeping projects under budget and on time is hard enough when your team is in the room next door. Throw in language barriers, cultural differences, new time zones and increased difficulty in monitoring performance, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
- Spend extra time in the planning phase. Before you do anything else on a remote project, you must have the requirements down on paper. This is especially important when managing remote projects. Don’t leave any details to the imagination, either — include desired colors, fonts, outcomes, and samples. It’s also helpful to include desired outcomes, use cases, and a Q&A section. The closer you can get your specifications documents to the outcome, the better. Tip: It’s great to use Google Documents for specs because multiple people can get online and build it together.
- Find the right team. Now that you have defined what you want, it’s time to find the team to build it. There are hundreds of places to find talent, but remember that a great contractor will always do one thing well: Spend time trying to understand exactly what you want. This means that they’ll spend time visualizing how the product will be used. And they’ll present problems and ideas that are not in your spec documentation. These are the things that will let you know you’ve got a contender. Deciding on the right team is probably the most important decision you’ll make, so vet them carefully and look for a team that has applicable prior experience.
- Pay in installments, and build in incentives. Nothing motivates a remote team to get their job done like money. Never pay a flat monthly rate, and rarely pay an hourly rate. The best way to pay for remote work is a flat fee payable in buckets when certain installments have been completed, tested and approved. Most projects can be divided into three distinct phases. Even if you have to pay a retainer, break the rest of the payments into three phases with the largest phase last. Finally, consider building in extra incentives for hitting each of the three phases on or before the agreed-on timeframe.
- Set up task-tracking software. I prefer to use TeamworkPM or Pivotaltracker for this. TeamworkPM allows you to design each phase as a task list, and build individual tasks within that list. As items on the task list are completed, you’ll be notified, and you can test each individual task and discuss them with the contractor. You can also set priorities and assign tasks to individual members of your team. Pivotal works similarly, but is more geared towards software development.
- Set expectations for communication. Set the expectation early that your contractor(s) will update you frequently on their progress — preferably on a daily basis. With good task-tracking software, this doesn’t need to be time-consuming or complex. It only takes a few seconds of their time. If they won’t agree to this, that’s a red flag.
- Test early and often. Most managers underestimate the importance and time requirements of testing. One of your jobs as a manager is to test every task that is marked as completed, and you need to do this almost immediately because it’s fresh in your mind and the contractor’s mind. This is also an opportunity to provide feedback to your contractors on an ongoing basis, which is how you hit deadlines. The last thing that you want is to get to the very end of a project that’s not tested and isn’t up to par.
Your remote projects can run smoothly and efficiently if you do your due diligence ahead of time — and if both you and your team both commit to ongoing updates, testing and feedback.