Managing Tasks and Projects
As a leader in your organization, you need to be able, willing and excited to take the responsibility of moving projects and tasks forward and meeting deadlines. This is a huge part of virtual team management, and it’s what separates you from the rest of the organization.
In every organization, there are pushers and those that are pushed. Ideally, you would have employees and contractors that always moved themselves forward no matter what, and sometimes it’s possible to make that happen.
This is one of the reasons you want to constantly work on building your team. In general, it doesn’t happen that way. Here’s a cartoon from Dilbert that illustrates what a lot of managers feel.
You’ve got to accept this and expect to follow up constantly in order to get your organization to move forward as fast as possible. Here are some general rules to follow and then we’ll get into the specific technique.
- Limited assignments. Never assign someone more than two or three projects at a time. Two or three is a good number because people sometimes get sick of working on one thing and burn out. If you assign 20 projects then you are going to totally confuse them and leave room for excuses.
- Clearly define priorities. It’s important for the contractors to know what are the most important projects to work on and the most important tasks within a project. Do not leave this up to the Contractor.
- Follow up, follow up, and follow up. You want to constantly be ahead of the game. That means that you do NOT want to ever have the ball in your court. No one should ever be waiting on you. You should always be waiting on them. This means that you are asking your contractors where projects are and when you can expect an update. You want to do this in some kind of a documented system so there is documentation for this and everyone can see when you asked for an update. You need to PUSH your people, even if they are good.
- Don’t use email. Email is slow, unreliable and undocumented. You need to use a project management system for tracking projects through to completion (see resources section). The best part about project management software is that they are web-based (nothing is on a local computer), so that everyone can see what they need to do at all times and secondly, communication is documented automatically. This way there are no excuses.
- Always explain WHY. Your contractors will do a much better job for you and you’ll get better results if your people understand why they are doing what they are doing. Help them understand the big picture. You’ll be surprised how much they can contribute when they understand the reason that they are doing the task.
- Use examples. Are there other websites doing what you want to do? If so, show your contractors this. It makes everything easier as the contractors are clear on what you want done. It gives them a reference point.
Now that you understand these basic principals I want to get into exactly how I manage my people.
- Use Basecamp or Pivotaltracker and set all the people in my organization up on the system.
- Assign each person in the organization about 5-6 projects (only because I trust all of them, usually I would limit to 2-3) and then assign two top priority tasks. Sometimes only one. You can set priorities for each task in Basecamp, and Pivotal. At this point your people are set up with tasks and they know their priorities.
- Use the files section to upload any word docs, plans, spreadsheets, or mindmaps that can be used for further documentation.
- Use the description field to describe exactly what I need done for the project and why they are doing it. This usually includes a screen capture video with my voice recording and showing examples.
- Ask the contractor if they are clear and if they have any questions. I ask them to put together a short document on their understanding of the project and to lay out some requirements.
- Go back and forth with the contractor on the details of the project if any discrepancies exist.
- Ask them to start the project and start following up. I use the commenting field (goes to contractors email and they can reply via email) for all correspondence. I start asking if they have made any progress on the task and how long they believe the task will take.
- Keep following up and ask for testable progress. This means that I ask for something to test, even if it’s a small item. It will show forward progress and clear up any misunderstandings on the requirements early.
The process above is not perfect and it’s certainly not extremely technical but it helps me to accomplish all of the five main principals above and it keeps everyone on track. This is coming from someone who manages 30 people on a day-to-day basis all over the world. There are not a lot of shortcuts here, it’s a process of pushing forward the organization daily.
The “No Excuses” Management Flow Chart
This chart illustrates a few things very well. First, it shows the power of visual thinking to guide your team. Second, you can see that everything leads back to the contractor or employee testing their own work (saves time and headaches for the manager). Third, this system leaves no room for excuses.
You state clearly that you are always available for questions up front via multiple communication methods. You state that you expect things to be working 100% before you see them, and if you request changes those changes are to be tested by the contractor. You can have one of these process maps for every process that your business routinely performs in your “training and documentation” section.
If you are going to run a virtual organization technology will be the glue that holds your organization together. It’s the foundation, and it’s what enables you to compete with organizations that are physically together in the same office (they do still exist).
The end goal is for your organization to outperform in-person teams. That may seem like a stretch, but when you consider the wasted time that occurs in meetings, the distractions of having someone being able to walk in your door at any time, and the affects of this on productivity it becomes much more realistic.
It’s time to throw the old, structured way of doing business out the door and get on board with the new model. The new model is all about being productive while being mobile and global. You cannot lead an organization under this new model if you don’t have solid technology in place. It’s the enabler.
There are a few main areas where you must use technology to set up your remote team correctly. It will be very hard to succeed without technology working in your favor.
- Communication – How your team messages, emails, calls, chats, screencasts, and meets
- Monitoring – Time tracking and productivity monitoring
When set up communication and monitoring tools correctly, you’ll be able to know exactly what your people are working on. You’ll also have updates fed to you automatically so you can check them all on your own time. This opens your organization up to effectively work 24/7 across timezones, and for everyone to be able to see what each team member is working on.
Okay, communication is the biggest item here. If you implement and subscribe to the management process and principles above, you’ll be 80% there. But you the technologies below will help you actually run those processes.
One principle that I live by while managing my team is to never use email. Now, some applications have email built into them. This is basically when you’ll receive an email when a new comment is made on a task or project in your project tracking software. You can respond to that email and the response will be shown as a comment in the software.
But outside of that, emails should not be used to communicate with your team. There are newer, better solutions that exists. Why are these solutions better. One reason…documentation.
You want to make absolutely sure that each and every message that is sent by each of your team members is documented, time stamped, and available for everyone else to see…This solves so many problems and will reduce your stress. You need to make it abundantly clear to each of your team members that all communications are run through these automatic systems that will document each message.
It becomes very easy to know who is working and who is not working. Who communicates well and who doesn’t. Who responds quickly and who doesn’t. This is the information that you need to gather when running a virtual organization.
You assign the task to a team member, and then they will receive any comments that you make on this task in their email box. They can respond directly in the software or just by replying to the email. These systems make it virtually impossible for items to slip through the cracks. You have probably been told the following excuses.
- I didn’t get the email it must not have sent correctly or landed in my spam folder.
- I totally missed that in my inbox, sorry about that.
These systems leave no room for excuses. Here’s what pivotaltracker looks like.
Notice that you can assign a certain person to the task. You can set a priority. You can describe the task or project. You can comment that gets automatically documented. These systems are an absolute lifesaver for virtual teams. No more email.
When you send an email it’s “lost” until a person replies back to you. The project management systems allow you to assign a task or ticket to someone, and the idea is captured forever. Here are some other options that you have regarding project management software.
- Basecamp.com – Basecamp allows you to upload files, comment on tasks and projects, collaborate on wikis (writeboards) and more.
- Google Drive/ Sites – Google docs and spreadsheets make it really easy to comment and discuss. But they fall a bit short when it comes to assigning tasks. This is a lightweight solution at this point, but would be a great starting point.
- Pivotaltracker.com – This is really made for software development, but can be applied to any type business. Awesome for building software and getting tasks completed. Not quite as flexible as Basecamp mostly because you cannot assign multiple owners.
So assuming that you are going to set up one of these options for communication, you still have to deal with meetings. Sometimes you’ll need to have in-depth discussions with your team on specific topics.
I believe that meetings should almost always be pre-scheduled, and there are only a few people that can enter my calendar without a pre-scheduled meeting. I also prefer to have as little meetings as possible on the calendar (usually around 2 per week). When a meeting is needed though there are two options that come highly recommended.
- Skype – Most all freelancers have skype installed and you can talk to them at any point. It’s 100% free. Pretty amazing really. You can even hook in a live phone number and have it automatically forward to a service rep that can answer on skype. It’s great for one on one meetings, or group chats.
- Gotomeeting – This is great for larger teams. You can have video meetings, screenshare so you can actually walk a team member through exactly what you mean. This reduces your management time dramatically in many cases.
Now there are a few other tools that I use on a daily basis to communicate with my team.
- Google chat – this is built into Google plus, and gmail. You can also get a desktop app if you prefer. This is mostly for quick and to the point conversations or very quick Q&A. I prefer to work through the project management tools but chats are great to make a point 100% clear. Sometimes that’s a little hard to do without direct communication.
- Screencast.com – this is a totally free tool and it’s probably the coolest one that I have mentioned so far. You can show someone exactly what you are referring to via voice and screen recording. Make video and upload to their server and share the link. I constantly put these links into the project management software as comments to better explain my points.
Remote Time Tracking and Monitoring Helps With Virtual Team Management
Once you get your team up and running the best thing to do is to get a time tracking solution in place that will show you how many hours each of these contractors is working so that you can pay them accordingly. The best solutions usually have some kind of monitoring tools in place as well so you can get more insight into what your contractors are doing and how they are spending their time.
These tools add a level of transparency on top of your business. With these tools, contractors will usually install a small software application on their machines that will track time automatically, and there is usually a web-based component as well that will allow the contractor (and the manager or owner) to log in and see what’s going on.
Many also allow users to add comments for better communication, take screenshots of the user’s desktop while they are working, track activity levels (mouse and keyboard strokes), active applications, and more.
Along with the tools that improve communication, the monitoring tools will help you build your remote team with confidence. They allow you to immediately see which of your contractors are very active and which are not. Most of these systems will also export to your accounting systems allowing for easy payments of contractors and invoicing of clients.
A few options that you have regarding time tracking and monitoring solutions
Hubstaff – Hubstaff includes time tracking, screenshots, activity levels, a web-based admin, manual time additions, employee payments, project selection and more. Trusted by over 2,000 businesses to manage their teams.
Harvest – This is a great tool for time tracking and invoicing. It includes time tracking, manual time additions, mobile apps, project selection and more.
Odesk / Elance- These are cool because you can find a lot of workers here. Though, many of the workers are not extremely skilled, you can still find them. This is a full featured software platform that includes screenshots, time tracking, activity levels and project selection.
The downside is that you are charged a 10% fee for every hour worked so if you have a payroll of $10,000 a month you are now paying $11,000 a month which is $1,000/ month for the software. Whatever you decide, the keys are being able to see what your contractors are doing, and the associated activity levels.
Here’s a screenshot of the Hubstaff activities page. You can see that there are screenshots for every 10 minute segment as well as activity levels. This is the zoomed out view.
Here is the zoomed in view. You can see that we track activity percentages and the time spent working for every 10 minute segment.
Here is what the Hubstaff timer looks like. You can see that the employee simply selects a project and time starts tracking to that project.
Here is the dashboard view.
If you are serious about managing a successful virtual team you need this kind of data available to you. Without it you are operating blind.