In global development, the project manager is often the person coordinating technical teams, liaising with in-country staff and donors, and supporting programs, all the while based in a regional or headquarters office.
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Managing projects remotely comes with its challenges — assessing potential hires can be problematic without those all important in-person meetings and a lack of daily interaction around the office can make it difficult for team leads to spot and tackle staff issues. Meanwhile, different time zones and limited internet access in the field can complicate daily or weekly communications.
At Tetra Tech, each project involves a project manager whose responsibilities range from overseeing the project, to new business development, to thought leadership. Supporting this is a deputy project manager based in one of the United States-based home offices, as well as a contract, grants, and procurement specialist, and an accountant.
Devex spoke to two project managers from Tetra Tech overseeing projects in the Democratic Republic of the Congo while based in the U.S. city of Burlington, Vermont: Jennifer Graham, an associate working on land tenure and property rights, and Jennifer Peterson, an associate on the company’s agriculture and economic growth team. Both share their tips for managing and nurturing teams from afar.
“‘Fit’ with a team can be difficult to discern from afar, so I would rely heavily on the perspective of the field team.”— Jennifer Graham, associate working on land tenure and property rights at Tetra Tech
1. Hiring is a team effort
Hiring candidates remotely requires the input of the entire team, especially in assessing how well an individual will work alongside existing staff. A project manager has to delegate some of that decision making and trust the judgment of their colleagues in the field, explained Graham.
Even when recruitment is managed from home offices in Burlington, Vermont, or Washington, D.C., the candidate is also vetted by the project team, continued Graham. While Graham reviews CV’s, assists during the interview process, and checks references, she tends to leave the determination of “fit” largely to the field office management team.
“‘Fit’ with a team can be difficult to discern from afar, so I would rely heavily on the perspective of the field team,” she said.
Instead, Graham sees her role as acting “as a sounding board to think through the qualities of a candidate, the needs of a project and the composition of the team to determine the best fit.”
2. Adapt your communication methods
Regular conversations between different offices are essential in tracking project progress and creating the sense of a virtual team. However, staff in the field may face connectivity issues, which require project managers to adapt their methods.
Graham has weekly calls with her teams to check in on administrative and operational issues, then monthly calls to discuss specific technical components.
While supporting a project in the Central African Republic, where internet access was very poor, she often used Whatsapp or Skype credit to call her colleagues on their cell phones while also exploring ways to ensure they had several options for getting online. Her team used file-sharing systems that could operate in low-bandwidth environments and she issued hard copies of key project guidance.
Communication methods can depend on the country and the context said Peterson but, after some trial and error, she found Skype to be the preferred method — even in situations with limited bandwidth. She connects weekly with key members of the project team — such as the chief of party and admin or finance manager — but uses “all staff” distribution lists to share additional information regarding technical information, webinars, and training opportunities.
Facebook groups and Whatsapp also help everyone stay connected and can be useful for updates on safety and security, or just sharing photos and news to bring the team together.
It can be challenging to feel connected to the whole team admits Peterson, particularly those in the field who, aside from the chief of party, don’t have a lot of direct contact with Tetra Tech as a corporate culture.
“Just sharing information with them about what’s going on with Tetra Tech globally is appreciated, having training opportunities is something that’s very appreciated,” she said.
“If something happens to somebody on the team, if there’s a corporate response to that, that is very much appreciated,” she added.
Tetra Tech also uses Asana, an online tool for tracking project progress and staff movement, and this has been a terrific tool to coordinate virtually, said Graham.
“The app allows me to have a quick glance of the issues that might be arising and prioritize items needing home office attention,” she said.
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3. Be flexible with your schedule
Coordinating across different time zones can be one of the biggest challenges of remote management. Graham suggests adjusting your schedule to have your workday overlap as much as possible with your team in the field.
“I view myself as working in service of the project team,” she said. “One way I can be of service is by being available as much as reasonably possible.”
Keeping a standard schedule would mean Graham and her team would only overlap for two hours of each working day and crucial emails would go unanswered until the next day.
However, if she can be online from 6 a.m. then she can get back to her team the same day on any urgent matters and allow them to go on with their work. Peterson also starts her day early to prevent overseas colleagues from staying up late for calls.
4. Get out of the office
Making time for in-person visits to the project can help strengthen professional and personal relationships.
Graham visits projects approximately three times a year to support work planning, participatory research, and lead internal reviews. She also uses this time to organize team luncheons and group activities which are designed to be fun and recognize team members in a slightly different way.
For Graham, it is really useful to get out of the capital or regional city and work alongside the team in the field. These site visits allow her to gain a deeper understanding of the realities and challenges of the work.
“I have felt the fatigue from hours of rough roads; experienced the frustrations of poor communication infrastructure,” she said. “This gives me a level of empathy, respect, and appreciation for the realities — the joys, the frustrations, the rewards of the field.”
5. Prioritize staff wellness and safety
Ensure staff in the field know that their well-being and safety is valued, and that weekly check-ins are not just focused on technical issues or project deliverables.
When staff are based in dangerous situations or hardship posts, safety and security issues are monitored regularly and a security specialist is on-hand to advise on these, explained Graham.
And despite being located hundreds of miles away, Graham also makes it known she is available whenever there is a security emergency and is alerted to any incidents via a Whatsapp group. There have been situations in the past when she has been woken at 4 a.m. by alerts of gunfire in a neighborhood near Goma, or an earthquake close to where her team was based.
“I check to make sure everyone is safe and thank them for letting me know. I would imagine this is important,” she said.
In addition to responding to safety and security concerns, ensuring office comfort, providing trainings, and organizing regular team building events is important to staff well-being, said Peterson. There is also an annual holiday budget to show appreciation for the hard work of the field staff.
6. Encourage professional growth
Tetra Tech’s annual performance review process involves self-evaluation, supervisor evaluation, and colleague input. Project managers provide direct feedback for the chief of party and admin or finance staff while the rest of the team undergo face-to-face evaluations with their own supervisors — these can take place more frequently.
The performance criteria are mandated by corporate, however, so doesn’t always fit local staff job descriptions, local cultural values, and specific performance methods, explained Peterson. It can also be helpful to get feedback more than once a year she added.
The feedback provides a comprehensive view of a team member’s strengths and areas for growth, said Graham. Staff are then pointed toward opportunities for advancing their skills and their position within the project.
“High performers are encouraged to stay with the company,” she explained, “and we encourage them to apply for positions with other projects, both within that country and in other countries.”
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