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Keeping Teams on Track Through Coronavirus

How to keep teams on track from anywhere
How to keep teams on track from anywhere

A few years ago, I was the project manager for a software development project with developers in three different time-zones; India, Italy and China. It gave me a front row seat into how professional software developers work together effectively from anywhere in the world. Although the productivity ‘hacks’ I learned came from developers, they are just as applicable to projects in every industry.

Now, due to Coronavirus, everyone is in the same boat. Entire industries are being forced into working remotely for the first time. Below are some small tweaks to your team communication for each stage of any project to ensure you stay on track through remote work.

As a general rule, you’ll notice from the below that ‘less is more’ with regard to meetings. While modern video-call technology is incredible, it should be used sparingly, since meetings from anywhere are often a huge time waster and productivity killer.

Stage 1 — Planning the project with the team

At this stage, the team won’t have a clear idea of the path toward the intended objective. You’ll need to have a meeting with all team-members and collaboratively ‘architect’ your pathway. To avoid this meeting dragging on forever, it’s a good idea to get different key team members to have a go at planning the project before the meeting by working into the same cloud template. In the past, I’ve found Trello Kanban boards to be very effective for this step with lanes for project phases and cards for key project deliverables. Each person can work into this board before the meeting then the meeting can be devoted to prioritising the cards in the lanes in order of either importance or dependency.

Stage 2 — Keeping the project on track

Now that you’ve done the above, it’s time for the team to get cracking on the key tasks identified in the cards.

The biggest danger of remote work is that it presents a challenge to keeping everyone working on the right things, at the right time and track project risks. In projects with many inter-dependencies between team members, the risk that any single team member can unknowingly go ‘off the rails’ and do something today that isn’t required until next week becomes far higher in remote work than in an office. However there is a simple trick that is used in software development that has been shown to be incredibly effective at keeping everyone on the same page. It’s called a ‘scrum channel’, and it works by having a dedicated project chat group (on Microsoft Teams or Slack for example) that each person posts into first thing each morning. In this chat group, each person states in bullet point format (only key words required):

  1. What I did yesterday.

  2. What I am planning to do today (in order of planned execution).

  3. Any blockers to doing my work today.

Why is this useful? Well there’s a few reasons:

  1. It makes people think about what they’re going to do, and prioritise the order they’ll do it. People are far more effective when they’re working on their most important tasks (MITs) first. By forcing people to think comprehensively about everything they could do in the day, you reduce the risk of someone diving into a task that is more distraction than value-add (and getting stuck wasting time in there).

  2. It gives clear transparency to everyone, of what everyone else is doing. This is a massive benefit since it de-risks your entire project team from going off the rails. If the web-developer can see that the web-designer has been working for the last 3 days on a logo, they can comment on their message to discuss and adapt the plan.

  3. It holds people accountable to their work today, and in the future. For example, if someone said yesterday that they were going to work on a budget (1st) and then coding a library (2nd), then the next day, neither of those have been started, it’s immediately clear that something has gone wrong. Conversely, it also protects the employee since they now have a cloud stored log of what they did every day, and they are protected from bad managers who could blame them for bad results.

  4. It saves far more time than an online meeting. In a project team with 12 people, if the meeting ‘goes around the room’ and each person speaks for 4 minutes, suddenly you’ve already used up 11% of everyone’s workday. Messaging typically only take a few minutes from each member in total. Be disciplined and cut it out in favour of a chat channel where possible.

For team spirit and morale, another call can be devoted to a catch up or even something fun like a team quiz. My recommended frequency for this call is around once a week.

For complex projects with multiple dependencies, you should also consider using a project & issue tracking software like Atlassian’s Jira.

Stage 3 — Reviewing and retrospective

At the end of a project phase of typically around 3–4 weeks (known as a sprint in software development), there are typically two meetings recommended for a project team. One is called a “sprint review” and one is a “sprint retrospective”. The review is focused on the inspecting and adapting on the deliverables from the project phase, whereas the retrospective is focused on inspecting and adapting the process of how the team worked together during this period. For both of these meetings, you’ll want to have a set agenda beforehand.

Throughout the project

Every meeting should have an agenda and that agenda should be available and shared across everyone in the team. It is a waste of time when someone shows up to a meeting unprepared or uninformed of the context. I’ve used Trello boards in the past to write out my meeting agenda. Trello works great because it’s interactive to plan, and other team members can co-author the meeting agenda before the meeting starts and even comment questions on cards. This way, team members show up to meetings informed and prepared, and the meeting duration is shortened considerably.

A final note

Although Coronavirus has had a harsh impact on our day-to-day way of life, it also presents a great opportunity for project teams in every industry to prove that they can work as effectively from their homes as from the office. Make no mistake, the stakes are high. The success or failure of us to work together remotely will have huge ramifications for how we live as well as where we live in the future, so lets seize the opportunity!

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