How We Manage A Work From Home Team

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Project Management

At DesignFrame, we manage a work from home team. We don’t have a centralized location, nor do we have set working hours. In fact, everyone on our team works with DesignFrame as a side-hustle. In-spite of these limitations, we are still able to produce solutions better than most full-time agencies. A big part of this is because we have become incredibly effective at managing our team. Our project management paradigms have maximized how productive our teams can be, even though they have less-time to dedicate to our projects.

Our management style is based heavily on our project management tool of choice, Basecamp, as well as their fantastic book It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work. We’re not affiliated with Basecamp, we just use and love them. If you find this post doesn’t go deep-enough, consider purchasing their book.

Get Everyone On Board

The absolute biggest factor in managing a work from home team is company culture. If everyone is not on the same page with how your team is going to work, you will fail.

We hire different sets of people on every project we do. As such we find ourselves teaching people how to use our system on pretty much every project we do. We found that if you bake timely documentation into the project, you will get a lot more people to “buy in” to how the project is going to run.

It’s tempting to write a gigantic manual that, at the start of a project, is tossed at the newcomer with a request to read the entire thing. That’s a big wall of boring documentation to read, and nobody will do it. You’ve probably heard the phrase read the f*cking manual? Well, we don’t say it around here because we don’t actually have a manual.

Instead, we have short blog post-like messages that are posted at different phases of projects. These messages detail what to expect in the upcoming phase, and provide everyone a clear chance to ask questions should they need more information.

For example. Internally, we do a mid-phase review of all projects. This gives our management team an opportunity to review how a project is going, and make course corrections if-necessary. We let everyone on the team know about each review at four different times.

  1. At the onset of a project, via a quick welcome message.
  2. The date of the review is displayed in the project calendar
  3. As a memo sent to the team, 1 week before the review. You can see an example of the memo Here.
  4. As a reminder the day before the actual review. You can see that here

We give our teams the information they need, when they need it. We also get more-detailed as the information becomes more relevant. This makes it a lot easier for people to adopt a new system, and also enables you to improve your message over time. If you’re like us, much of your work is done in a consistent manner. This means that these timely messages can be re-used on future projects, as long as you write them to be used as such.

Focus on Asynchronous Communication

Asynchronous
(of two or more objects or events) not existing or happening at the same time.

Asynchronous communication, like emails, scope documents, and well-written presentations can completely replace meetings, and those irritating “quick question” messages. All teams, remote or not, do well when everyone is on-board with async, but a remote team really shines.

The most fundamental example of this is email. When an email message is sent, it is usually written as-if it is a letter. Ideally, a detailed, well-thought message is written. That message is then read by the recipient at their leisure, and is responded to at a later time.

Compare this to a phone call. With a phone call, both people must be available at the same time, and communicating back-and forth instantly. This is the same with chat applications, such as Slack.

Phone calls and Slack messages are what many people reach for first. This is because it provides instant feedback. The problem is any time spent using this sort-of communication method requires that everyone is available in that moment. You may be interrupting a person’s work when you call them, or message them on Slack. You’re effectively taking time away from your coworkers so you can get instant gratification. That’s not cool.

Phone calls and Slack messages are like candy – everyone craves it, but it’s not good for anyone.

Resist the urge to pick up the phone, or send a “quick message” to the person. Instead, take the time to think through everything you will need to finish what you’re working on, and ask the person in a single message. Ideally, this would be done asynchronously, but if you absolutely cannot wait, at least you will only interrupt them once, instead of several times throughout the day.

Break Your Work Into Manage-able Projects

When a project starts, take the time to write a detailed scope of the goal of the initiative. This should detail everything you know about the project, including:

  1. The goal of the project
  2. The expected result of the project
  3. The project timeline
  4. The roles, and responsibilities of each role
  5. As much supporting information as you have. Charts, graphs, and context.

If you’re working on a huge project, or some-sort of on-going job, it’s vital that you try to keep your projects small. At DesignFrame, any project that will take more than 8 weeks to complete gets broken down into multiple projects. This is because we have found that anything larger than this becomes difficult to manage, and too tedious to scope out, both as the person writing the scope, and as the person reading the scope.

Remember, we like to focus on timely, detailed, information, not a gigantic manual that gets plopped on a person’s desk. It’s difficult to accomplish that if a project is too large. If you have a project that seems like it will be too large, try to break it into multiple smaller projects.

Minimize Status Calls With Heartbeats, Automated Check-Ins, and Audits

If you’re anything like me, you detest status meetings. They’re painfully inefficient, boring, a blatant waste of your team’s time. The worst part about these meetings is that they are so freaking easy to replace asynchronously.

Instead, we recommend that you embrace Heartbeats, Automated Check-Ins, and Project Audits. Once we embraced these three items, the number of Slack messages, phone calls, and late-night working sessions disappeared almost entirely.

Heartbeats

Heartbeats are simple enough on the surface. Everyone sends a quick one to two sentence summary of what the did on a project at the end of each work session. This isn’t intended to be a full-blown report on what they’re working on – instead it’s more like a Tweet. Just a quick message that lets the team know what they did that day.

Automated Check-Ins

An automated check-in is basically a system that automatically asks the questions that are typically asked in a status meeting.

  1. How do you think this project is going so-far?
  2. Are you blocked on anything?
    These questions are asked once a week, on different days. Everyone is asked these questions for each project they’re working on. This allows you to keep a finger on the pulse of the project without demanding everyone’s attention at a specific time.

Audits

At DFS, we set an expectation that we will be auditing a project a few times throughout the life of the project. These audits are not random – instead they’re scheduled, and everyone knows when they will happen. We ask the team to have their work done before the audit date so we can review, write up a report on any changes that need made to get the project to the finish line.

Conclusion

Ever since DesignFrame fully adopted the items mentioned above, we immediately noticed we were hitting project deadlines, everyone was less-frustrated, and as a whole everyone was happier. On the surface, it may seem difficult to manage a remote team, but as long as you put the time into setting the project up, and you make sure to communicate and document where the project is heading, you will find that your team will love to work with you.

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About Alex Standiford

Alex Standiford is the founder of DesignFrame Solutions. Alex has been tinkering with computers and technology his entire life, and started his career as a freelance WordPress developer in 2015. When Alex is not writing code, he can usually be found outdoors, playing disc golf, hiking, or tinkering with a campfire. He's a bit of a foodie, and is often found cooking over the fire with one of his many cast iron skillets.

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