Handling Large Projects Remotely

I was asked to join a last-minute document push last week, and it was an interesting, in-the-moment case study of how to get a lot of work done by a lot of people in a remote-operation. Not everything went smoothly, but enough things did go right to ensure that the documents were delivered on time.

Task and Tools

The task the group was presented was to format ~200 documents ranging from short (8-10 pages) up to as much as seriously long (300-500+ pages). The actual task was formatting–applying the same template to docs arriving from multiple companies–which is both simple yet detail-oriented and challenging. Tedious might be a better word.

Over the course of seven consecutive days, the team leaders used a mix of group and individual Skype calls, visual aids, emails, and a shared chat room.

What Worked, What Didn’t

The group Skype calls were held once or twice a day with the whole team to go over our instructions, including the process of applying the templates, which versions we were supposed to use (the template was updated daily as new issues were found), and who would be assigned to do what. These were good forums for answering one-off questions and making sure everyone knew what the status and goals were for the day.

Visual aids included a step-by-step processes with screen captures to provide the team with the list of tasks they needed to do to each document and in what order. We had one set of tasks for just handling the documents and then another for quality control (QC) to ensure that each document had the correct type of export control markings.

Emails were good for sending the list of links to each directory we needed to use: one for the document folder, another for the tracking spreadsheet, another for the template documents, etc.

Individual Skype calls happened when someone had questions about an individual document that did not require the entire group. Sometimes these were text only, sometimes they were voice calls, sometimes, they required voice, text, and screen sharing. Voice calls turned out to more effective when there was a document issue that would take too long to type out. They also helped the team leader keep track of how people were doing–taking their “stress temperature,” as it were.

The least effective tool the team used was Microsoft Teams, which was essentially a text-only version of the group Skype calls. While information would be shared in those forums–there were one to three chats occurring at any one time–the only way to find information was to scroll up and down or stay constantly in touch with the group discussion.

Between the Team message notices and various beeps and chirps and the multiple “channels” of discussion happening simultaneously, I found the Teams format distracting and mostly unhelpful. Mind you, I ended up missing things and would have to resort to an individual Skype chat to find an answer, but that was because there was, in fact, only so much information I could track at one time while trying to format the documents. Maybe things would have been easier to track if there was only one discussion “room” open, but I find that unlikely. Anyone who has tried to read an extended thread in Reddit or other chat-based forum knows how quickly the number of side issues can multiply.

While the bulk of the contributors were focused on the formatting, I got roped into one-off challenges, such as searching for all documents with comments, recording them, and removing them; accepting all editing changes to ensure a clean document; or enforcing the template standards on particularly long, complicated, and uncooperative documents.

Wrapping Up & Parting Thoughts

Toward the end, group Skype calls became more frequent as the team leader focused on maintaining her situational awareness–what was done, what still needed to be done, who needed help, etc.–and providing and directing resources where they were most needed.

If I were to advise the team leader on future group activities like this, I would dispense with Teams or other chat formats for conveying information. Emails with specific, necessary information are easier to file, track, and search. All of the other communication tools were handled well and appropriately. And somehow, over seven days, a group ranging from 4 to 12 depending on the day managed to format 200+ documents and get them out the door for electronic delivery. Project management can be done remotely, even on complex tasks with team members scattered across the country. However, the lines of communication must be kept open, the communication methods should be appropriate for the situation.

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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