Create More Efficient Remote Teams With
Online Project Management Software
IndustryView | 2015
Working remotely, or telecommuting, has been a hot topic in recent years. Due largely to advances in communication and collaboration technology, the U.S. mobile workforce is growing, having increased by nearly 80 percent between 2005 and 2012.
In this report, Software Advice investigates the best practices of successful remote teams, as well as how they use online project management (PM) software to create a standardized platform for communication and collaboration. Using this information, businesses can learn how to facilitate a flexible work environment while managing deadlines and increasing productivity among remote workers.
Remote workers make up a significant portion of the modern U.S. workforce: Data from the 2012 American Community Survey (an ongoing survey run by the U.S. Census Bureau; source linked to above) estimates that 3.3 million people work from home at least part of the time.
In addition, the Society for Human Resource Management recently found that the vast majority of businesses will be offering telecommuting and flexible work arrangements as a major and competitive benefit over the next five years.
Despite this growing movement, the Telework Research Network reports that the biggest factor barring more businesses from adopting flexible work arrangements is management fear and mistrust. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s 2013 decision to end remote work and the subsequent backlash in the tech community is one well-known example of the split between those who believe workers collaborate more effectively in the office, and those who believe remote workers are more productive.
Given all this, Software Advice surveyed current remote workers and managers—defined as those who work outside the office two or more days a week—to discover how they communicate and collaborate. In this report, we also explore how online PM software can be leveraged to provide a standardized platform for collaboration, allowing for greater visibility and trust between management and remote staff.
We first asked respondents how many days per week they work remotely. The majority of those surveyed (61 percent, combined) work remotely only two or three days per week. It is less common for teams to be fully remote: Just 20 percent of those surveyed fit this criteria.
According to Ron Schultz, CEO of Flux (a software company specializing in file transfers and batch processing), fully remote workers face inherent communication challenges; as such companies looking to hire them must ensure they are comfortable relying on technology to collaborate.
However, Schultz’s own staff—which is entirely remote—is a good example of how the correct combination of communication strategy and online PM tools can contribute to both remote-worker productivity and team success.
Flux’s remote teams use a variety of tools in the Atlassian suite:
Schultz has also implemented what he calls an “over-communicate” policy. This requires remote workers to not only use the above-mentioned tools, but to be active on Skype and initiate a video call with another member of the team at least once a day.
“The visual face-to-face is essential,” says Schultz. “You’re not allowed to go dark for a day at a time.”
Next, we asked respondents what tools they use to communicate and collaborate with their remote teams. The majority of those surveyed (92 percent) use email as their go-to communication tool. Respondents also use instant messaging (IM), chat tools (79 percent) and the phone (78 percent).
While it makes sense that workers would gravitate toward what is familiar (email and IM), these may not be the best tools for the job. In a 2014 survey on remote-team communication, Software Advice found that while email is the most commonly used channel, it also has one of the largest margins for ineffective communication, typically due to long email threads.
Surprisingly, only 56 percent of respondents to this survey say they use online PM software to collaborate while remote. Given that this software is designed to provide a centralized hub for all documents, deliverables and communication about projects, why aren’t more virtual teams investing in it?
As we found in Software Advice's 2015 Project Management Software Buyerview, businesses can be discouraged by the downtime involved with implementation and/or the learning curve required for incorporating new software into work processes. Low adoption rates may also be due to the expanse of products in the marketplace and a lack of time to conduct research and vet products.
However, online PM software can be a powerful asset for businesses, facilitating an environment where working remotely is seamless for both employer and employee. The remainder of this report will focus solely on the survey data collected from those remote workers using online PM software.
To learn how the remote workers and managers in our sample use online PM software to achieve their goals, we asked for examples of the most common use cases. The largest percentage of respondents—86 percent—say they use the software to manage tasks, which includes planning, scheduling and assigning work. (The response “setting deadlines and reminders” has been grouped with “task management.”)
There are many products in the marketplace specializing in task management and workflows, such as Podio and AceProject. Mark Broderick, director of IT applications at Eliassen Group, a technology staffing and consulting company, uses LeanKit (a virtual Kanban tool) for task and project management purposes.
Using LeanKit, Broderick maps out projects by assigning tasks to workers with virtual “sticky notes.” As progress is made, the sticky note can be dragged from “in progress” to “done.”
Sample project screen from LeanKit
The software helps guide the team’s weekly meetings by acting as a visual representation of project status, individual progress and workload. Broderick says visualizations make it very obvious when someone is falling behind or their workload is too heavy. In this way, the software is an important indicator and facilitator of their remote workers’ productivity.
Going back to our survey results, 75 percent of respondents say they use online PM software for project tracking and analytics, most often using dashboard and reporting functionality. Managers or others with permission can access dashboards and run reports, which provide visual means of understanding project status, team performance and additional metrics such as project cost, scope and profit margins.
Mavenlink CEO Ray Grainger explains that marketing, IT services, architecture, engineering and other fee-for-service industries can particularly benefit from such software. These solutions offer increased transparency, showing exactly how an employee’s time spent on a particular project relates to both the client’s budget (billable time) and the business’s overall financials (project cost).
As depicted in the example below, business leaders can stay updated on project status and make proactive decisions if a project is headed over budget or past a deadline, taking steps to correct any issues that may affect their bottom line. Ultimately, Grainger says, understanding how an employee’s time affects profit margins enables businesses to be more precise when planning and budgeting.
Projects and analytics screen from Mavenlink
Business leaders looking to invest in online PM software should consider how they plan to use the tool and what their goals are. If they simply need to schedule projects and assign tasks to workers, they should consider software focused on task management.
Firms whose projects are closely tied to profit margins, on the other hand, should consider solutions with more advanced reporting and analytics to aid them in accurately accounting for project and company financials.
Jon Jones, content curator at Epic Games, provides a real-world example of using reporting and analytics capabilities in project planning. Jones previously managed several overseas design teams using Shotgun, an advanced PM system geared toward visual effects, animation and game design teams. Jones used Shotgun to map out each task, the estimated time for completion and the margin for error involved, and incorporated these variables into the bids he sent to vendors.
“I could actually graph out, over time, exactly how long each task takes each artist across each of my different vendors, and see if it’s trending upwards or downwards,” he explains. “I used that as a basis for billing and re-negotiating.”
An additional 39 percent of respondents in our survey say access to a central repository for project data is a key factor in their productivity while working remotely. Storing data in one cloud-based hub allows collaborators and managers to see a project’s evolution, including project status updates and internal dialogue, without having to gather the information from several different sources.
Indeed, for Jones, the communication breakdown that can occur when using multiple channels to collaborate on a project is akin to playing a game of “telephone.”
“You should never have to wonder where a decision came from, or when it was made or how,” he says. “All actionable communication and decisions happen only in the approved system. Instant messaging, hallway conversations and email threads are for discussing ideas, but decisions and assignments need to happen in [the PM tool].”
Finally, we asked respondents which online PM software they use. By far, Basecamp (previously 37signals), is the most popular platform, used by 23 percent of remote workers in our survey. Other products used are Wrike (9 percent) and Teamwork.com (6 percent).
Interestingly, these top three products target different capabilities that our respondents say are most useful. For example, Wrike and Teamwork.com are more all-inclusive solutions offering Gantt charts, reporting and time and expense functionality. Basecamp, meanwhile, is more geared toward project communication, allowing teams to organize and prioritize tasks and deadlines.
According to Mig Reyes, designer and leader in brand and marketing at Basecamp, the software was born out of the needs of remote workers. Co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson initially created the tool for themselves to use while collaborating on projects from different continents, and the internal tool was eventually developed into a commercial product.
Now, Reyes says, the whole company centers around the idea of coordinating people from different roles and locations together on one project, under one platform. By using a solution where disparate workers can communicate and collaborate seamlessly, Basecamp can bring the best people for the job on board without geographical limitations.
As Reyes notes, “If you’re going to build a world-class team, chances are they live somewhere else around the world and not just in your city.”
This modern business structure can lead to a stronger and, in many cases, longer relationship between employee and company. Indeed, neither Eliassen’s Broderick nor Flux’s Schultz say they have had problems with employee retention. They also note that having flexible work environments has enabled them to expand their hiring base and employ people with a variety of skills and talent.
With improvements in software and technology, the U.S. mobile workforce is growing. Over the next few years, more and more businesses are projected to begin offering telecommuting as a competitive benefit. For organizations wishing to gain this professional advantage, online PM tools can help foster productivity and collaboration among remote teams.
According to Flux’s Schultz: “These tools and approaches instill a culture of sharing and communication that works within the context of any development methodology.”
Businesses should keep in mind that online PM tools offer visibility into all aspects of a project, helping to cultivate a standardized work environment and facilitating trust between managers and employees. Best practices for successful implementation include:
Keep all project-related communication within the software. This ensures that all team members have access to the decisions and deliverables involved in a given project.
Invest in software with both task management and reporting capabilities. This allows remote employees to stay on track while providing project managers with a visual representation of project status and employee performance.
Choose software that matches your business goals. Consider solutions geared toward task management if your goals involve scheduling and task assignment. Systems with more complex reporting and analytics capabilities may be a better match for business models in which projects are closely tied to profit margins.
The buyers in our survey work in a variety of industries. The industry with the greatest representation is IT services and software, with 11 percent of respondents. Following IT is accounting/finance, representing 10 percent of respondents.
A similar variety is seen in respondents’ departments. The largest group (19 percent) work in the information technology department at their company, followed by customer support and production departments, with 14 percent each.
Additionally, the majority of respondents in our survey are from small to midsize businesses with annual revenue of up to $100 million (64 percent, combined). Nearly half of respondents work for businesses with between 21 and 500 employees (a combined 49 percent).
To collect the data in this report, we conducted a seven-day online survey of 13 questions, and gathered 150 responses from a random sample of remote workers and managers within North America. We screened our sample to only include respondents who worked remotely two or more days per week (and who were not self-employed). Software Advice performed and funded this research independently.
Results are representative of our survey sample, not necessarily the population as a whole. Sources attributed and products referenced in this article may or may not represent client vendors of Software Advice, but vendor status is never used as a basis for selection. Expert commentary solely represents the views of the individual. Chart values are rounded to the nearest whole number.
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