Collaborating at a distance: The best project management tools and techniques

best project management tools and techniques

Much is being written about distance employees, freelancers and virtual assistants. The advantages of using these kinds of employees or contractors in your small business are many.

However, there can be as many pitfalls as advantages if the small business owner isn’t careful. It’s easy to fall into the trap captured in the old saying, “Out of sight, out of mind.”

You need to be sure that you are collaborating well and in many ways that means powering your small business with the best project management tools and techniques.

Let me start by discussing the best project management techniques in this situation. I can’t stress the importance of communication too strongly. When you’re working with a anyone at a distance, it poses all kinds of communication problems.

People can’t read your body language and they don’t have enough personal exposure to you to “anticipate” what you’re tying to say. This really means that people at a distance have a hard time grasping the full depth of what you want to communicate.

Another obstacle here is that the person who is at a distance will have distractions that you are unaware of. If you were dealing with someone working in the same office, you would know immediately if that person was too distracted to give you his or her full attention and you’d just come back later. You won’t know this with a distance worker. It may seem like you have the worker’s attention, when in reality, you don’t

You need to use more than one channel to communicate with your distance workers:

  • Email,
  • Chat,
  • Voice or video, and
  • A cloud-based project management system.

I’ll mention a few of the best software project management systems in a moment, but first let’s look at the other forms of communication.

Email. When you have a lot to discuss, commit it to an email and be sure you and your employees have their email well organized. Create a folder system. In some email systems – Outlook, for example – you can create tags. In Gmail you can create labels.

Chat. Slack is a chat service designed for work teams. Slack allows you to organize communication into channels and everything is searchable. Collaboration is its strong suit. If you have team members who are not under the same roof, but need to work together as if they are, give Slack a spin.

Voice or video. Virtually every freelancer and virtual assistant I’ve worked with has used Skype, so if you’re going to jump into that world, grab a Skype account. It works as an instant messenger, phone service and video-phone service. People are starting to use Google Hangouts for meetings. These are video sessions that offer a lot of flexibility. For instance you can also message, share screens and change the camera between people speaking. Further, every session is recorded and available via your YouTube channel.

There are a number of good software services to check out as you search for the best project management tools and techniques. I use Basecamp because it’s powerful yet not too complicated. Others worth a look are Asana and Trello.

A basic Asana account for as many as 15 team members is free. Basecamp offers its first “basecamp” for free and then has three paid packages: $29 per month, $79 per month and $3,000 per month. Trello has an entry-level free service and then it goes to $8.33 per user per month.

The critical thing with even the best project management tools and techniques is to properly channel your communication. In other words, don’t casually give someone a task via email and not include it in your project management system. That will make accountability, follow up and project completion difficult.

In other words, you can use the more informal means of communication to discuss how to achieve things, but when it comes down to really moving forward on projects and assigning tasks, be sure you have a central place everyone can view their “marching orders.”

Above all, know that it will take careful planning on your part to be sure that projects that require collaboration with distance workers are successful. When two people are located 1,000 miles apart, it creates a big chasm into which the ball can be dropped!