Project Management Unplugged: The Loneliness of the Long-distance Program Manager

Until recently, it was an article of faith with me that I could not work remotely from my teams and be an effective program manager.  I relied on my ability to influence and cajole and evaluate in face-to-face interactions.  I rarely worked from home, because that would separate me from what was going on.  To me, it would have been like a football coach phoning in the plays, or a parent trying to teach a child to tie her shoes by describing it in an email.

But that was then. In what seems like an indecently short time, life has changed. Remote conferencing capability has improved radically, and you can actually hear what people are saying over the speaker phone.  It is now possible to collect people together without spending money on travel, and that makes a huge difference to the bottom line when organizations are scattered across the country and around the world. At my last company, Inside Sales and Support were in Salt Lake City; Development was in Canada; Operations and Marketing and Business Systems were in Emeryville; PR, Channel Sales and Sales Operations were in Santa Clara; and, of course, Field Sales was wherever it made sense.  I was the only program manager, and I was overseeing Development, Operations, and Business Systems programs; the combinations of where people were at any given time for one of my meetings were endless.  At first, I scheduled conference rooms, like someone was going to actually come into the room and sit down.  I used the video conferencing as much as possible for a while, but it didn’t make the day-to-day challenges of managing the activity any easier, and besides, it was costly. After a while I bowed to the inevitable and scheduled everything over Webex.  There were days when I talked with upwards of 40-50 people in various meetings without ever leaving my office, and I finally gave in and started working from home in my fuzzy bunny slippers a few days a week. It no longer seemed to matter where I was located in real space; for the most part, everyone was somewhere else.

I’d like to say that I’ve seen the light, and my eyes have been opened to the many ways I can be just as effective at a distance as when I was geographically co-located, but I would tell a lie.  I don’t believe I can be as effective; I don’t believe anyone can.  So much of program management is about relationships and communication, and relationships and communication just work better when you are closer together.  Sorry, Webex and Facebook, but that’s just the way it is.  And when you have a sticky situation, and you need to convince someone to do something they really don’t want to do, your phone calls can go unanswered, messages can go unreturned, and emails can be ignored.  It can take days to get resolution.  But it’s very hard to be slippery when you are sitting across from each other. You’re there, you talk, and you get it done.

I realize I’m at risk of sounding like “in the good old days dot dot dot.”  And I also realize that water is wet, rocks are hard, and organizations are global…get over it.  But the challenge for the remote program manager is that the expectations are the same, but the job is very, very different.  Where I could once pull a team together and rally the activity to meet a deadline with the force of my personality and my ability to bake killer brownies, I now have to rely on Webex meetings, phone calls, and a lot of emails with the subject line in CAPS.  I know what I’m told, but my ability to evaluate that information is hampered by my lack of actual visibility into who is doing what, or how well they are doing it.

I usually like to end my posts with some kind of see the light statement.  “Yes, the situation is challenging, but here is a list of seven things you can do to overcome the difficulties blah blah blah.”  Certainly there are things we can do to up our game, and I expect we are doing some or all of them every day.  I happen to be very influential over the phone, and have my little attention-getting email tricks.  I’m not hopeless and helpless and falling all over myself, none of us are.  But the more remote we are from our teams and our colleagues, and the more we are deprived of the visual stimuli of body language, the more difficult it will be to gather the troops, herd the cats, coordinate the deliverables and determine the risks.  And because it is more difficult to make this happen, the organization will feel the pain, and when the organization feels the pain, it will look to us to make things better, and the circle will start again.

Program managers have often been the glue in an organization.  We are the ones whose job it is to touch everyone and everything.  The remote program manager is more like the elastic of the organization…the spandex, if you will.   We need to stretch and stretch, to extend our attention and intuition and span of influence farther and wider than ever before, and to daily go up against one of the more persistent truisms of human nature: Out of sight, out of mind.  It can be a daunting prospect when our only link to our teams is electronic, but it’s our challenge to find new ways to keep our relationships fresh and our communication lines open.

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