How one female technical project manager took the concept of remote working to the highest level – base camp at Mount Everest.
By Astrid Byro (Information Architect, Qatar National Food Security Programme)
Last year, I ran a software development team of eight people whilst sitting 3,450 metres above sea level in a remote part of the Himalayas. My hardware? A Kindle Fire, some powerful batteries and a local SIM card. My software? Atlassian JIRA.
How did I end up there? It all started when I was looking for a way to avoid the nightmare of commuting to the office during London’s 2012 Olympics.
At the time, I was working as an independent contractor, managing a software development project for a global pharmaceutical. My team of eight met on a daily basis, commuting from all directions and in some cases over quite long distances.
The Olympics was a spur for us to find a new way of working that meant we could travel less yet be just as efficient. I knew that an effective remote working policy can bring balance and flexibility to organizations, projects and individuals; which in turn can be great for creativity and morale.
Planning for the Journey – Software Was Key
Network connectivity was never a major issue. Our real challenge was to make sure we used software that kept all team members informed of all project updates. We needed real-time awareness of issues and developments, thereby ensuring there was no conflict or confusion in our efforts and outputs.
In the early stages of our remote working trials, we experimented with various solutions such as Google Docs, Cisco’s WebEx and OneNote. Whilst we could work with these various systems, none of them ticked all the boxes. We had had numerous instances where work was done in the wrong order, done by more than one person, or not done at all.
Eventually we implemented JIRA from enterprise software firm Atlassian. JIRA is project management software that empowers teams to assign work, follow team activity and capture and organise issues. It gave us a simple management dashboard that allowed the whole team access to view the status of all aspects of the project in real time.
So when someone changed a document the rest of the team was not left in the dark, everyone was automatically in the loop. Since my management team had access to my dashboard, it also meant there was no need to constantly produce time-consuming project reports. JIRA makes everything transparent and easy to understand for anyone with access.
Getting the hardware and software right wasn’t the only thing that needed careful consideration.
A huge factor was trust; especially vital as an independent contractor. Even if you plan to spend most of your time working remotely, clients and colleagues need to establish that personal connection. Regular in-person meetings should occur throughout the project.
Initially, expect to be onsite with your team everyday and then slowly introduce remote working, building it up over time. For example, with our team, we gradually increased the percentage of time spent remote working so that we hit 100% by opening ceremonies.
Vigorously testing your remote working set up before engaging in a major project is an essential element of trust. Your ability to work offsite will only be successful if you can communicate at all times and if all participants have an equal level of access.
Ain’t no mountain high enough
The beauty of figuring out a way to work remotely is once you have the system in place, the only limit is a stable Internet connection.
So when I got the chance to make a sponsored trip to Everest in Spring 2013, to raise money for the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park (UK), I realized I could simply work whilst I trekked. I would get up at dawn, hike for seven hours a day, and then my team would call me in the afternoon so I could run our stand up meetings using our JIRA web-based management dashboard. Whenever I logged in, I received all the notifications of what my team was doing.
With careful planning and attention to the finer details our remote working experience was a success. Not only did we work efficiently and cohesively, remote working helped improve our general workload planning and organisational ability. Most importantly, we delivered our project early, making for a very happy customer.
As long as you have those precious bars of signal strength and the right structure in place, you have the foundation to do anything. But if you do plan to manage a team from somewhere like Everest, make sure you pack spare batteries for your equipment and a take a very, very warm coat.
Has remote working been successful for you? If so, what software platform have you had the most success with?
About the guest blogger: Astrid Byro is an independent consultant specializing in information management solutions and has been in the business for more than 14 years. She has worked in the construction, transport, asset management, engineering, petrochemical, banking, insurance, agrichemical, pharmaceutical, telecoms and utilities industries.