Project Management: Onsite and Online

Learn the three foundational practices that have helped drive success for project managers for decades.

Graphic of reclining man working on laptop 

Today's project managers are expected to lead projects from almost anywhere, both onsite and online. And while certain types of meetings like whiteboard sessions, site inspections and kick-off meetings are generally preferred onsite, tight schedules and long commutes don't always allow for full attendance. The growing sentiment among project management professionals is that well-managed online meetings save more time than onsite meetings.

For example, in a recent "Cloud Migration" project, our cloud consultant used Zoom to share his technical designs with our project team from his living room in Alabama. Meanwhile, from his home office in California, our system administrator used these designs to securely transfer data from a virtual server in Arizona to a virtual server in Oregon which he built without leaving his house.

We're becoming so accustomed to online collaboration that it's becoming second nature to us.

However, there are three foundational practices that project managers have used for decades and will continue to use regardless of whether they're leading their projects from their homes or from onsite conference rooms. These three practices are:

  1. Have a plan,
  2. Have an agenda and
  3. Communicate.

Plan

By "plan" we mean a project plan. A project plan is a dynamic list of "who's doing what and when it's getting done" and project managers should always have one. One of the duties of a project manager is to make sure that the project plan stays updated. The project plan is expected to change as the project progresses but not so much that the project slides "out of scope."  There are hundreds of project planning applications to help project managers write their plans. Some are very expensive and complicated and others are free and simple like spreadsheets, for example.  No matter what format the project plan is in, it is up to the project manager to "work the plan" so that it fosters clarity and collaboration among team members.

Agenda

The second practice is to always have a pre-written agenda for each and every team meeting.  The agenda is a subset of the project plan that contains current tasks and issues that need to be discussed. Project Managers should try to proactively email the agenda to their team the day before they meet if possible. The more consistent they are with this, the more likely their teammates are to be prepared and to show up on time. Project Managers should constantly review all project plans and agendas with their teammates so that they have a pretty good idea of how to prioritize and present the right amount of agenda items at the right time.

An ex-army officer who later became a professor of project management at the University of Texas gave this advice to one of his project management training classes: "When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority, so do not overwhelm your team with too many priorities at the same time."

Communicate

The third practice is to communicate one-on-one with each project team member at least once a week.  These ad hoc conversations should be conducted outside of the scheduled team meetings and should be face-to-face or real-time by phone or computer audio. Their purpose is to give an individual team member a chance to speak freely and share suggestions and strategies to successfully complete their tasks without being caught up in the group-think of the entire project team. In his "No-Nonsense Guide to Project Management," Neal Whitten  encourages project managers to "increase the frequency of conversations so that telecommuting teammates stay connected and bonded with you and other dependent teammates."  He advises project managers to "avoid the 'I don't want to bother the telecommuter at home' mentality."  And when working on-site, effective project managers will follow a similar one-on-one strategy by visiting teammates in their offices to check in on their progress and obtain their candid feedback.

The Project Management Institute regularly publishes volumes of new information in the field of project management, but over the years, these three practices have proven to provide a sound foundation for project managers to build upon.

Rita Schnepp, PMP, MA, | Pepperdine University
Director, IT Project Management Office