The project manager is the project leader. The go-to guy/gal; the one everyone looks and listens to for direction and status. The Steve Rogers to the Avengers or Katniss Everdeen to the Resistance. When these leaders are not easily accessible, teams can go astray, jeopardizing the tasks at hand.

But what about the project customer? What chair do they occupy at the table, especially when that table is in a different room, building, city or even country? Project customers wield an important voice and their concerns must be heard, understood and dealt with if the project team is to be successful.

The foregoing highlights a common issue when the project manager and the project customer are not able to interact face to face on a regular basis. While technology has come a long way to address this issue, it is still something that contributes to confusion and frustration between the two principals and their teams.

Let’s examine four key obstacles which can easily become an issue on remotely managed projects.

Lack of face time.    It’s not about the customer controlling the project manager, but the mere term “consultant’ or “project manager” can sometimes conveys a hands-off feeling to the customer and their internal staff. That leaves the customer feeling the only thing they can control (aside from the budget) is where the project manager (and the project) is at any given time. Face-to-face visibility with the project manager and project team provides a sense of comfort and assurance they are getting something for the money they’re spending on the project manager and his or her team. Take visibility out of the equation and you immediately insert uncertainty into it.

How is this solved? The weekly stand-up meeting – either by video conference or in person – where the project manager can provide a concise summation of the project status, highlight any blockers or hot issues, answer questions from the project customer and provide direction to the team. The customer is able to interact and be a part of the process, have the ability to ask and answer questions and have a solid, up to date grasp of where the project stands.  It also builds a relationship among the parties allowing information to be shared candidly and freely – ensuring nothing is missed along the way.

Time zone issues.    When the project customer and project manager are in different time zones, the problem is compounded. Ask anyone who’s off-shored their software development to teams in India, Bulgaria, etc. and you will hear a litany of expletives centered around managing communication and access across time zones. Of course, this situation isn’t limited to the project manager and project customer relationship.  Time zone issues affect just about any employee scenario these days because of the diversified nature and global presence of many large companies. But with the project manager, since there’s no employer-employee relationship already in place, the time zone issue can become an even bigger obstacle. The key is to be as flexible as possible – making sure at the end of the day the project customer feels informed and part of the process. After all – it’s their project.

Matrixed management of third party resources.    Remote management of project resources can be challenging enough, but overseeing resources which also report to an organization you yourself are not a part of can present even more problems. The perceived authority factor is ambiguous at best, especially if you have no direct “official” working relationship with your project resources’ supervisors.

Establishing ground rules at the outset of the project is critical. An on-boarding session with both your assigned resources and their direct supervisors is a good way to establish availability, reporting accountability, and project expectations. The key is to build a relationship and get everyone on the same page – with the understanding that as far as this particular project is concerned, they are accountable to you and you are here to see they have what they need to be successful.

Communication.    Finally, communication… Watch any action movie and the good guys are always talking to each other in the heat of battle. Roles and responsibilities are already established, accountability is assigned and communication is what makes sure everyone does their part. Remember, communication isn’t talking “to” someone; it’s talking “with” someone.  Ensure everyone has a voice and you’ll find the team starts to operate as a well-oiled machine.

Obstacles exist in almost every environment.  Whether those obstacles persist depends on the ability of the principals and their teams to communicate effectively. Remote project management isn’t for everyone… you must be flexible, a good communicator, and well organized. But it is possible and can work very well if you communicate properly.