Going the distance: 5 effective steps for managing projects remotely while driving innovation

Question of the year: How to manage innovative field projects while working remotely?

By Gulia Rakhimova

COVID-19 has left almost no workplace untouchedincluding the World Food Programme (WFP) Innovation Accelerator in Munich, Germany. We switched 50+ employees to remote-first work, kickstarted entirely virtual innovation bootcamps, and pivoted innovations to address the pandemic. Responding to rapid change might have made us more agile, but we have been running projects remotely long before the pandemic changed the landscape.

Set up within WFP, the largest humanitarian organization, the Accelerator leverages private sector expertise to tackle global hunger and create a sustainable future for all. It connects with WFP’s 20,000 staff worldwide and humanitarian operations in over 80 countries.

While the Munich office is the hub of the Accelerator’s work, the heart is in the field — where humanitarian needs are greatest, and the most promising innovative solutions can be applied, tested and scaled. We manage our projects in coordination with WFP Country Offices, across different time zones and geographies. As remote project management is now taking a front seat in the world of work, read our tips on how to navigate the complexity of remote work, distant colleagues, and challenging country contexts in which to deliver impact.

The WFP Innovation Accelerator has supported more than 90 innovation projects since 2015. Photo: WFP/Joerg Koch, WASH Innovation Bootcamp, June 2019.

1. Get the team on the same page

A well-planned project can fail without team alignment

Imagine a football team where players have no assigned roles, or an orchestra where half of the musicians use different music sheets. A big part of project success depends on how effectively a remote team can align their work with the project’s goals. Before jumping straight to the project, take the time to synchronize the team’s efforts from the beginning. We have seen that remote teams take ownership of their work more confidently when everybody clearly understands the project’s lifecycle, deliverables, and their roles.

To get the conversation started:

  • Set up a virtual kick-off meeting where the team can go through the project plan together.
  • Make it as interactive as possible by letting people express their thoughts and ask questions, so there is a chance to fill information gaps.
  • Share a meeting wrap-up and any additional materials to keep the team aligned on the next steps.

See more tips that will help you plan an engaging virtual meeting:

2. Agree on the ground rules

Ground rules add clarity and structure to the remote workflow

In a shared office, we can easily find out what teammates are working on, who is available at their desk, and which topics are being talked about. In virtual settings, the work dynamic is not as apparent unless it is explicitly communicated. Ground rules can provide these touchpoints so take the time to agree on the preferred ways of working together.

Some questions may seem straightforward, like how to reach each other, and how often and how long to schedule regular meetings. Answering these questions is essential, however, for adding clarity and structure to the remote workflow. For instance, setting up channels for relaying urgent messages helps the team focus on priorities and avoid digital cluttering.

“There is no one-stop solution. Every WFP Country Office works in a unique country context, and collaboration tools we use and the frequency of regular meetings vary depending on each team’s needs and bandwidth.”

— Elisa Molena, EMPACT Project Manager.

Ground rules help the project team navigate the complexity of remote working. They should be discussed and agreed with the remote team at the start of the project and reviewed repeatedly. Photo: Sebastian Widmann, November 2018.

Ground rules should also reflect the organization’s values. For example, building an inclusive remote work culture is imperative for the WFP Innovation Accelerator’s international team. Inclusive meeting practices can reinforce diversity, help the team bring their best, and stay motivated while working remotely. This can involve having a rotating facilitator role, or asking individual teammates to contribute agenda items.

3. Harness digital tools, but not as an end in itself

The right tools can boost productivity

Scores of digital tools exist beyond emails and video calls that allow creating an engaging and productive virtual office. Teammates can message each other instantly, assign roles, track project progress, and collaborate on documents in real-time. Many of these tools allow using emojis which can build a sense of community and increase efficiency when used thoughtfully.

As COVID-19 moved workplaces into the virtual space, remote teams may feel pressure to adopt new digital tools to complement or replace their existing software. In our experience, however, this is not always necessary. Familiar tools which can be adopted more widely may instead be optimal if they deliver the desired results. One of our distributed teams, for example, has replaced a virtual whiteboard with a basic slideshow app to collaborate in meetings. The app makes it easier to create, download and distribute the file, which they found more important.

“While introducing new tools occasionally, we explore novel ways of using well-established ones. This allows more agility and creates a level playing field for less tech-savvy colleagues. Our existing tool stack also works better with low bandwidth and slower internet — an issue in some field locations. Newcomers can hit the ground running too, as many are familiar with these tools.”

— Manuela Zierau, H2Grow Project Manager.

4. Nurture human connections

Social interactions still matter

Personally connecting to the people you work with is a lot harder when interpersonal relationships are limited to scheduled calls and work chats. In pre-COVID-19 times, our project managers would visit field teams every year, to work together, bond, foster trust, and set a collaborative spirit.

Field visits allow project managers to connect to the team on the ground and observe first hand the country context in which the project operates. Photo: WFP/Alex Lozán, H2Grow field visit in Kenya, January 2020.

Since the pandemic outbreak, our managers pay attention to facilitating informal interactions remotely. To illustrate, practices like having regular check-ins and virtual coffee breaks or using voice messaging apps for spontaneous communication create a more personal experience and make distant managers more approachable for remote teams.

“I trust my team’s suggestions as they work on the ground and know the country context best. Likewise, I guide them through the business process; faced with COVID, for example, we had to almost entirely rethink the project’s operational model. The fact that we can communicate effectively in times of crisis is valuable.”

— Elisa Molena, EMPACT Project Manager.

5. Invest in knowledge management

Managing what we know is part of the innovation process

Imagine you were assigned as a manager for a project sourced locally by WFP’s innovation hub in Kenya. You meet your new team virtually, establish the ground rules and gear the team with resources and technology. The project runs successfully, and you are tasked to scale the solution to neighbouring countries. Planning starts again with a blank canvas, and you begin wondering: how can you onboard new colleagues faster, prevent repeating mistakes, and manage both remote teams simultaneously?

Use a knowledge management approach. When knowledge is captured, shared and used effectively, project information flows, team performance increases and managers make better-informed decisions. A good knowledge practice for scaling projects has been to centralize and standardize the project information as much as possible. Toolkits and manuals make onboarding more efficient, so managers don’t have to convey information over and over again.

Knowledge management is the process of how we capture, share, and effectively use knowledge with others and across the organization. Photo: WFP/Sebastian Widmann.

Knowledge from past experiences can also shed light on enabling factors that influence project success and help managers avoid earlier mistakes. The H2Grow hydroponics project team created a digital platform that embraces this principle: it documents standardized knowledge, best practices and lessons learned that allow remote WFP Country Offices and other humanitarian and development actors to replicate solutions that have proven successful.

Essentially, knowledge sharing improves organizational learning, boosts efficiency and promotes further innovation when it is needed most. For the WFP Innovation Accelerator, this means that innovative solutions have a greater chance to succeed, scale, and reach more vulnerable communities — even when project managers work remotely.

Find out more about innovation projects at WFP.

Sourcing, supporting and scaling high-impact innovations to disrupt hunger.

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