Addressing 7 challenges of remote work with Office 365 project management

29.07.2020
9 min.
title

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the traditional office-centric working style all over the world. Remote work that was typically for freelancers and businesses trying to cut their overheads now became the new normal for the majority of employees across all industries.

In this situation, companies’ digital readiness for remote collaboration and project management has played a critical role. Businesses that had already been using dedicated tools switched to remote work much faster and more successfully than those without a well-set digital collaborative environment.

What’s interesting about this lockdown era is that businesses lagging behind in term of digital transformation can’t sit it out in the hope of returning to their conventional workflows. As predicted, the virus is here to stay, so lockdowns might go in cycles. Additionally, many employees have discovered the advantages of remote work and now are much more interested in working out of offices.

Thus, if your company still can’t boast having established digital project management and collaboration or you see that your current software don’t support remote work well enough, it’s time to look for new solutions.

A narrow-focus or multifunctional solution?

As there are too many solutions on the market, companies can feel confused when choosing an optimal tech stack for successful digital transformation of project management and collaboration workflows. The good news is that the market offers various ready-to-use solutions so that companies don’t need to resort to custom development.

The key question to answer before choosing a particular solution is whether you need it to cover a specific type of project activities or various scenarios as comprehensively as possible.

For example, Trello is a good option for managing projects in line with the Kanban methodology, as it offers a multitude of adjustable boards for different teams and types of projects. Atlassian Jira’s strongest sides are time tracking and task management, and it is the best choice for software development companies.

At the same time, there are umbrella solutions such as Asana, Wrike, or Office 365 that can help companies hit many project management and collaboration goals at once, owing to their rich out-of-the-box capabilities and customization flexibility.

As Office 365 consultants, we will have a closer look at the Office 365 suite and analyze how this Microsoft platform helps companies orchestrate their projects and address the multiple challenges that the pandemic brought into the daily business life.

Challenge #1. Fighting decentralization

Decentralization is one of the biggest implications of mass-scale remote work. Out of office and especially without an enterprise-wide solution, teams tend to adopt the solutions that they like the most. As a result, a single team may end up using dozens of disconnected solutions.

While such digital decentralization allows teams to work independently, it also brings challenges that can affect the overall business flow. Scattered content and data, chaotic workflows, and unprotected data sharing are just a few outcomes of uncoordinated team activities.

In this context, Office 365 can become a connecting hub, serving as a single platform for teams and employees to host their activities, get and share all types of content, and collaborate in a protected environment.

Challenge #2. Supporting projects of different pace and complexity

Event management teams and product development teams will never have the same project workflows. Logically, they will prefer different tools to solve their daily challenges. Office 365 can be adapted to the needs of teams with different specializations, project complexity, and speed of project workflows.

Let’s see how well Office 365 project management tools fit into both dynamic and moderately paced workflows.

Office 365 for dynamic projects

The dynamic project management comes with fast-paced workflows and ongoing collaboration across multiple channels. Teams can be overloaded with project-related content and have to deal with a multitude of collaboration tools, including instant messengers, video conferencing apps, mobile and desktop forums. In this scenario, a project management solution is to streamline collaboration workflows, facilitate content processing, reduce human effort on repeated tasks, and prevent confusion.

What does Office 365 offer? Office 365 comes with SharePoint as one of its key apps. SharePoint offers several types of collaboration-centric sites, including project sites that are in themselves an optimal basis for a project management solution. Packed with project timelines, task management, and content collaboration features, SharePoint project sites will let teams fulfill their activities and keep project workflows under control.

To diversify project sites’ capabilities, you can add Office 365 and SharePoint collaboration tools. SharePoint communication, community and blog sites are collaborative hubs for both formal and informal project-related collaboration. Microsoft Teams offer a handy toolkit for video calls, online conferences, public and private messaging. Yammer is yet another Office 365 app that can serve project members as a discussion platform, while Planner can help with task management at the team and individual levels.

If your teams need more professional project management software, you can couple your Office 365 with Microsoft Project, a dedicated project management tool. The tool comes with an additional subscription for $10, $30, and $55 per user per month, so you can choose a feature set optimal for your project management needs.

Managing dynamic projects with Microsoft Project

Office 365 for projects of moderate pace

Teams sticking to a moderately paced project management style can have a well-balanced project load with flexible deadlines, while projects can be lengthy and include a multitude of subtasks.

Typically, HR, legal, and marketing departments are adepts of moderately-paced project management, so content-centric workflows are their daily reality. That’s why an optimal solution in this scenario should offer relevant content management features and provide enough capabilities for multichannel collaboration.

What does Office 365 offer? Moderately-paced teams can choose SharePoint project sites if they look for more formal project management workflows. At the same time, they can operate successfully within SharePoint team, communication, and hub sites full of collaboration and content management tools. They can also leverage Yammer and Microsoft Teams as a hub for team building activities, brainstorming, and informal communication. It’s also worth setting up a SharePoint-based wiki to organize expertise libraries and content repositories available to a large audience.

If project teams work with multimedia content, they can extend their project management environment with Sway and Steam apps to edit, publish, store and share media content with other team members and the entire company.

Managing media content with Office 365 Sway and Stream

Challenge #3. Ensuring multifaceted task management

By venturing into Office 365 project management, companies get the opportunity to adjust various tools for their task management.

SharePoint Tasks are more suitable for teams with moderately-paced project workflows. They allow employees to add tasks with various attributes and display them on a built-in timeline. Each task can be modified anytime, with the project timeline adjusted automatically in line with the change made.

Outlook Tasks provide end users with the opportunity to manage their activities right within their personal or team inbox. Out of all Office 365 apps, Outlook offers the greatest number of task attributes, which lets end users access detailed task descriptions and thus avoid any ambiguities or confusion.

Microsoft Planner is one of the most popular task management tools in the Office 365 suite. It comes with well-structured project boards and buckets, visualizing the overall project load with concise diagrams. Planner can suit individual and team project management needs equally well both on desktop and mobile devices.

Task boards in Planner

Microsoft To Do is yet another task management app that allows users to keep track of private and team activities. Integrated with Outlook, Microsoft To Do helps employees aggregate their tasks from both applications on a single intuitive taskboard equipped with reminders, checklists, task prioritization features, and AI-powered suggestions on schedule optimization.

Challenge #4. Avoiding scattered content

We started the list of challenges from decentralized solutions that bring a hidden risk: enterprise content, from documents to recorded knowledge, gets splashed over multiple sources. As a content-centric platform, Office 365 can help businesses avoid content inconsistency and streamline document, information, and knowledge management workflows.

Managing project-related documents. Project management usually include document management. In Office 365, project teams can not only leverage SharePoint-hosted document storages but also launch automated document workflows. SharePoint offers several types of workflows out-of-the-box for streamlining such processes as document review, approval and signing. Apart from that, Office 365 owners can leverage the Microsoft Power Automate capabilities to set up document workflows that run through several Office 365 applications.

Dealing with multiformat content. Apart from supporting document workflows, Office 365 provides a set of applications and tools for managing various types of content. When in SharePoint and OneDrive, users can leverage spacious storages for project-related content, set up private and public galleries, media libraries, and content-centric team spaces. When in Sway or Stream, project teams can work with tailored content editors to create, publish, and share media content of different formats.

Exchanging expertise. The quickest way to digitize knowledge management practices in Office 365 is to set up a SharePoint-based wiki. The default wiki contains must-have features for structuring, storing, distributing, and updating the records of team and enterprise-wide expertise. If teams don’t need a separate wiki, they can also use their project and team sites, as well as manage blogs on various topics to accumulate and share project knowledge.

Staying tuned for corporate updates. Adopted as a company-wide portal, Office 365 becomes a central information center that delivers updates on various aspects of corporate life to all groups of employees. Typically, SharePoint serves as the foundation of a corporate hub, or intranet. A SharePoint intranet aggregates the latest announcements, news, events, calendars, and guidelines all in one place.

Challenge #5. Managing projects with external parties

If your company collaborates with teams and companies outside your organization, you don’t need to switch to other solutions to connect with them to exchange information.

The external sharing capabilities of SharePoint allow teams to exchange content and interact with it based on a flexible system of permissions.

When in Microsoft Teams, project participants can communicate with external users by enabling guest access.

Challenge #6. Compensating the lack of human interaction

When working from home, we are physically detached from our colleagues. It comes as no surprise that loneliness has become the second biggest challenge of remote work.

What's your biggest struggle with working remotely

Fortunately, with Office 365, companies can fill the socialization gap too. Not only can employees collaborate actively with instant chats and video conferencing features, but they can also socialize more actively. For example, every project team can have a separate social site to organize off-work team gatherings, online games, and competitions to feel connected again.

Challenge #7. Keeping track of performance

Reporting in the project management context has two dimensions:

  1. Reporting as a way of summarizing project results
  2. Reporting as a way of assessing performance of teams and individual employees

Office 365 can help teams set up reporting processes at both levels using Power BI. End users can leverage Power BI as an analytical application within the Office 365 suite or use the web part of Power BI as a component of SharePoint team and project sites.

By connecting other enterprise systems with Power BI, businesses can build an enterprise-wide reporting system for data-driven decision making and a clear understanding of project effectiveness. At the same time, by adjusting selected metrics, teams can have unbiased stats on their productivity and project outcomes, analyze the effort spent, see resource-related weaknesses, and apply relevant corrective measures when needed.

What’s more, every employee can track their work results using MyAnalytics. The application provides users with a summarized overview of their activities over a certain time period. It demonstrates a variety of important metrics, including:

  • The total workload
  • Time spent collaborating via various channels
  • Employee focus time
  • Employee wellbeing, which considers regular breaks, days off, and the balance of working hours
MyAnalytics dashboard

Apart from showing statistics by employee, MyAnalytics also delivers recommendations on how to improve each of the metrics to achieve better productivity and stick to the most optimal work pattern.

Hidden benefits of a centralized solution

When looking through numerous features of Office 365, it becomes obvious that its functional richness is one of its strongest sides. However, owners of such feature-packed solutions as Office 365 can enjoy other important benefits.

By adopting a unified collaboration and project management suite, businesses can adhere to security and compliance requirements as well as monitor the application use regardless of employees’ locations through relevant built-in cyber protection and compliance features.

A single project management and collaboration platform is also an effective channel of enterprise-to-employee communication. Business owners, team leaders, and project managers can collect employees’ feedback, respond to remote staff’s needs, and address these timely, which is one of the critical factors of retaining the loyalty of distributed employees.