Project managers have to deal with different kinds of projects. It is very possible that once you would be assigned to a project which implies a lot of pressure. If this happens, you need to be prepared to manage stress and to protect your team from it. Otherwise, people will burn out quickly and the whole endeavor will be derailed.
Before jumping into the details of how to deal with stress on the projects, let`s first try to figure out what are the typical reasons that lead to tension and team burnouts.
Main causes of stress on projects
Unfortunately, quite often deadlines become unrealistic over the course of the project. At the beginning of the project, the team may feel completely comfortable with the deadlines and their commitments. However, as the project is progressing, some new information comes up, new impediments arise that prevent the team from meeting the deadline. And here comes the stress.
To minimize the risk of such situations try not to commit to whatever you`re not sure you can do. When giving estimations try to take into account as many potential risks as possible and better stick to conservative estimates when doing commitments. If something comes up on the fly, escalate it and reevaluate your previous commitments to course-correct.
Frequent changes in the requirements
When a software development team is working on a project there is always someone who sets priorities for the team and explains what features the team should work on next. Usually, this is a Product Manager or Product Owner, and the ideal case is when there is only one person, who conveys the information about the product roadmap. It is a good practice when the team knows the project roadmap at least 2-3 Sprints ahead with all the decomposed features and acceptance criteria in place.
Unfortunately, it often happens that the team barely knows what they’re going to do in the next iteration. It’s even worse when the change in priorities (or requirements) may come throughout the ongoing Sprint. This is a common case on big projects with lots of business stakeholders contributing to the requirements.
Frequent changes of the requirements definitely put a lot of stress on the team, because they need to course-correct their commitments on the fly, and it is also quite demotivating.
Constant intervention of outside stakeholders into team`s routine
In an ideal Scrum world, the development team is assumed to be self-organized, which means that the team decides on their own what is the best way to deliver the product increment. However, it often happens that the team is experiencing interference into their work and processes from outside stakeholders. Besides the requirements changes that we mentioned above, there may be other kinds of intervention. For example, a project sponsor may overburden the team with tons of useless reports, or business stakeholders may introduce some new process they just have read about. Such an impact usually interferes with the actual work, adds extra stress, and decreases overall productivity.
Stressful and toxic environment
Stressful and toxic environments may take different forms, but the core of it is always the same: toxic people. It may be an arrogant boss who humiliates the subordinates, or a toxic person within the team, who likes to organize squabbling or just demonstrates antisocial behavior. Having just one toxic person in the team is completely enough to create a stressful environment. If you have some of them, it definitely makes matters much worse. They may organize coalitions around themselves and make separate groups within one team to fight each other. This definitely will reduce the overall team productivity to the naught.
Fortunately, toxic people have less influence in remote teams. They have fewer chances to talk to other people and are very limited in their means to provoke conflicts. However, if the person is toxic by nature, you`ll still feel their impact on the team even during regular meetings.
Regular overtime work
There is not much to explain here. Regular overtime work eventually results in team burnout. And there is no other way, this is just a matter of time. Some will feel it earlier, others will feel it later. At one point it may even seem to you that the team got accustomed to overtime work and such a schedule, but this is a misleading impression. The fatigue will come suddenly and in an instant, and the stress will also join.
Ways to reduce stress in remote teams
Although the most obvious way to reduce the stress in remote teams is to avoid or minimize all the stress factors mentioned above, there is still something else you as a manager can do to minimize tension. Let`s go through the list of possible stress mitigation strategies.
Better planning and avoiding overcommitments
The main rule here is to commit to as much work as the team can actually do within the iteration and not more. Usually, the information about the team’s capacity together with the historical data of the team’s velocity can help you in planning the scope of the next iteration. It always makes sense to leave some buffer for contingency i.e. some unplanned but urgent work that may come during the Sprint. You may define the size of that buffer based on your previous experience.
If the team has the smallest doubts about their being able to complete any work item, then don’t commit to it. You may mark it as a stretch goal, start the work on it if you have the capacity, but don’t promise to the business stakeholders to finish it by the end of the iteration. Business stakeholders may be unhappy about your not being able to accommodate some features in a Sprint. So, it is better to disappoint them before the Sprint starts, rather than to disappoint them at the end of the Sprint telling them that you haven’t been able to complete something you committed to.
Protecting the team from the external stakeholders
Quite often business stakeholders interfere with the project teamwork. They may do it either directly or indirectly, but in both cases, such interference makes an impact and adds extra stress.
Let’s consider a few examples. It is a common situation when a project sponsor wants the development team to implement more functionality than they can in a certain iteration. If the project sponsor is very persistent and the team doesn’t want to disappoint him, this situation may result in overcommitments, overtime, and eventually burnout.
Another example is when business stakeholders believe that due to their extensive experience they better know what processes to set up in order to make development more productive. In most cases, these good intentions of business stakeholders only worsen the situation.
Whatever the form of external stakeholders’ invasion into the project is, I believe, that a project manager/Scrum Master should protect the team on two levels. First, he or she should keep the team from negotiating with external stakeholders. If the team members spend their time negotiating, which is very stressful on its own, this definitely won’t be for good. And, secondly, project managers must convince the business stakeholders that the team is pretty mature and can do whatever is needed to be as productive as possible and to achieve the necessary results. A manager should definitely do this in a polite, politically correct way, using proper arguments, ensuring that the team will consider stakeholders` suggestions. This is not easy at all, but that’s what the role of an agile project manager or Scrum Master in the development team implies.
Embracing positive outlook
When the team is stressed out, it is very important to guide their thoughts in a positive way. It means not to focus attention on the challenges and obstacles that the team is facing, but rather focusing on how to overcome them in order to achieve the positive result or even how to use them for the team`s benefit.
A good example of the situation when a positive outlook is needed may be an introduction of a change. People are usually defensive about any change, be it a change in the product requirements or a change in the regular team`s routine. When the team members get to know about the upcoming change, they may start complaining about it and showing their reluctance to accept it. I believe that this is a responsibility of a manager to stop whining and to turn it into a constructive process. Honestly, when any change comes from the upper management in some cases you don’t have any other choice rather than to accept it. So, what is the point of complaining about it? It is better to think about the positive outcomes you can get from this innovation, give it a try and adapt.
Organizing virtual events
For the collocated teams one of the best ways to reduce stress, improve team morale and camaraderie is organizing a teambuilding event. Unfortunately, this option is either unavailable or quite limited for remote teams. However, even if your team members are scattered over different locations, there is still something you can do. You may organize a team-building event online. The simplest variation of a virtual team-building event is just a Zoom meeting or whatever else you`re using for regular meetings. The only difference is that you gather not to talk about work but discuss some other things. It makes sense to think of the agenda in advance, which is probably the hardest part of organizing such an event. The main rule here is to make everyone feel comfortable and get some emotional let-out from the work.
If you feel that the team is fine with having such virtual events, later you may try something more sophisticated like taking an online quest. There are services available now on the Internet that can help you in organizing it.
Hosting regular one-on-one meetings
One-on-one meetings are a powerful management instrument that can serve multiple purposes. One can hardly think about one-on-one meetings as a means of stress reduction. Moreover, these meetings are considered to be an additional source of stress for employees.
However, let’s try to look at it from a different angle. If your team is working under constant pressure, they have a lot of tension accumulated and they need an opportunity to let off some steam. If you can build a relationship of trust with your employees, they are likely to share their pains with you in one-on-one meetings. And if they do, there are two possible scenarios available. You either have already known about the problem shared, or you haven`t. If you haven’t known about the issue before, now you become aware and can think about how to resolve it. However, if you are well aware of the problem, and it is unsolvable at the moment, the only fact that employees have talked to you about it can make them feel better.
Recognize your team’s efforts
When your team is working under stress, they need recognition more than ever. They need to feel secure and valuable and you as a manager should give them these feelings. There are different ways to recognize the team, starting from regular “thank you” or “good job” phrases and continuing with more sophisticated ways like paying a bonus for completion of a big part of the project. You may read about different ways of praising your team members in this article. Certainly, the arsenal of your recognition options is dependent on your company and your project, but simple words of praise cost you nothing, so just don`t forget to use them appropriately.
These are the ways of stress reduction in remote teams that I can think of. Please, welcome to share your ideas on that matter.