Four Tips For Fostering a Happier Project Team

Would you rather be happy or unhappy? Seriously. It’s not a trick question.

I’m thinking—and hoping—you answered “happy.” There’s a lot of benefits in being happy, including better overall health and, possibly, higher productivity. It’s also nicer being around and working with happy people. Despite the prevailing desire for people to be (and be around others who are) happy, though, when I talk to other Digital Project Managers (DPMs) about tough projects/clients, I often hear stories of DPMs commiserating and bonding with the internal team—sharing that misery so everybody can be miserable together. After all, misery loves company, right?

That might be how the saying goes; but, whether you’re miserable alone or miserable with other people, you’re still miserable—and being miserable just isn’t fun.

As DPMs, we can do a lot to foster happier teams, happier clients, and an overall happier work life, regardless of how frustrating the project we’re working on might be. Most of the projects I’ve worked on have been fantastic (thanks Viget!); but, even great projects can have rough patches. Below are four tips for creating a happier environment when the project isn’t perfect.

Set small goals and celebrate wins throughout the project

There are wins that always occur throughout projects. Enjoy them, focus on them, and rally around them.

I wrote about this awhile ago and I still consider it a critical part of running hard projects. Even if the work a developer has to do isn’t inspiring, we can at least challenge and motivate the person by setting goals. The goals we set will depend on the person and the team. Some people thrive on competition, so a goal like “resolve x tickets by the end of the day” may be a good one. Others may respond better to a goal along the lines of “we’ve had a tough time getting approval on designs. Let’s, together, find some way (somehow) to get this page design approved in under three iterations.” If the team or team member achieves the goal, don’t forget to celebrate the win! There are wins that always occur throughout projects. Enjoy them, focus on them, and rally around them.

Avoid encouraging an "us vs. them" mentality

The client isn’t your opposition

Clients can be tough, clients can ask frustrating questions, clients can lack an understanding of technology. It's important to remember, though, that clients aren’t intentionally asking “silly” questions or misunderstanding the technology you’re using. And, the client isn’t your opposition. In fact, I think the most successful projects happen when the internal team sees the client as part of the team. Unfortunately, many natural and subtle behaviors and tendencies can further the notion of the client being the opposition, including:

  • Calling the client “the client.” In your notes and discussions, call the client by name. For what it’s worth, I encourage you to do the same when referring to your team with the client (i.e., don’t call them “the team”). As much as you can, avoid using  “us,” “them,” or “they” when communicating with the team and client.
  • Venting. Be honest and real about frustrating situations, but also find the silver lining. When you vent, you’re often talking critically about your client, and that will only further the notion that the client is not on your team. Again, you can’t ignore when things are tough and pretend like everything is dandy if it’s not; but, you can keep honest conversations about those issues constructive. When you reach your breaking point (and we all have), find someone else who’s NOT on your team to let loose on.

Foster an inclusive atmosphere

When your team is separated, it’s critical to find ways to virtually bring them together and make everyone feel equally a part of the team

So many of us now work with coworkers who are in another office or who work remotely. When your team is separated, it’s critical to find ways to virtually bring them together and make everyone feel equally a part of the team. One of the most frustrating things is to feel isolated from team members and to feel like conversations and decisions are being made without you. There are a few simple ways to be inclusive of all team members:

  • Video chat. It can be easy to fall back on phone calls; but, there’s value in seeing everyone’s face. Don’t just video chat with the internal team—add video to your client calls as well!
  • When side conversations happen between those in the office together (and they will), stop them and set up a video chat to include any remote team members. If that’s not possible, at least follow up in your team Slack channel or with a Basecamp post recapping what was talked about. Make everybody feel a part of (pertinent) conversations and decisions.
  • Celebrate together. It’s pretty simple to get the team members in your office together for a beer or to bake a cake for them to celebrate a launch. These are good things to do when your team is all together; but, when they’re not, you need to find a way to celebrate with those not physically with you. I started doing “remote happy hours” at the end of projects to celebrate. We all have a beer (if we want one) and talk about the project over a team-wide video chat. It’s been very successful. I also baked a cake recently for a project launch, but made sure to mail cookies to one team member who was in another office. Everyone worked together during the project, so everyone should celebrate wins together.

Accept your client for who they are

When you work with the client in their struggles, instead of against them, you’ll find yourself with happier clients and a happier team

Clients have a lot to deal with and they can’t always operate in the way we want them to. It can be tempting to try and make all clients fit into a box—a box that represents how we want things to work—but, it’s not realistic. If you continue to try to change the client or client’s organization after it’s clear they can’t or won’t change, you’re going to end up with a lot of frustrated and unmotivated team members. Instead of fighting realities, accept them. Adapt your own process and customize your own plan for your client. After all, we all are often in a better place to change how we work than our clients are. When you work with the client in their struggles, instead of against them, you’ll find yourself with happier clients and a happier team—as they won’t constantly be butting up against a brick wall.

There are always going to be tough projects, clients, and internal teams to deal with and, if you think that a project needs to be perfect in order to have a happy team, you’re going to be waiting a long time to work with happy people. Instead of waiting for that day, what if we all work to turn the tough projects into happy ones? Never lose sight of the role you can play in helping that to happen as a Project Manager.

Do you have other tips for how to increase team happiness during tough projects? Leave them in the comments below!

Becky manages digital projects from our Boulder, CO, office for clients such as Duke University, Volunteers of America, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Shure.

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