IT development and services is a technical area that is well-suited to remotely located teams. These project teams are called Virtual Teams and made of of team members who are located in dispersed in different physical locations. Team members may be working from home, in other cities in the U.S., or even internationally. The freedom of working remotely has benefits for both employees and organizations including:
- High desirability for many employees— keeping them with the project and happy with the organization
- Lower business cost since office space and overhead are covered by employee rather than employer
- Access to a greater pool of talent – across wider area of the world
- Employees have flexible hours to get their tasks completed—they like that
- Employee time is not wasted commuting through traffic—more time for work
- Helps the environment by keeping cars off the road
However, being the project manager of a team that includes remote members has additional challenges that must be met and managed to keep the project on track. In my experience these challenges can be dealt with successfully given understanding, planning, and well-defined project specifications. A few years ago I had the pleasure of doing research on managing virtual teams. The first step was determining what a “manager” was supposed to do. The diagram below is a representation of the areas and skills that must be addressed by any good manager.
Keys to managing remote project teams
The number one key is communication. And you need to know upfront that communicating with a virtual team will take more of your time as project manager than working with a local team. If it is at all logistically possible, you should try to have your first team meeting face-to-face. In teleconferences, even video conferences, the socialization and trust building that happens face-to-face is missing.
Communication support can be broadened to include shared project documents and workspace like Microsoft SharePoint (see link below on Microsoft’s SharePoint and collaborative tools) or Azure Cloud Computing. Although you can expect a significant increase in your email, instant messaging and texting traffic, I have found that talking to individuals is still more effective than texting or voice mail, and should be preferred whenever possible. Because the informal water-cooler communication that provides valuable but unplanned sharing is absent on virtual teams, finding an on-line alternate like social networking is useful (Like blogs, Wikis, LinkedIn, facebook, twitter, SharePoint personal sites, etc)
REMINDER: Don’t forget the impact of time-zone differences.
As project manager you must assure a coherent representation to the entire team of the mission, customer needs, tasking and schedule. You accomplish this through written and verbal communication at the kick-off meeting and every day after that. Communication at weekly staff meetings should include an agenda that is distributed before the meeting, facilitated interchange during the meeting, and summary/action items distributed to the entire team quickly afterwards.
Planning in the context of a virtual team requires more thought on task assignments. To the extent possible, tasks should be independent with clear goals for input, process, and output. Encourage team members to communicate frequently with others whose work integrates with theirs. Serve as a role model for this in addition to active reminders and feedback.
In the beginning of the project become knowledgeable of the technology aids that can help keep the team communicating and cohesive. Beyond standard text, voice, and video communication, you can use wikis, knowledge management software, Webcasts, meeting managers, shared white boards, and documents. The advent of cloud computing can also add real-time communication support.
In addition to the called out items for Leading, Organizing, Controlling, and Coordinating in the above graphic, you will find many bits of wisdom and tips for success in the useful links below.
- The Remote Project Manager published by Brad Egeland: http://pmtips.net/remote-project-manager/
- Managing Virtual Teams by Karen McHenry: http://management.atwork-network.com/2008/07/21/managing-virtual-teams/
- The 5 Essential Leadership Skills of Virtual Project Management by Ron Ponce: http://www.projectmanagerplanet.com/leadership/article.php/3829261
- Brad England’s post on the biggest challenge -http://www.projectinsight.net/blogs/online-project-management/the-biggest-challenge-with-managing-a-virtual-team
- Starwright: list of links and articles on virtual teams and virtual team management: http://www.startwright.com/virtual.htm
- Overview of Microsoft’s Azure platform entry into cloud computing: http://www.microsoft.com/azure/whatisazure.mspx
- Overview of Microsoft’s SharePoint collaborative tools: http://sharepoint.microsoft.com/Pages/Default.aspx
- Successful Management in the Virtual Office by McGraw and Kelly: http://www.silverbeargroup.com/virtual-office.html
- Gil Gordon’s site with lots of links and useful info: http://www.gilgordon.com/resources/consultants.htm
- Government site for virtual workers: http://www.teleworkexchange.com/
* Note – Updated these links for some new places.
July 24, 2009 at 9:20 am
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May 7, 2011 at 7:14 am
Thanks for a great and useful article!
July 30, 2011 at 8:48 am
Hi Bruce, nice to read your thoughts on remotely managing project team. I agree with you, freedom of working remotely has benefits of its own, it proves really helpful to continue smooth operations even if you are away from work place. You need to provide special attention to communication, planning and real time reporting for better coordination among virtual team members. We use Microsoft project manager software i.e. Project Professional 2010 for this purpose; it has excellent collaboration and reporting features. Thanks for sharing different resources on virtual team.
December 30, 2011 at 1:35 am
[…] Project Management: Keys to managing a virtual or remote project team […]
January 19, 2012 at 8:43 am
I totally agree with Bruce that communication is one of the key if not the most important factor to a project management success. As a project manager, I constantly communicate with all my virtual team members through Skype. As for documents or files sharing, I use Dropbox because it is so convenient and it can be accessed across different platform such as PC, Mac, iPad and iPhone.
January 26, 2012 at 2:21 am
Great post Bruce, you have a very good insight about managing virtual teams. Managing virtual team is a great way to cut cost and go green. In order to manage virtual team you will need the right online tools and resources that will help you run your business to progress. Communications is also one of the key to virtual team. There are also different communication tools that can be use like Skype. Google Docs is also a tool that is very useful to virtual teams which allows you to share and manage documents, presentations, surveys, and spread sheets easily. I also found this article that discusses more information about managing remote teams and some alternative tools. Using these tools it can help you improve productivity, collaboration, project management and team communication.
March 10, 2012 at 1:33 am
Communication is though an important aspect but isn’t it great if everyone is aware of the conversation and everyone related to the job is in the loop, where tracking back the code is feasible. I think using an efficient PM tool will serve the purpose. I found BootStrapToday, http://www.bootstraptoday very useful in this. managing remote team seems very easy and transparent in it apart from it our s/w development team has benefited in terms of saving time and cost doing certain jobs like tracking and fixing bugs etc.
March 25, 2013 at 5:50 am
I work in a remote team for 10 years. At the beginning as a member, now as a team leader. I think the effectiveness of such a team is affected by many things. Trust, commitment, goodwill, support, satisfaction. People should fill that the belong to the team, that they are accepted and that they can rely on others. Communication is only a tool to achieving team goal. Besides, not every communication. Communication must be good: people should share real, reliable information. Communication can be enhanced by simple software. I should be easy to learn, use and customize. Recently, I have started to use http://kanbantool.com/remote-team-management-software. That is something I can recommend to you.
August 12, 2014 at 10:54 pm
Great insights Bruce McGraw! I love your thoughts about virtual project team. Thanks for this great article!