Project Management: Keys to managing a Virtual project team

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.

Skills needed to manage teams including remote teams.

Skills needed to manage project teams including remote teams

(Enlarged View)

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.

Useful Links:

* Note – Updated these links for some new places.

Role of Project Managers in Change Management

Because change is an organizational constant affecting everyone, we assume everyone knows about change management.  However change management requires more than the natural flow of change in an organization. Change management (emphasis on the management) begins with a desired behavioral outcome and works methodically toward that goal by re-shaping an organization’s culture or way of doing business.

Change management — it’s hard to do
If you have ever tried to change your own behavior—quit smoking, stick with a diet, exercise more, relax, spend more time with your family—you know is it a constant challenge even when the reasons to change are extremely persuasive. It is even harder by a factor of 10 when trying to change the behavior of an organization. But it can be done and project managers have a significant role to play in making the change successful.

Why is change so difficult?
“It involves overcoming initial resistance or inertia and shifting or dismantling the existing ‘mindset’. Defense mechanisms have to be bypassed, fears recognized and dealt with.”  (Article by: Joaquim P. Menezes in ITWorld Canada). Continuing in his article on Why Managing Change is Difficult, he reports that: “Last year, in an IBM survey of 765 CEOs, more than 80 per cent admitted their organizations haven’t been very successful at managing change in the past.” OK – so Why?

  • The known is comfortable
  • Change requires thought ; many behaviors are automatic and require no conscious effort
  • Some people resist change in principle
  • Change is scary—you don’t know what you will win or lose
  • You may fail in the new world order

How project managers can facilitate (manage) change
Your role will differ depending on whether the change is your idea or is coming from higher in the organization. What you can do and the most effective way to do it also depends on the nature of the change. Is it a change in process or a change in culture?

Process change lends itself to proof of concept and numerical evidence. If a new way to organize a team, define a project, or use a new tool set is the change you want to manage, you can develop persuasive documentation and examples to prod people along. You can also provide training and support to smooth the transition to a new way of doing business.

  • Gather data on before-and-after that is relevant to your project objectives
  • Provide a role model
  • Recognize and reward examples of the desired new behaviors
  • Be a teacher or mentor
  • Remember that learning new processes and tools takes time—practice patience

Changing corporate culture is more challenging. 
Folks who have been around project management for a long time—perhaps they even have a bit of gray in their hair 😉 have seen sweeping culture changes in both organizational management styles (Theory X, Theory Y, Theory Z) and organizations in general (more women and minorities in powerful positions, 24/7 availability, rising individualism, remote access to staff, services and training). Or, the need to change may reflect new economic or social realities or the requirements of new organizational leaders.

When organizational leaders want cultural change, they look to their key staff, such as project managers, to get onboard and support the change. Project managers become change managers, too. The Project manager’s role requires:

  • Understanding the required cultural change and its rationale
  • Learning how the success of the cultural change will be measured and sharing that information with your team
  • Developing a plan that includes objectives, explanations, communication, and measurable goals
  • Brainstorming with your staff on methods, techniques, and behaviors to come into compliance
  • Pushing gently in the new direction while acknowledging previous behaviors
  • Teaching and mentoring using encouragement, stories, and a sense of humor
  • Seeking assistance from change management experts either in your own HR department or asking for outside training
  • Balancing rewards and discipline—always remembering that change is difficult and frightening for some people
  • Giving feedback and being open to getting feedback

ITWorld Canada
Why Managing Change is Difficult by Joaquim P. Menezes
Managing Cultural Changes in Your Organization by Dr. Kenneth D. Shere, The Aerospace Corporation
Management: Theory X, Y, and Z

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