Having all members of a project team in one place is mostly a luxury any more. It’s happened to me once in the past seven years. It’s almost unheard of if you’re working for a company with more than one location and any international or work from home employees. It just doesn’t make sense to go to extreme measures to co-locate an entire team for one project – especially when so many project professionals work on more than one project at a time (sometimes as many as five or more).
So, given this, virtual project teams seem like the way to go, right? Organizations can save millions of dollars and everyone can be working in their shorts and t-shirts all day. But this scenario isn’t without its own challenges that must be planned for and addressed. The key for the project manager is to keep a globally dispersed project team fully engaged and communicating effectively with each other and the customer. And to keep the customer confidence high when they are working with a project team that they may never see – or at least may never see the whole team – during the course of the engagement.
To this end, I usually focus on the following five methods to keep a virtual team and project running as smooth as possible from beginning to end. It isn’t without some bumps along the way, but it does usually work pretty well…
#1 – Plan up front how project communication will happen. That upfront planning may seem expensive and time consuming – and it can be – but don’t skip it. And in the case of a remote project – where communication is critical – spend some time putting together a formal communication plan and present it to the project customer for signoff. It will boost their confidence and give you and your team a plan to be held accountable to.
#2 – Use a good tool that is easy to learn and collaborate on. The next step in building a cohesive team is selecting and using a project management tool that is easy for the team to use and provides a means for project collaboration. Using a collaborative tool promotes full team participation, updating of tasks that team members have direct responsibility for, and serves as a quick communication tool that allows for status updates and discussions among team members beyond the usual email experience. It can be a web-based, cost-effective tool, or a combination of a PM tool and a social media offering with a private group created for your project team collaboration. Whatever works for your project is fine, but it must promote ongoing communication and cooperation among team members.
#3 – Meet weekly with your internal project team. It’s not all about status meetings with the customer. Before that can even happen you need the most up to date information from your team that you can possibly get. To that end, I always conduct weekly internal team meetings a day or two in advance of a formal weekly meeting with the customer. That way I have their current task progresses and can know what issues to expect will need discussion on the upcoming weekly customer call.
#4 – Expect everyone to participate with the customer. The internal meeting gets me everything I need for the customer status call, but it also prepares the entire team. A good PM should also rely on his team to interact with the customer. It builds their customer-facing expertise and helps build and maintain customer confidence in the effectiveness of the team as a whole.
#5 – Meet face to face at critical phases. Finally, on most remote projects it’s wise to bring the entire team together for major phase kickoffs or key project milestones. Project kickoffs, user acceptance testing (UAT), major deliverables, deployment, etc…these are some key milestones that come to mind. Large, long term projects usually have several major phases where you have an opportunity to bring the team together with each other and the customer. It’s a good time to regroup and refresh and gain new focus on the next phase of the project.
Call for input
Let’s hear from our readers. Do you regularly manage geographically dispersed teams? How do you keep them focused and engaged? What has worked and what hasn’t? How do you alleviate customer concerns with teams they don’t see often or may never see?