Every year, more project managers are called on to lead virtual project teams. This trend is driven by several factors including the outsourcing, organizations operating at a global scale and improved technology. However, virtual teams pose special challenges for the project manager. Unless you take certain precautions and measures, a virtual team may end up costing more money and achieving fewer results than a traditional team.
Before we go further, let’s look at a few points showing the extent and importance of virtual teams and related trends such as telecommuting.
- Top Problems Facing Virtual Teams. Poor communication, lack of access to expertise and ineffective management were identified as top challenges facing virtual teams according to research reported at Projects At Work.
- Remote Teams Perceived As Less Effective. Researchers have identified the following problems in virtual teams: low individual commitment, role ambiguity, absenteeism and social loofing. In addition, some customers perceive virtual teams to be less reliable than traditional structures (Source: Communication and Trust in Global Virtual Teams).
- Over 1/3 of US staff telecommute to work. 37% of U.S. Workers are telecommuting in 2015 compared to 9% in the 1990s according to the Gallup organization. The average amount of telecommuting is two work from days per month.
- Remote Workers Are More Productive. The Globe & Mail reports, based on a summary of 2000 studies, that telecommuting workers are often more productive because of fewer distractions. More than 50% of telecommuters apply some of their commuting time to getting work done.
There is a lot to be gained from working with virtual teams and telecommuting. If you are excited by the benefits, use the following tips to reduce risk and set yourself up for success. As with any change to working arrangements, expect to encounter problems. That “expect principles” also applies if you are leading people who are brand new to the virtual team arrangement.
The Foundation To Prevent Virtual Team Failure
Setting the groundwork to lead an effective virtual team takes some planning. The best practices for your project will develop over time. By using these concepts, you will be able to avoid the the disconnect and disengagement that afflict some projects. This approach can also be used for an organization that is introducing or increasing work from home arrangements.
1. Review Team Experience With Virtual Work
As you prepare to lead a virtual work team, give some thought to the team’s experience. Look for tips and techniques that the experienced team members can share. In addition, remind yourself what it felt like to adapt to virtual work for the first time. Novice virtual workers are likely to face a challenge in becoming productive with the new arrangement. Make sure to ask your team whether or not they have experience with remote work, working with international staff and other key aspects of your project.
2. Check Tools and Training For Virtual Work
Virtual work arrangements require a certain set of tools in order to be successful. The tools need not be elaborate. For example, you may provide a 1-800 toll free phone number for conference calls. Offering that option will give your team members the chance to connect while avoid large phone bills. Developing the skills to be successful with these tools does take some practice. If you are going to use one of these tools to complete mission critical work, introduce the tool a few weeks ahead of the big meeting. That will lower everyone’s stress level.
Virtual Work Tools
- Skype. One of my favorite communication tools which I have used for years. I have found Skype helpful for 1-on-1 conversations by audio and video. You can also use it for group discussions and messaging. I have not used Skype for group discussions so I cannot speak to that point.
- Google Hangouts. This video broadcast tool is a simple way to broadcast video. If you are already using other Google services, this may be a good solution. Over the past year, I have made much use of the “free phone calls within North America” feature. The call quality isn’t perfect but one can hardly complain given the price point.
- Google Docs (or Microsoft Office 365). Are you still documents back and forth by email? That’s a frustrating way to operate when you have a virtual team. I have found Google’s spreadsheet and word processing applications to be a great solution. Microsoft Office 365 is a cloud based office productivity suite. While I am a long time Microsoft Office user, I have not used the “365” edition.
- Go To Meeting. As one of the longest lasting virtual meeting providers on the Web, there is a lot to be said for Citrix’s Go To Meeting. The product is compatible with mobile devices, supports HD video and permits you to record meeting sessions. I recently used Go To Webinar, also made by Citrix, and found it useful. I also had a good experience with Citrix’s customer service department when I phoned in with a few questions.
- Slack. This messaging and collaboration platform is becoming more and more platform. Notable Slack users include Harvard University, NASA, BuzzFeed and Dow Jones. It looks like an interesting tool. That said, I would be wary of relying entirely on a text based communication solution.
The above list of tool is a very short list of the many tools you could use. If your company already has certain collaboration tools in place (e.g. Microsoft Lync is becoming more widely available in many organizations), then start with using those. Ultimately, good habits and a commitment to communication make more of a difference than any specific technology.
3. Take The Lead By Testing Tools And Methods
Leadership researchers James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner found that leaders who go first earn greater respect from their teams. In that spirit, go first when you are starting a virtual work project. That means experimenting with all the technology yourself before you go any further. For the best results, here are three ways you can go first in testing your virtual work environment.
- Set Up Your Virtual Work Office. Whether you are working from home or a traditional office, your set up matters. Take the time to make sure all of your connections and hardware are fully operational. This step is particularly important if you are bringing company issued computers into your home office. In that case, additional testing and training may be needed to satisfy corporate security requirements.
- Test Your Virtual Work Applications. If you use any type of specialized applications in your work, it is vital to test those applications from different locations. I have seen corporate firewalls that block IP addresses and other restrictions. Often, these restrictions are not made clear until you attempt to use the service. If you are using applications beyond `off the shelf` productivity tools like Microsoft Office, testing is vital.
- Test Your Technical Support Service. Managing a group of people beyond the traditional office also means that accessing technical support is more challenging. For example, you have to speak with a specialized help desk regarding remote work or install specific software prior to starting the work. One great tip is to create a contact for your organization’s technical support department on your cell phone.
Taking the time to test the environment and support system will give you greater confidence in supporting your the rest of your virtual team.
What is the greatest challenge you have faced in leading virtual project teams?
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