Managing virtual teams is a skill. You can learn how to do it better, but getting the best out of a virtual team takes practice.
Let’s give you a head start. I spoke to five experienced project managers about how they manage virtual teams.
Here is what they had to say about making working virtually a success.
I have gone to great lengths at times to actually meet someone in person. This is particularly true of suppliers that don’t want to come in. I go there instead. The cost is worth it, especially if they are international.
We are increasingly working with European suppliers. Meeting them seems to be the key and conferences are good opportunities for this.
Paul Nicholson, MBCS, UK
Keep the lines of communication open. Meet face-to-face either in person or via video conferencing as often as possible. Even conference calling is better than relying solely on emails.
Listen carefully to what the team are saying and seek clarification if things aren’t crystal.
Helen Curel, UK
Oooh, difficult one... This is a subject where I know I have lots to learn, but:
Communication is key. Regular update calls, followed up with action task lists specifying who is doing what and by when. Don’t assume anything is being taken care of. Always double check.
Claire Sezer, FCILEx, UK
One-on-one calls are important when you have a virtual team. Dealing with a problem or individual task follow-up on a team call that you could have resolved with a phone call to one or two team members wastes everyone else’s time.
The Common Theme: Communicate!
Virtual working is often chosen because it has a stack of benefits, not least that it can be cheaper as there are no office overheads, less requirement to travel and you can use outsourced (i.e. cheaper) resources from wherever in the world is best placed to provide them.
As you can see, communicating is a key strand that runs through all these pieces of advice. A virtual team needs as much, if not more communication than a co-located team. Reducing the ‘virtual-ness’ of a team will help them gel much faster and give you a greater insight into how to get them working together productively so that the work can progress at pace.
Got any other tips for making virtual teams work successfully and not just turn into a cost-cutting exercise? Let us know in the comments below.
I was at the PMI Global Congress EMEA in Dublin last this week and I attended a presentation by Dr Penny Pullan about making the best of virtual meetings. In my last article I wrote about why we have so many virtual meetings – some people attending the presentation were spending over 20 hours per week in virtual meetings – and also the frustrations project team members have when they are participating in virtual meetings.
If virtual meetings are so bad, but we have to do them for cost and other reasons, what can we do t make them better?
“If you put in a little bit of really focused preparation you can improve them,” Penny said. Here are some tips from her presentation to improve your virtual project meetings.
What time is it?
Don’t make project team members in India stay up late for a conference call with the USA contingent unless you really have to. If you do have to, find a way to minimise the impact – do it as early in the day for the USA people as possible. Use this meeting time calculator to find the most convenient time.
Is the technology available?
Penny spoke about working in West Africa when the only technology available to her project team was the phone network. Don’t organise virtual meetings when some participants won’t have the ability to participate because the technical infrastructure isn’t available or reliable.
Can the participants use the technology?
Even in places where the technology is available and reliable, you may have some project team members who are uncomfortable using it. If they don’t know how the web conferencing software works, they will slow down the meeting for everyone else and the project team members who are technically literate will lose interest. Ask a tech-savvy person to sit with anyone who is not comfortable using the computer or the video conferencing suite. It doesn’t have to be a project team member: their PA or a desktop engineer from IT would also be able to ‘drive’ it for them until they are used to it.
What would it cost to fail?
If the meeting is to discuss something critical, what would the impact be if the meeting is not a success? If you are trying to recover a failing project, or discussing bug fixes that will stop the next software release, or gaining agreement on anything that has the ability to have a significant impact on your project, stop and think about whether a virtual meeting is the right way to go. If the cost of failure is more than the cost of travel, bring everyone together and have the meeting face-to-face.
Can you split it?
“You can do short things quickly virtually,” Penny said. But if you have lots to do and meetings that will go on for a while, it is better to meet face-to-face. She recommended an hour and a half as the longest time to spend on a virtual meeting. If you need to meet for longer than that, factor in some breaks. Give people the chance to put down the phone and stretch their legs. It takes a lot of effort to focus in a virtual meeting, and long stretches will impact the productivity and energy levels of the project team.
What else do you do to manage the impact of virtual meetings?
Meeting virtually means conference calls, webinars, video calls, and any type of discussion where you are not in the same room as the person or people you are talking to.
Travelling to meet someone face-to-face normally incurs a cost. In several of my previous companies we have had multiple buildings in the same town and the ability to walk between them – but even that takes time. And time is money.
A few years ago, there perhaps wasn’t the driver to cut down on travel, but now there are many reasons why project teams would choose to meet virtually.
Penny listed some drivers for virtual meetings from her research:
She summarised that more people are working virtually for a number of different reasons. So why do we all still fall asleep on conference calls?
Penny went on to describe the frustrations that project teams had raised with her when asked to attend a virtual meeting. They said:
With all those issues plaguing project conference calls and virtual meetings, it is a wonder that we get anything done on the phone or via video conference at all. Penny had some suggestions for how to improve virtual project meetings, and I’ll talk about them next time. In the meantime, what other reasons for conference calls or frustrations with virtual meetings do you have to add to these lists?
Do you need to work effectively when you're not face to face? Project teams are often made up of people who don’t work in the same office. Travelling around for meetings is expensive, so project managers can cut costs by working virtually – for example, using conference calls and online meeting tools to make the most of virtual meetings.