Managing Virtual Teams
One of the more difficult aspects of project management in a global economy is the global work team. Culture, language, geography, and time are all separators that must be planned into project management if your stakeholders are to have realistic expectations of the additional time and effort required of virtual teams. Each of the separators can be overcome if you are willing to make the investment of time and, in some cases, money, needed to manage virtual teams.
Managing virtual teams across time zones
You are in Boston, but a third of your virtual team is in California and another third is in India. How do you conduct your weekly project management status meeting? While it may not be ideal, some meetings require the presence of team members from diverse locations. As a general rule, you don't want to invite people to a meeting if their presence is not important; on virtual teams, even more attention needs to be paid to this rule. Once you have determined that you do need everyone to meet, plan to share the pain. By this, I mean that nobody on your virtual team should be staying up until 2 o’clock in the morning just because it is more convenient for you. A simple solution to a 10½- to 13½-hour time difference is to have someone work a little later while others get up a little earlier than usual (for example, 6:00 AM in Los Angeles is 9:00 AM in Boston and 7:30 PM in Mumbai). If you rotate the role of early riser on a weekly or monthly basis, you are truly sharing the pain.
Geography and virtual team project management
If you can’t see each other face-to-face, how can you create a WBS, a network diagram, and a risk register? Each of these deliverables usually requires a brainstorming session with subject matter experts present. Can you bring the project management team to you? If the rest of your virtual team is in Eastern Europe, get your passport ready. While it may be expensive to get the team together, consider the time required to develop a WBS on a conference call or via e-mail. Also consider the costs associated with missing a key deliverable, activity, or risk. In the article The High Cost of Low Quality, I quoted Philip Crosby, who stated, “Quality is free. It’s not a gift, but it is free. What costs money are the unquality things—all the actions that involve not doing jobs right the first time.”
Communication and language
When working with people whose native language is not your own, there is a risk of miscommunication. With collocated teams, nonverbal cues help us understand the meaning and intent of the spoken word. Now that virtual teams are commonly placed anywhere in the world, nonverbal cues have disappeared. Spending extra time validating understanding is important when you cannot see or interpret facial expressions. Using video conferencing or the latest video technology is also an option. Even with that arrangement, when managing virtual teams, expect and plan for delays caused by miscommunication.
Managing cultural differences across virtual teams
Part of what defines a culture is the shared experiences. To help cross the divide, start each meeting with someone from the virtual team telling a story from their region, state, country, or from their part of the project. The personal nature of storytelling increases the understanding of individual differences and highlights project management challenges common to all people. An extra benefit is that people like stories; a story will encourage their complete attention during the meeting and their on-time arrival.
Virtual teaming is an extra complexity our predecessors didn’t face. Regardless of the environment, however, proper planning, realistic expectations, and executive project management support can lead to success.