I recently led a team of like-minded and focused professionals on an entirely remote analysis and selection project for a large public-sector entity. At the end of the first key six month phase of the project, I had sent and received more than 4,000 emails, conducted 112 conference calls, had vendors put on more than 40 online demonstrations, and not one dollar was spent on travel or printing or delivery of materials of any kind. Green? Yes. Economical? Very! My new Macbook got initiated the hard way, but it’s still working just fine….
Virtual teams sounds like the way to go, right? Organizations could be saving millions of dollars and everyone can be working in their shorts and t-shirts all day. But there are the challenges that I’ve already mentioned above plus more. The bottom line for the project manager is this – how do you keep your globally dispersed team working together and staying focused on like-minded efforts to bring the project to a successful end while they are also still facing the challenges of often working on multiple initiatives at once? How do you garner their complete cooperation? How do you ensure they don’t go off on tangents with you not constantly looking over their shoulder?
I generally use the following five techniques or methods to keep my remote projects and teams running smoothly:
Setup a communication plan from the start
As much as we all hate producing the formal plans during the initial planning phases of the project, they can be beneficial. And since I firmly believe that efficient and effective communication is the top responsibility of the project manager, I likewise believe that a formal communication plan is a key document to have in place as the project kicks off. The communication plan says when and how key communication will happen on the project, when status meetings will take place, and it identifies who is responsible for each type of communication or meeting. It keeps all parties accountable for good, effective communication and lays the ground rules for the entire engagement.
Use a collaborative PM tool
The next step in building a cohesive team is selecting and using a PM collaboration tool that promotes 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. That 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.
Hold weekly internal team meetings
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 1-2 days in advance of a formal weekly meeting with the customer. That allows me to get status info from each team member, prep everyone for key discussion points during the customer call, and have all the info I need to get the customer a revised project schedule and current status report that will drive that formal weekly discussion. No surprises and a smooth customer meeting is usually the benefit from this effort.
Expect participation from each member on formal customer calls
The internal meeting gets me everything I need for the customer status call, but it also prepares the entire team. And expecting everyone to participate on the call in their area of expertise keeps everyone focused on what the tasks at hand are at any given moment.
Meet for major phase kickoffs
Finally, on most remote projects it’s wise to bring the entire team together for major phase kickoffs. Certainly the initial project kickoff is important – though the entire team may not be fully assembled at that point. 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.