Best practices for managing and developing virtual project teams

Abstract

Managing teams in general is wrought with many challenges when you consider, for example, the various personalities on the team and the fact that likely many of your team members are working on other initiatives beside the project you are leading. Throw a virtual team into the mix and you pile on the challenges! Now you are dealing with a variety of cultural backgrounds, team members who may never actually meet face-to-face, and time zone differences that make scheduling meetings a challenge in and of themselves.

The increased complexity of managing virtual project teams requires strong team leadership! This paper will provide best practices for managing virtual project teams — from kicking off the project team through to keeping the team engaged and moving forward and capturing lessons learned to make the ride a bit smoother the next time around.

Introduction

Virtual project teams add a level of complexity to any project, because team members

  • Come from multiple global offices
  • Are represented by diverse time zones
  • Have a variety of cultural backgrounds
  • Include vendors, partners, and customers
  • Use a variety of processes to get the work done

Managing the team is that much more difficult and requires strong leadership to ensure ultimate project (and team) success. The individual who can effectively lead, guide, and nurture virtual project teams is that individual who:

  • Inspires others to do their best possible work
  • Builds strong relationships throughout the team and with key stakeholders
  • Can facilitate strong personalities and problem solving, conflicts, and decision-making sessions
  • Is a coach and mentor
  • Can motivate and keep the team engaged
  • Fosters an atmosphere of collaboration and cooperation
  • Shares information openly, honestly, and regularly
  • Have the connections necessary to remove barriers so that team members can accomplish their work

Additionally, effective team leaders understand the variety of cultural backgrounds represented on the team and how those cultural backgrounds impact how the individual works in a team-based environment. A few simple best practices in preparing early for your team's success — and ultimately your project's success — and in managing the performance of your team throughout the project will enable you to be effective managing virtual project teams. Additionally, the use of technology-supported communication and collaboration tools are essential to enable virtual teams to effectively work together when they are not co-located.

In this paper, we'll look at best practices for kicking off the project team to ensure that everyone is moving in the same direction with the same goals and objectives in mind, through to effectively managing the day-to-day performance of the team, including challenges that arise, while keeping team members engaged and committed and then sharing the successes and using the lessons learned effectively on your next virtual project.

Certainly, similar to other teams, virtual teams fail when they have no clear goals for the project and there are no clearly defined roles and responsibilities. But, even more so, virtual teams fail when time is not invested in enabling the team to get to know each other, developing strong working relationships, and learning how to work together effectively in a virtual environment to meet the requirements of the project. This is what this paper will focus on.

Kicking Off the Virtual Project Team and Learning to Work Together

Pull together a team that includes individuals with diversity in experiences, skills, and knowledge. Additionally, diversity in race, gender, and cultural differences enables a broader perspective and innovative approaches to accomplishing the work of the project. To help get a virtual project team started on the right path, spend some time up front “kicking off” the project team. I differentiate kicking off the virtual project team from kicking off the project. In this initial virtual project team kick-off meeting, I get the team excited about the opportunities ahead of them, the project overall, and what they will accomplish, along with helping them to build strong working relationships with each other. Then we actually start on the work of the project. It may take some getting buy-in from senior leadership in an organization to spend some time up front enabling the team to get to know each other, but it is well worth the effort and the benefits are many.

In the ideal environment, and especially with strategic projects, make the business case to get the team together face-to-face at least in the beginning of the initiative. While certainly face-to-face is preferable, don't skip this all important initial kick off meeting if it can't be done in person! A virtual team meeting is your next best option. Whether you are meeting face-to-face or virtually, as a best practice, be sure that your initial team kick off meeting enables for some social time so that team members get to know each other on a personal level. Certainly you will cover the usual tasks — assigning roles and responsibilities, sharing project goals and objectives, determining how problems will be handled and decisions made, what technologies will be used to support the team's efforts, a schedule for team meetings, use of voicemail, email and instant messaging, use of technology for team meetings, and how the team will communicate with each other and with stakeholders. The social component of the initial virtual team kick off meeting enables for the start of building strong working relationships that provide for commitment to the project and to the project team members overall. It is much more difficult to ignore others when you have established a relationship with them.

There are a variety of activities you can do in this initial team meeting, whether face-to-face or virtual, including introductions that go beyond the basics to include asking team members to complete one of the following statements:

  • I take pride in _________________________.
  • A rewarding project is one that __________________.
  • What frustrates me the most is ___________________________.
  • My favorite sport is ________________________________.
  • The best thing that happened to me this week is _______________________.

These simple statements provide insight and help to establish connections between your virtual team members. Additional questions to consider for your virtual team to build relationships and establish connections include:

  • What is the one thing you would like the rest of the team to know about you?
  • Tell a funny story!
  • What do you like the most/miss about your place of birth?

In order to understand how to work effectively together, consider asking the team members to respond to the following:

  • Tell the group how you like to work with others on a team. What is important to you?
  • Tell the group about one person you really enjoyed working with. What was so great about working with that person?
  • The best attribute I bring to this team is ____________________.
  • I am most motivated and engaged when _______________________.

As a best practice to increasing the effectiveness and commitment of virtual project teams, as a group develop a Team Charter to provide team members clarity around the purpose, mission, and goals of the team and create a shared vision and processes. Additionally, consider Team Operating Guidelines and Norms that enable virtual teams to clarify how they will work together effectively on the project and how they will interact with each other, pass work, and share responsibilities.

Learning to work together as a team does not happen overnight; and for virtual teams, the process is longer and often wrought with roadblocks along the way! It is hard to feel accountable to someone you don't personally know and don't interact with regularly. Therefore, this initial virtual team kick-off meeting is essential to getting the team moving in the right direction fairly quickly. Virtual teams in particular identify with others of their own cultural background, department/business unit, and geographical location more so than with the team as a whole. Spending time as part of your initial team meeting get together to understand and appreciate each other's diversity is essential to successfully working together in a virtual environment. As with any team, however, individuals want the team to succeed as a whole and need to be provided the tools and support in order to find their place on the virtual project team.

Not only should your virtual team leave this initial team kick-off meeting with a thorough understanding of the project and its deliverables, but also with a clear understanding of how the team will function as a whole, supporting each other to accomplish the goals of the project in a virtual environment.

Best Practices for Managing Day-to-Day Activities

A challenge for virtual team leaders is managing the day-to-day activities of the team. When you are not co-located, you can't simply walk over to a team member's office and “check in.” And with global teams, it is not always easy to pick up the phone to make a quick call, especially when time zones are over 8 hours apart.

Consider the use of a collaboration portal, such as Microsoft SharePoint® or any number of other tools, in order to more easily manage the day-to-day activities of the project team. Such tools enable virtual project teams to more easily communicate, share information, and have a “meeting place” for the team as they work through the project.

Use the portal to upload and share status reports, ask questions, and provide support to each other in solving problems.

Other information on the portal may include:

  • Project information, such as the Charter, Scope Statement
  • Status reports
  • Project schedule/timeline
  • Project documentation
  • Tools and templates
  • Special project team member information (e.g., software specialists)
  • Organization-wide “go to” people and resources
  • Document sharing capabilities/white boarding
  • Best practices and processes for the team

Also essential in effectively managing the day-to-day activities of the team is preparing for and facilitating virtual team meetings. To ensure virtual team meetings are effective, you must spend a significant amount of time preparing for the meeting and using your leadership and facilitation skills to ensure that you accomplish the objectives of the meeting, every team member participates, and decisions can be made. As a best practice, alternate times for team meetings to accommodate vast differences in time zones and consider audio recordings for those who cannot attend. Conduct effective and efficient virtual team meetings by following a few simple best practices:

  • Determine meeting goals
  • Identify agenda items, including timing for discussions
  • Prioritize the agenda with items that require more discussions to reach consensus at the top and lower priority items at the bottom
  • Include a “round robin” discussion at the end with 5 to 10 minutes set aside for each team member
  • Send the agenda ahead of time to all participants
  • Test the meeting technology
  • Start the meeting on time and record the meeting
  • Assign a timekeeper and a notes taker (alternative for each meeting or have an administrative person who takes on this role)
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of the meeting at the end (this is especially critical for virtual team meetings to ensure that everyone felt he or she was able to participate, there is confidence and a level of comfort around decisions that were made, and objectives were accomplished to everyone' satisfaction)

Remember — facilitation and processes and procedures around virtual team meetings are essential; it is harder to manage a team meeting when it is done remotely.

Communication and Collaboration Best Practices

Collaboration is essential on virtual project teams. Determine an appropriate use of technology to more effectively communicate and collaborate among a diverse group of virtual team members. A variety of technologies may be considered, depending on the nature of collaboration required at specific points within the project. For example, email is effective for sharing information and getting questions answered but not for problem solving or decision making. The team would be better served by using a collaboration site or portal for such situations.

Here is a simple chart (Exhibit 1) that shows the most appropriate technology for the situation:

Note: Somewhat effective assumes the session is well facilitated by the team leader.

Appropriate Use of Technology (Duarte and Snyder, 2006, p 171)

Exhibit 1 – Appropriate Use of Technology (Duarte and Snyder, 2006, p 171)

Use of simple templates such as individual team member status reports and communication plans that include details around needs of communicating, channels for communications and expected response times enable for more effective communication among virtual project team members. While communications are absolutely essential on any project team, they are even more essential for virtual project teams and require some planning on your part to ensure that communications meet the needs of the project and the project team. Especially with global teams communications can be challenging and inconsistent. As a best practice, work with the virtual team members to determine communications most appropriate for them given their location and participation on the project. Considering communicating via a variety of channels — email, phone, instant messaging, virtual meetings, collaboration portals, social media — in order to support all team members and their communication needs. In addition, regular social communication — not simply about the project and progress on the project — is absolutely necessary to keep that “team” feeling and build on your initial virtual team kick off meeting.

Engaging Your Virtual Project Team and Keeping Them Motivated

As the team leader, regularly reach out to your virtual team members, one-on-one, to check in on progress and to ensure that team members continue to move in the right direction. It is essential to keep tabs on virtual team members, because issues that arise and are not handled immediately can derail a project very quickly. An understanding of the four stages of team development (see Exhibit 2 below) helps to guide your virtual team to a point where they are collaborating effectively, passing off work from one team member to another and problem solving and making decisions for the good of the project overall. Let's briefly look at each stage and how the project manager would support the team through the four stages. (Blog: Abudi, “The Five Stages of Team Development: Every Team Goes Through Them!” 2009)

Tucker's Four Stages of Team Development

Exhibit 2 – Tucker's Four Stages of Team Development

Stage 1 – Forming: As the team leader, you should be providing direction and clarity to the team about the project, the objectives, and deliverables. In this stage, work with the virtual team to set roles and responsibilities and establish team norms. Processes and procedures for making decisions, resolving conflict and solving problems is essential. In stage 1, the virtual team is dependent on the team leader to guide them.

Stage 2 – Storming: All teams move through the storming stage and without guidance from the team leader, a team may never leave this stage and will be in constant conflict, unmotivated, disengaged, and failing to meet the objectives of the project. The team leader can help the team move past this stage by ensuring that team members are listening to each, sharing information, and participating in discussions.

Stage 3 – Norming: In this stage, the team is working together more effectively. Each member has found his or her place on the team and they are following processes and procedures. They support each other and problem solve and resolve conflicts effectively, with guidance from the team leader as necessary, to ensure the project keeps moving in the right direction. Technology is used effectively and efficiently to help the virtual team stay connected.

Stage 4 – Performing: A high performing virtual team sees limited, if any, difficulty with not being co-located. They are a cohesive team, supportive of each other's efforts, aware and sensitive to time zone differences, and embrace the various cultural identities of team members. Limited oversight of the team is required. The team leader may serve as the gateway between the team and the sponsor/stakeholders to ensure that the team gets what they need to do their job.

To keep a virtual team motivated and engaged, be sure to celebrate successes and milestones regularly. For example, consider any of the following to keep a virtual team “connected:”

  • Use a team site/portal to post and share best practices, problem-solve as a team, celebrate milestones being met, thank team members for pitching in and helping others, and to generally support each other's efforts on the project.
  • For longer projects, consider monthly birthday celebrations for team members; possibly arranging for a small cake at each remote site to celebrate that team member.

In one successful multinational virtual team project I led, we started each Monday with a question to enable team members to continue to develop relationships through learning something new about each other on a regular basis. This information was shared through the company portal. Each team member selected a question to ask each week to learn more about his or her fellow team members. We found it kept the team engaged, especially when each team member needed to come up with a new question rather than asking the team leader to be the one who took the lead.

Any of these methods, along with regular check-ins with your team, enables for continued engagement on the project, keeping virtual team members motivated to keep performing at their best, supporting their teammates to meet the objectives of the project.

Best Practices for Managing Virtual Team Performance

To effectively manage a virtual team's performance you must have processes and procedures around:

  • Effective discussions/problem solving
  • Managing conflicts
  • Reporting on status

In virtual team environments, it is essential to have agreed upon processes and procedures to ensure effectiveness in resolving issues and reporting on the project to ensure the project keeps moving forward toward a successful conclusion. Let's look briefly at best practices in each of these areas.

Effective discussions/solving problems: Prepare for discussions around solving problems or making decisions on the project by ensuring all virtual team members have sufficient and relevant background information on the issue to be discussed and are tasked with coming to the virtual team meeting with two or three ideas to share with others. At the meeting:

  • Define the purpose of the discussion
  • Set ground rules for the discussion
  • Initiate the discussion with the question to be considered/problem to be solved
  • During the discussion: clarify understanding of virtual team members' comments, use a round robin approach to ensure full participation, summarize at regular intervals to ensure continued understanding
  • When no additional new and usable information is forthcoming during the discussion, move forward with making a decision

Managing conflicts: Establish guidelines for how conflicts will be managed and resolved on the virtual team. Consider whether the conflict:

  • Is affecting the performance of many of the team members
  • Is affecting the project overall and the ability of the team to meet the project's goals
  • Is interfering with regular communications
  • Has been going on for a while, with no resolution in sight.

In such situations, the conflict must be resolved by the team as a whole. Take these best practice steps to ensure effective collaboration to resolve conflicts in virtual team environments:

  • Set ground rules for the conflict resolution discussion
  • State the conflict to be resolved in clear, neutral, nonjudgmental language, ensuring understanding by all team members
  • Discuss any areas of agreement and areas of disagreement
  • Use a round robin technique to discuss the areas of disagreement, facilitating to ensure virtual team members listen to each other's point of view.
  • Develop alternatives to resolving the conflict
  • Evaluate win-win solutions and agree on a solution
  • Establish an action plan to implement the solution

Status reporting: Consistency around how virtual team members will report on the status of their tasks is essential to keeping the project moving toward a successful conclusion. Keep reporting simple by asking individual team members to complete a status report for discussion at virtual team meetings. As a best practice, ask each team member to report on:

  • Activities to be done within a specified time period (from one virtual team meeting to the next, for example)
  • Activities that have been accomplished in that same time period
  • Any activities that are behind schedule
  • Any issues encountered (even if resolved, this is a great opportunity to capture information for lessons learned and to share with other virtual team members)
  • Any other issues to be discussed (team member issues, stakeholder issues, lack of necessary resources, etc.)
  • Information or data needed to continue their progress on their component of the project

This information can be used by you to report on status to the sponsor and other key stakeholders.

Additionally, it is essential to provide regular feedback on the performance of your virtual team members. Through regular communications and “one-on-ones” with team members, you'll have an early warning on issues that are more difficult to see coming on virtual teams. As a best practice, provide your virtual team members feedback on good and questionable performance. When performance is lacking, be specific so that you can get the team member back on track. If you spent time with the team, helping them to build strong relationships, you may find that you can get the support from another team member. When performance is good, highlight the successes to the rest of the team!

You can only provide feedback on performance when you have an understanding of the capabilities of your individual team members and of the team as a whole. Checking in regularly during the early stages of the project enables you to ensure you have the right team members in the right roles to meet the goals of the project.

Evaluate performance of the team as a whole by asking the team regularly:

  • What are we doing well as a team?
  • What are the areas in which we need to do better as a team?

Even if a project is moving along well and the virtual team is functioning effectively, do not stop checking in! Regular performance review meetings are essential to the continued engagement and motivation of virtual project teams.

As a best practice, consider the portal/collaboration site as a location to announce outstanding team member contributions and efforts to support the project and each other. Highlight the successes!

Evaluating Success and Lessons Learned

At the end of the project, as a last virtual team meeting, capture lessons learned from the team. Focus on the virtual team environment and how work was accomplished when team members were not co-located. Ask:

  • What was done well?
  • What could be done better next time?
  • What did they enjoy about working on a virtual project team?
  • What disappointed them about working on a virtual project team?

Review the technology used to facilitate the project work. What worked effectively? What technologies did not meet requirements? Were the right tools (email, videoconference, teleconference) used at the right time to share information, resolve problems, brainstorm, and so forth?

Review the initial virtual team kick-off meeting. Was sufficient time spent on discussing the project goals and objectives overall and in getting to know other team members and was that time spent wisely? On a future project, what might be done to most effectively kick off a virtual project team?

Certainly we want to measure whether the project delivered what it was intended to, on budget and within scope and on time; but don't forget the inner workings of the virtual project team and how that contributed to the success (or shortcomings) of the project.

Summary

Managing virtual, remote teams — whether global, regional or just across town from each other — has a number of challenges that co-located teams do not have. Once you add in individuals from a variety of cultural backgrounds, you add to your challenges in leading such teams.

Your best approach in leading such teams is to be proactive! Prepare ahead of time before you get the team together (whether in person or virtually) for the first meeting. Certainly you'll want to cover the objectives of the project during your initial team meeting, but even more importantly here, enable the team to get to know each other.

Spend some time prior to the initial meeting to learn about the team members who will be working with you on this initiative. What are their backgrounds? Introduce yourself to the team via email and provide some background information about yourself and ask for some information about them. Be sure you understand the cultural nuances of the individuals on the virtual team. Remember — when you can build strong relationships with your team members, and they can build a relationship with you, commitment to the project and each other is increased.

While there are many challenges in working with virtual teams — there are many more rewards!

References

Abudi, G. (2009). The five stages of team development: Every team goes through them! (Parts I and II). Retrieved from http://www.ginaabudi.com/the-five-stages-of-team-development-part-i/ and http://www.ginaabudi.com/the-five-stages-of-team-development-part-ii/

Bennarz, T. (2011). Managing virtual teams in a global economy. Wisconsin: Marjorium Business Press.

Derosa, D., & Lepsinger, R. (2010). Virtual team success: A practical guide for working and leading from a distance. California: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Duarte, D., & Snyder, N. (2006), Mastering virtual teams: Strategies, tools and techniques that succeed, 3rd Edition. California: Jossey-Bass.

Fisher, K., & Fisher, M. (2011). Manager's guide to virtual teams. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hayden, T. (2009). Coffee talk: A nano sized teambuilding game. Canada: Tyler Hayden.

Zofi, Y. (2012). A manager's guide to virtual teams. New York: Amacom.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

©2012, Gina Abudi, MBA
Originally published as part of 2012 the PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Vancouver, BC, Canada

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