Project Management Institute

Change from afar


Annette Suh, PMI-RMP, PMP, AT&T Mobility, Redmond, Washington, USA

Navigating virtual team members through change—whether large or small—requires solid communication, implementation and follow-through.


From a simple restructuring of a team to a complex business acquisition that rattles a company's culture to its core, projects involving organizational change pose a challenge for project professionals leading virtual teams.

To successfully lead remote team members through an organizational change, project managers must find strategies to effectively communicate the purpose of the change and the implementation plan, and then ensure compliance.

“Too often, organizations view organizational change as a discrete event. Change is actually accomplished during the transitional period following an event, not at the point that something becomes different,” says Matthew Ferguson, a practice manager for ESI Consulting Group, ESI International, Arlington, Virginia, USA.

For virtual teams in particular, this transitional period is best managed through transparency, regular communication and, if possible, temporary transitional working arrangements, Mr. Ferguson says.

The payoff is well worth the effort: According to the 2011–2012 Towers Watson study Clear Direction in a Complex World, organizations that are highly effective at change management and communication are twice as likely to outperform their peers and eight times as likely to continue to exhibit new behaviors after a change is complete.

Project professionals know the importance of change management as well. In PMI's 2012 Pulse of the Profession report, more than 70 percent of respondents always or often use change management or risk management on their projects and programs.

But how do they manage the change when teams are virtual?

More than 70 percent of respondents always or often use change management or risk management on their projects and programs.

Source: PMI 2012 Pulse of the Profession


It's easy for remote workers to feel left out of the change process, says Edward Wallington, PhD, director of geospatial and environmental project management firm geoCognita Ltd., Richmond, North Yorkshire, England. “When a team is located in the same place, they can have a chat over coffee, catch up about goings-on, have an informal discussion about a work topic and ‘let off steam,’” he says. “This helps to build trust and rapport, and leads to a good working relationship, which is even more important during times of change.”

With the inherent uncertainty that comes with learning new ways of doing things, major change requires the support of other team members. Dr. Wallington says making time for “small talk” when communicating with virtual teams can go a long way when change is on the horizon; it's difficult for remote workers to feel as if they are part of the team when all they receive are work-related emails.

When Organizational Culture Gets in the Way


Matthew Ferguson, ESI International, Washington, DC, USA, offers these tips for overcoming cultural roadblocks to change for virtual teams:

Be patient Embrace that cultural change will be a process, not an event—especially for virtual teams who often wait for or don't have the opportunity for in-person training and who may not be part of the day-to-day decision process. Do not try and change the culture all at once.

Identify the martyrs “These are folks that will actively go against the change in a vocal fashion and with no regard for the potential consequences,” Mr. Ferguson warns. Some virtual team members may find it easier to be “vocal” via email, but be careful about their level of influence. Allow them to voice their opinions, but minimize their exposure to the team to avoid others modeling their resistance.

Address cultural issues head-on Don't be afraid to address known cultural traits that could negatively affect the change process, he says. “Try saying, ‘This new approach will require us to try things we have not considered before. Our group has a history of being risk-averse. In order to be successful, we must change that about ourselves.’ Bringing the culture into the light of day will allow employees to do something about it rather than take it as a given.”

Annette Suh, PMI-RMP, PMP, senior IT project manager consultant for AT&T Mobility in Redmond, Washington, USA, knows the challenge all too well. In her experience leading virtual teams through organizational change, she has found remote team members often are viewed as merely screen names or distant voices rather than real people. To ensure they feel part of the change effort, she shares pictures of team members through desktop sharing once virtual team members have interacted a bit and feel comfortable.

To help connect team members on a personal level, she arranges meetings with desktop sharing so they have something to view. “If they have a blank screen, you may not get any response from anyone,” she says. Confirming that virtual team members are actively involved during change projects also helps ensure understanding, commitment and compliance.

Organizations that are highly effective at change management and communication are twice as likely to outperform their peers and eight times as likely to continue to exhibit new behaviors after a change is complete.

Source: 2011–2012 Towers Watson study Clear Direction in a Complex World

Ralf Friedrich, PMP, CEO of German Project Solutions (GeProS) GmbH in Dieburg, Germany, suggests project managers host remote team training sessions in a virtual environment that include a get-to-know-you portion. This helps team members develop trust in one another.


To help connect virtual team members on a personal level, Annette Suh, PMI-RMP, PMP, AT&T Mobility, Redmond, Washington, USA, arranges meetings with desktop sharing so team members have something to view.

“If they have a blank screen, you may not get a response from anyone.”


For teams separated by distance, time zones and cultural differences, communicating change requires more hand-holding than with team members in the office next door.

“If I am asking for something new from the virtual team—i.e. reporting template, metrics, feedback on a new process—I would strongly consider using an alternative communication approach than I would have used before,” Mr. Ferguson says.

Previously, he requested weekly informal project status reports from his virtual consultants via email. He introduced a process change to use status report templates that asked for specific information and used a new financial coding.

“It would have been easy to replicate the email strategy and just send along a template,” he says. “But because I was asking for something new and different, I instead made the time for the first several weeks of the new reporting to go through the document together over the phone.”

This type of extra attention avoids confusion, broken communication and team members simply rejecting the change.


A recent project at ESI International involved reorganizing the North American consulting group in a way that would allow it to operate more collaboratively on a global level through the introduction of new processes, business rules and staff composition. This included the launch of three new organizational assessment tools for clients, a new project and cost-estimating process, and a new financial model that coded revenue and costs into new categories and reorganized the customer relationship management system to accept the new codes.

“It was a tricky situation because we needed to communicate the change and the purpose of the change in a medium that would be impactful for our virtual consultants,” Mr. Ferguson says.

He decided a temporary co-location would be the most beneficial way to communicate the reorganization. “We spent about a week together at the beginning of the change, and then a few days every month after for a period of about six months,” Mr. Ferguson says. He adds that the cost incurred to have such meetings helped emphasize the organizational importance of the change to team members.

From her home base in Maple Grove, Minnesota, USA, Shari McGuire, a senior IT project manager in the financial services industry for Kforce Inc., leads globally dispersed teams that have come together as a result of large-scale acquisitions and, hence, partial to complete company overhauls. She has found a middle ground for bringing together virtual teams to implement installation projects.

“When it comes time to install, we strategically place people in a couple of locations where users are going to be,” she says. “This makes the installation process run more smoothly by positioning key experts to be on hand to address questions and glitches immediately and in person.”

Whether teams are able to co-locate temporarily or must remain in a virtual environment, Mr. Friedrich recommends project managers develop a team constitution that defines rules of collaboration, expectations for leadership, feedback rules and the decision-making process.


How do you ensure compliance after a change is implemented? One of Ms. Suh's virtual teams went through a difficult leadership change with many team members resisting the new manager. To convince virtual team members to comply, she constantly reinforced the new manager's authority.

As a senior member of the team, she “backed up the new manager whenever he asked us to do something, and I ensured that the team fulfilled what he had asked for,” she says. After every meeting, she reinforced what he said.

To know if the team has complied with your change expectations, Mr. Ferguson suggests implementing on-site audits—despite how costly they may be. These audits help project managers clearly determine if compliance is taking place, show the root cause of any non-compliance and allow for remediation.

“Go to the virtual team members and spend some time walking around and observing what is happening,” he says. “Make sure you are clear that this is not a social visit or an activity to make them feel important. The less notice you can provide for the audit, the better.”

One way to curb non-compliance is to focus on celebrating those who accept the new line. “Project managers should take time in group team sessions to walk through good examples of the change being applied and congratulate those adopters,” Mr. Ferguson says. “In the end, people will comply once they internalize the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of a change. The project manager's role is to help them understand those two factors.” PM


In the end, people will comply once they internalize the “why” and the “how” of a change. The project manager's role is to help them to understand those two factors.

—Matthew Ferguson, ESI International, Washington, DC, USA

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