Out of office
by Simon Kent
Project managers have to go where the projects are—and sometimes that means setting up shop somewhere other than the home office. Yet while globetrotting adds a certain flair to the résumé, it also comes with a fair amount of risk. Not only do project managers have to contend with unfamiliar surroundings and cultural differences, they also have to find ways to make sure all their hard work doesn't go unnoticed.
That requires a clear line of communication between the team on location and the one at home, says Joss Marsh, a management consultant at Sovereign Business Integration plc, an IT consulting firm in London, England.
Mr. Marsh is currently leading several major projects for the International Bank of Qatar. While on site, he keeps the head office up to speed with the project by establishing and strictly maintaining a single point of contact between the two locations.
“I talk to one person at headquarters about everything, and likewise any management communication from headquarters to the customer comes through me first,” he says. “That has been really important for managing the customer account and the overall project.”
With boundaries set, Mr. Marsh and his team can benefit from the full array of resources—while at the same time ensuring everyone back in the London office is receiving the same message about the project's progress.
Of course, things can get more complicated as the borders expand.
Just ask Karen Jahnke, PMP, founder and managing partner of Triumvirate Consulting Group, Waukesha, Wisconsin, USA. She led a project between December 2006 and 2008 to deliver a major IT and operational process implementation for manufacturer Rockwell Automation.
The team line-up was like something out of a geography textbook. Her employer was headquartered in Dallas, Texas, USA, but Ms. Jahnke's direct manager was in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. The client's global headquarters were in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, while the project's actual decision-makers were split between Cleveland, Ohio, USA and Argentina.
To keep everyone on track, Ms. Jahnke created an internal report card that formed the basis of a weekly check-in to her headquarters—and kept the project and the team in the spotlight.
TIP Project managers looking to remain part of the international jet set have to prove they can easily adapt to any situation. “The [issue] is always the cultural element,” says Michael Boyle, international project manager at BCD Travel.
Based in Vienna, Austria, Mr. Boyle has managed diverse projects across Europe for the past decade.
“The key is empathy,” he says. “I spend a lot of time ensuring I understand the local needs and making sure everyone within a project understands the importance of this approach.”
no passport required
Not all projects come with a massive travel budget—especially these days. Sometimes project managers have to conduct their on-site visits virtually. Yet even with the influx of fancy conferencing tools, document-management solutions, e-mail and instant messaging, it can be tough to keep team members on track when they're thousands of miles away.
“Discipline is key,” says Ricardo do Rêgo Barros, PMP, project manager in the division of major network projects at mobile phone supplier VIVO in Recife, Brazil.
“Every process must possess a timely routine. The project manager should enforce this at project start to set a modus operandi with the team,” he says. “Communication is the cornerstone for running a project in such a scenario, and must be reliable in content and time to a degree even more delicate than in local headquarters projects.”
Working from London, England, Pip Peel at PIPC Inc. schedules a weekly half-hour teleconference to get some quality time with his team members working across the United States on a post-acquisition IT integration project. He supplements that communication by sending out e-mails to remote workers to keep them in the loop on project progress and to establish what is required of them.
“It's a fairly chatty e-mail,” says Mr. Peel. “It's important to make people aware of what's going on. E-mail is good for that, but the message has to stay short. And there's nothing worse than an e-mail that barks orders at you. You have to put yourself in your reader's shoes.”
Karen Jahnke, PMP, Triumvirate Consulting Group, agrees that special attention must be paid to the tone and content of e-mail and other communication documents on virtual projects. She uses action plans to identify project task owners and to support accountability in each project.
“Many large organizations are now agile and their highly matrixed resources are typically assigned to more than one project,” she says. “The action plan helps to keep the virtual team focused on the project timeline and supports risk and issue management.”
Like any project manager, those on virtual teams still have to contend with the team dynamics and stress that crop up on almost every project. Deprived of any visual cues, they have to find creative ways to monitor team morale and velocity, says Ms. Jahnke.
“It is the project manager's role to keep the team focused and performing during stressful cycles,” she says. “I've found that a sense of humor can boost team morale and help a virtual team to decompress.”
Project managers should talk to their team about non-work related topics as a way to establish trust and rapport. It doesn't hurt to call them every once in a while to check in on how they're doing.
And when you hit a milestone or close out the project, don't forget to celebrate. Just because you can't take your team out to lunch or congratulate them in the hallway doesn't mean you should skimp on recognition. Try sending out an e-greeting card or e-mailing your supervisors to brag about the good work the team did.
The action plan helps to keep the virtual team focused on the project timeline and supports risk and issue management.
—Karen Jahnke, PMP, Triumvirate Consulting Group, Waukesha, Wisconsin, USA
TIP Being a modern road warrior inevitably means relying on technology—but project managers should be prepared for an occasional glitch. Joss Marsh of Sovereign Business Integration is quite familiar with the issue as he tries to keep up communication between teams in England and Qatar. “We have had some problems with Internet lines being severed,” he says. “For that reason we use our own backup and storage over here.”
The team also makes extensive use of e-mail, rather than relying on an instant communication tool that could suffer from dropouts and data loss.
I talk to one person at headquarters about everything, and likewise any management communication from headquarters to the customer comes through me first.
—Joss Marsh, Sovereign Business Integration plc, London, England
“An effective component of a project communication plan is continually bringing forward the business value delivered,” says Ms. Jahnke.
Being away from the office, she says, makes it easy for contributions from team members to go overlooked. It's up to the project leader to initiate mechanisms to promote project visibility, recognition and support. Ms. Jahnke has sent e-mails directly to a team member's functional manager to acknowledge that person's project contributions, for example.
Making sure team members receive credit for a job well done not only motivates them to keep up the good work, it also reflects well on the project leader.
Even the most stellar communication plan can benefit from a little face time, though.
When Pip Peel was working with the Talweelah Asia Power Co. to bid on a water project in Abu Dhabi in 2005, the stakeholders came from the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and the Middle East.
It fell on Mr. Peel to galvanize all the different players, and sometimes that required pulling everyone involved into one room.
“When we were working on the project we chose four key milestone events and tried to get as many people together as possible at these times,” says Mr. Peel, founder and director of PIPC Inc., a London-based project management company.
Although flying everyone to Abu Dhabi wasn't exactly cheap, bringing the entire team together helped the project stay on track.
Sometimes you have to do whatever it takes to make sure you have a happy headquarters to come home to. PM
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