When the project has many faces in many places-- software tools for the distributed team



Research shows that approximately one-quarter of U.S. employees working for mid-size or large companies work from home at least some of the time, while another quarter is mobile or works from customer locations. In fact, working over a distance affects more than 80% of workers in companies with 500 or more employees, and is rapidly becoming a universal experience for workers today (WFD Consulting, 2001-2002).

But not all projects with off-site workers are as effective as they could be. Barriers to effective off-site arrangements include lack of methods for getting in touch, the inability to stay informed of changes, and ineffective meetings. A host of new technologies leveraging the Internet, including online presence, change awareness, instant messaging, discussions, online/offline work, real-time synchronization and visual aids to alert team members of new content, are now available to address or at least mitigate these problems.

Currently, however, only a modest number of companies are supplying the appropriate technology tools and support for distributed teams. Often this support is on an ad hoc basis, rather than part of a corporate strategy. This paper reviews the problems and essential tools available to solve them in an effort to assist managers in crafting a software strategy for supporting distributed teams effectively in their organization. Special attention is given to Microsoft Office Project Server 2003 and Groove Virtual Office Project Edition.

Barriers to Effective Distributed Projects

In addition to the same problems faced by co-located project teams, distributed teams have a unique set of challenges. Most of these are related to the lack of effective project management communications, resulting in what are referred to as “awareness deficits” in the academic literature. Research and experience have shown that there are four major factors contributing to these awareness deficits.

1. Physical separation, whether in different buildings in the same city or in different countries leads to a lack of collaboration. Research has shown (Allen, 1977) that people will not collaborate very often if they are more than 50 feet apart. The natural tendency of distant participants not to collaborate with each other leads to disengagement from the project and its objectives.

2. Working in separate organizations – There are many situations in which ideas and knowledge from multiple organizations must be brought together to resolve a specific problem. This is true in professional services, government, the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, and in some manufacturing sectors, such as defense. The required ideas and knowledge are protected from public access by firewalls however, making it difficult for project participants to easily share electronically based information.

In these circumstances, participants often e-mail documents to each other. In addition to the inherent lack of security of most email exchanges, this technique becomes burdensome when there are many participants or documents under constant change.

One of the awareness deficits that becomes critical in cross-organizational teams is change awareness. It is not easy to make everyone instantly aware of a change in project objectives, schedule or work specification. The greater the number of team members involved, and the more distant they are from the decision-makers, the more likely it is for information exchange to become a source of lost productivity.

3. Time zone differences - Participants in different time zones have difficulties establishing real-time meetings, such as conference calls. There is the inherent problem of one person's workday ending before their colleague's day begins, compounded by a lack of awareness of when someone is available to speak in real-time. Often times a distant colleague is working at the office or at home, but other colleagues are not aware of their availability.

4. Language and culture – Misunderstandings can lead to costly or time-consuming mistakes. In many instances where project participants speak different native languages, they may not converse well in real-time. These people will often not speak in conference calls, foregoing the opportunity to surface issues or present solutions to known problems.

The most common complaints of teams with the above characteristics, based on studies conducted at the University of Michigan (Jang et al, 2000) and a survey conducted by Harris Interactive (WFD Consulting, 2001), are the following:

  • a. Lack of awareness of what remote team members are doing on a daily basis
  • b. Lack of awareness regarding each other's availability
  • c. No knowledge of colleagues' key task requirements and deadlines
  • d. Lack of knowledge about how team members felt about an idea or suggestion
  • e. Getting in touch
  • f. Ineffective meetings
  • g. Lack of awareness regarding changes

In practice, project status itself remains elusive for remote project participants. Most often team members report their status either verbally or through e-mail to a project manager, who updates a project plan using desktop software specifically for that purpose. The project plan is current on the day it is updated, typically once a week. Often remote team members have no visibility of the overall project plan, unless it is distributed through e-mail or made available on a web server by publishing to HTML.

Technology for the Distributed Team

Based on user surveys (Groove Networks, 2004), support of project execution is one of the primary drivers of the adoption of collaboration technology (the other two being support of process-specific or content-specific functions). This makes a strong case for the requirement of project software being integrated within collaborative technology, or vice versa. This need is apparent in commercial software offerings, wherein project management functionality is added to collaborative tools, as is the case with Groove Virtual Office Project Edition, or where collaborative functionality is added to project management software, as is the case with Microsoft Office Project Server 2003, wherein document sharing and other collaborative functions are added through SharePoint integration.

Most of the common complaints mentioned in the previous section have been addressed, at least partially, by technology. However, in most organizations, these have been adopted on a piecemeal basis, or the same problem is being solved in different ways in different parts of the organization. The issue remains for many organizations, to have all of the technologies available in a single, or at least only a few, different products that the IT organization is able to support (Coleman, 2004).

The following exhibit enumerates some of the technologies currently available for dealing with the common problems listed in the previous section:

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 1

What is evident from the right-most column of the table is that a combination of technologies would relieve, or at least mitigate, most of the dissatisfaction related to distributed teams:

  1. a shared and visible project schedule
  2. synchronous communications
    1. presence
    2. instant messaging (text and voice)
    3. other voice communications
  3. asynchronous communications and team collaboration tools
    1. file sharing
    2. change awareness
    3. discussion tool
    4. meetings tool
    5. application sharing
    6. team calendar

The following is a brief description of these technologies. Sample screenshots have been provided for clarity – all examples are from Groove Virtual Office (GVO) Project Edition and Microsoft (MS) Office Project Server 2003.

1.    A shared and visible project schedule: A single common view of project status is essential for keeping a distributed team engaged. In addition to viewing their own task assignments, when team members see their tasks in context of the entire schedule, they are able to assess the impact of their progress and finish date on successor tasks, and therefore the rest of the team. This acts as a strong motivating factor. Exhibit 2 illustrates the project schedule as seen by all team members with Groove Virtual Office.

Exhibit 2

Exhibit 2

For MS Office Project Server 2003, project plans are created with MS Office Project Professional 2003. Once published by the project manager, team members see either their own task assignments or the entire project in the browser, depending on the permissions set by the project manager. Exhibit 3 illustrates a list of projects as seen by a team member in the web browser-based client called Project Web Access.

Exhibit 3

Exhibit 3

2.    Synchronous communications: Synchronous communications are those that happen in real-time.

  1. a.    Presence
  2. Presence services enable users to log onto the Internet from any location and have their online/offline status available to their contacts and shared space members. Presence enhances productivity by letting team members know when to start a conversation to bring someone's attention to an issue, or try to resolve it on the spot. This technology is also useful in extending the hours of overlap for teams working across time zones since many people are often online outside of normal business hours. When the presence of co-workers is known, project participants will try to resolve an issue using instant messaging or chat services, whereas they would not do so if a long-distance phone call were required.
  3. Presence awareness is illustrated in Exhibit 1. The availability of project participants is shown in the rightmost banner of the user interface. There is no out-of-the-box presence awareness for Microsoft Project Server, however Microsoft has stated publicly that cross-firewall access will be available in future with Live Communications Server 2005 (Microsoft, May 2004).
  4. b.    Instant messaging
  5. Instant messaging has been broadly adopted, with more than 400 million global business users of AOL Instant Messenger™(AIM®), ICQ®, MSN Messenger and Yahoo!® Messenger services (Microsoft, July 2004). Most services support both text and voice messaging, allowing project participants to exchange factual information quickly as well as reduce long distance costs.
  6. In the case of Groove Virtual Office, both instant messaging and chat are available as text or voice and are fully integrated into the application. In the case of Microsoft Project Server, this functionality is provided separately through any of the independent instant messaging services mentioned in the previous paragraph.
  7. c.    Other voice communications
  8. Inexpensive voice communications including Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) are now available through a number of commercial providers. These services are available in a number of categories including:
    • free calls between PCs
    • PC to regular telephone
    • Networked PBX replacement

All of these scenarios greatly reduce the cost of regular long-distance telephone communications and will therefore make it much easier for global teams to communicate in real-time as they are adopted into enterprises.

3.    Asynchronous communications and team collaboration tools. Asynchronous tools are those in which communications do not necessarily occur in real time.

  1. a.    File sharing
  2. Most often managers or project leads have project-based documents long before the project has a schedule. Architectural diagrams, reports, budget spreadsheets and other information must be stored and shared long before the project formally begins. In the case of Groove Virtual Office, the Files and Discussion tools are loaded automatically when a new standard workspace is created. Files may be linked to a specific task or made available to the project at large. In the case of Microsoft Project Server, file sharing is added through SharePoint Services integration.
  3. b.    Change awareness
  4. The use of Unread markers as illustrated in Exhibit 4 draws participants' attention to changes, reducing time spent searching for new or modified information. The Unread marker can be seen in the leftmost column. While the use of these markers has been standard in document management software for some years, its use in project management applications is a recent innovation.
    Exhibit 4

    Exhibit 4

  5. c.    Discussions
  6. The Discussion tool is ideal for communications that do not require an immediate response, allowing any team member to prepare a thoughtful answer to a technical or business issue. This is especially important for team members whose first language is not the same as those controlling the project. In this case, the person speaking a foreign language has more time and can articulate in text what may be difficult to articulate in a conference call.
  7. d.    Meetings tool
  8. Online Meetings range from simple tools that enable users to record agendas, minutes and action items, to more sophisticated applications including embedded chat, whiteboarding, and application sharing. Minimally, a Meetings tool must track minutes and action items for the benefit of team members who are unable to attend, and are thus able to catch up on important decisions that were made or communicated during the meeting.
  9. e.    Application sharing
  10. Application sharing is the ability to show participants demonstrations of what might otherwise be difficult to conceptualize from a purely spoken conversation. WebEx is an example of this technology, offering online meetings, Web conferencing and video conferencing services on an in-house or hosted basis.
  11. f.    Team calendar
  12. The use of a team calendar helps deal with the issue of not knowing project participants' availability over the life of a project. One practical yet simple solution is to mark all planned absences on a monthly calendar that is visible to everyone on the project team in a digital format and can be easily updated by any team member. Exhibit 5 illustrates a team calendar in use at the author's facility. The rightmost column shows presence of team members in the project, while the calendar itself shows planned absences as well as other important events.
    Exhibit 5

    Exhibit 5

Brief Comparison of the Tools

Examples in this paper were chosen from Groove Virtual Office Project Edition and Microsoft Project Server 2003 because, for different reasons, these tools are currently being adopted by project teams in a variety of industries. The primary reason for adoption of the Groove toolset is fast deployment for cross-firewall or distributed teams who benefit from the built-in collaborative features. In the case of MS Project Server, the focus is on enterprise-wide resource and project control and reporting.

Exhibit 6 was designed to review each of the tools against the technologies now known to mitigate the communications problems of distributed teams. Readers must keep in mind when reviewing these results, that the two products provide different benefits for their target audiences, and therefore have differing design objectives to begin with.

Tools Comparison – Technologies Required for Mitigating Communications Problems in Distributed Teams

Exhibit 6. Tools Comparison – Technologies Required for Mitigating Communications Problems in Distributed Teams

One can see from the table that the Groove Virtual Office application has many communications features built in, making it ideal for distributed teams or remote workers, or small firms where the infrastructure required to support Microsoft Project Server would be too much of a burden, as in the sample application provided in the following section.

Sample Application


Minnesota-based Provident Partners helps clients with marketing programs ranging from brand creation to lead generation. The firm was created in response to the needs of companies with non-existent or limited in-house marketing resources.

The Challenge:

Rapid growth in combination with a team of geographically-dispersed professionals to serve a far-flung client base caused a variety of coordination problems ranging from tasks falling between the cracks to the inability to exchange information rapidly among the professional team, and between various professionals and their clients.

The Technical Solution:

The correct solution in this case was Groove Virtual Office Project Edition, giving the firm collaboration capabilities, cost efficiencies, and excellent task tracking without requiring hardware, software, or IT consulting fees.


  • The ability to collaborate online with clients over priorities and schedules
  • The ability to communicate securely cross-firewall without additional IT infrastructure – only an Internet connection is required for synchronizing files
  • Now the team has a cross-project view of the status of all ongoing projects
  • Clients can monitor the daily progress of their outsourced marketing professionals

Trends and Strategic Considerations

Economists have linked IT to productivity growth for individuals. Corporations now want to extend those productivity gains to groups and even entire organizations (Henrie, 2004). For planners, there are some strategic trends and considerations to take into account at this time:

  1. There is a convergence of synchronous and asynchronous communications. Real-time functionality such as web conferencing and instant messaging is finding its way into asynchronous applications such as online workspaces.
  2. A number of previously separate markets, such as those for document sharing and project management, are now being recast as collaboration technologies. Buyers can expect to find many more collaborative features in future releases of applications designed to support project management.
  3. Voice-over-IP is increasingly of sufficient quality that it can replace much of the traditional traffic over the public switched telephone network, at a lower cost. It has had rapid uptake in Asia, with over 6 million subscribers, and is being increasingly adopted in North America and Europe (Cox, 2004).
  4. Many organizations have a proliferation of collaboration tools purchased by various business units and not necessarily supported by IT. CIOs need to get ahead of the curve and choose tools that support the needs of an increasingly mobile workforce with the full endorsement and support of the IT organization.


Allen, T. J., (1977). Managing the flow of technology: Technology transfer and the dissemination of technological information within the R&D organization, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Coleman, D. (2004, August). Too much collaborative technology, unpublished research by Collaborative Strategies, Retrieved from www.collaborate.com, personal communication.

Cox, Ian (May 2004). Voice over IP ~ Into the mainstream. Retrieved from Juniper Research, http://www.juniperresearch.com/

Groove Networks (2004. March). Groove developer conference March 3rd-4th. Presentation given by David Fowler, March 3rd, 2004, Beverly, MA.

Henrie, K. S., (2004, July). All Together Now, CIO Insight, (41), July 2004.

Jang, C. Y., Steinfeld, C., and Pfaff, B. (2000, Dec) Supporting awareness among virtual teams in a web-based collaborative system: The team SCOPE system. International Workshop on Awareness & The World Wide Web, 2000, Philadelphia, PA, USA.

Microsoft press release (2004, May 4th). Microsoft unveils live communications server 2005. Retrieved from http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/press/2004/may04/05-04UnveilsServer2005PR.asp on 8/23/2004.

Microsoft press release (2004, July 15th). Microsoft, america online, MSN and Yahoo! announce industry-first connectivity to enterprise instant messaging users. Retrieved from http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/press/2004/jul04/07-15EnterpriseIMConnectivityPR.asp on 8/23/2004.

WFD Consulting Inc (2001-2002) When the workplace is many places: The extent and nature of off-site work today, Watertown, MA: WFD Consulting Inc.

© 2004, Brigitte Hayes, CMC
Originally published as a part of 2004 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Anaheim, California