Successful leadership of virtual project teams

Abstract

This paper will address the unique leadership challenges faced when dealing with a virtual project team, identifying the main issues and outlining ways to overcome them.

  1. The Prevalence of Virtual Teams
    1. Definition of a Virtual Team
    2. How Virtual Teams Help Organizations Succeed
  2. The Six Challenges to Virtual Teams (and how to overcome them)
    1. Lack of Face Time
    2. Time Differences
    3. Technology
    4. Cultural Differences
    5. Trust
    6. Leadership
  3. Earning the Respect of Your Team
  4. Conclusion

Introduction

Due to advanced communication technology, the way that we manage projects has changed, and virtual project teams have become the norm. Our premise is that all project managers have most likely already worked on a virtual project team, whether or not they realize it.

I. The Prevalence of Virtual Teams

With the boom of the Internet and computer technology in the 1990s, the world of project management has completely changed. Before the 1990s, the main two options were face-to-face meetings and telephone conversations. Today, team composition almost always includes a virtual piece, and members need to coordinate the work predominantly with electronic information and communication technologies in order to accomplish tasks. Team members can be located across multiple local offices or across continents, adding complexity and challenges due to the following six challenges: Lack of Face Time, Time Zone Differences, Technology, Cultural Differences, Trust, and Leadership.

In today's world, virtual teams require new ways of working across boundaries through systems, processes, technologies, and people. The challenges represented by this process require effective leadership suited to the task, and despite the widespread increase in virtual teamwork, there has been relatively little focus on the role of virtual team leaders.

My premise: Whether or not you realize it, you have probably worked with or on a virtual team already.

A. Definition of a Virtual Team

I agree with the following definition of a Virtual Team (quoted from Wikipedia):

“A virtual team could also be known as small temporary groups of geographically, organizationally and/or time dispersed knowledge workers who coordinate their work predominantly with electronic information and communication technologies in order to accomplish one or more organization tasks. Members of virtual teams communicate electronically and may never meet face-to-face.”

From this definition, then, a virtual team can consist of a minimum of two members, located in two separate locations (as close as across the street, or as far away as another continent). Because of this broad definition, I believe that most project managers have already worked on a team with some virtual component.

Based on my experience, I am going to identify several real business issues resulting from managing virtual teams that either my colleagues or I have faced in the course of a project, what we did to resolved them, and how we identified and formalized our solutions into an “internal best practices” to avoid these issues in the future.

B. How Virtual Teams Help Organizations Succeed

Within a virtual team, members share one common challenge, independent of each member's location and size of the team, which is that team members are not present for face-to-face meetings. Lack of face-to-face meetings in virtual teams is what adds complexity to delivering projects successfully and on time. The main pitfalls include:

  • Lack of clear goals, direction, or priorities. Because it is more difficult to communicate with other team members and keep current with project changes for team members who are geographically dispersed, it is often more difficult to keep all team members focused on the same goals, especially over time.
  • Lack of clear roles among team members. In virtual teams, it is difficult, but especially important for team members to clearly understand their individual roles and how their work impacts other team members.
  • Lack of cooperation and trust. Because there is a lack of face-to-face contact inherent with virtual teamwork, the process of establishing trust and relationships that lead to group cooperation can be very arduous. Over time, this lack of collaboration can lead to a lack of trust among team members.
  • Lack of engagement. With virtual teams, people can easily become bored and “check out” because there is a lack of dynamic face-to-face interaction and because there can be more distractions when working in a virtual team environment.

Eliminating these main pitfalls greatly increases a team's chances for success.

II. Introduction of the Six Challenges to Virtual Teams

i. Lack of Face Time:

Essentially, successful teaming depends largely on the effective interaction of all team members. A significant percentage of our communication happens through nonverbal cues and context. Virtual teams need to compensate for this lack by supporting team spirit, trust, and productivity. You need to watch for early warning signs that indicate that a team may be having interpersonal issues and respond accordingly.

One warning sign can be that team members work independently and do not reach out to one another to collaborate, causing an ‘us versus them’ mentality to develop between locations or sub-groups. The truth is, when everyone is engaged and communicating, it is much easier to succeed as a virtual team. When team members build relationships with one another, it prevents interpersonal issues from taking over and adversely impacting team efficiency.

Some actions that can be taken to avoid this include:

  • Use a collaboration team website where virtual team members can share information and get to know one another.
  • Create ways for team members to interact and communicate informally. Use real-time communication tools like Skype and Lync, or social media sites, such as Facebook and Yammer to create a virtual “water cooler” that allows people on virtual teams to communicate more spontaneously.
  • Find ways to “spotlight” team members for accomplishments and successes.
  • Send electronic newsletters or updates to the team.
  • Create ways to virtually celebrate successes as a team. For example: As main milestones are reached, you can send a gift certificate to every team member and the next day, people have to tell you how they spent it – it allows you to have some fun while discovering more about the personal side of each team member.
  • Partner team members at different locations on projects and rotate these periodically.
ii. Time Differences:

Some virtual teams have members of the team working in different parts of the world. Due to time zone differences, it is difficult to set up meetings with the entire team, much like juggling balls with different shapes—one labeled China, another India, and so on. The idea of what a good meeting time is will need to be flexible; what might be a perfect time for you could be the middle of the night for someone else. For virtual teams, time is relative. To successfully help avoid miscommunication between virtual team members requires an aware, compassionate manager to accommodate for these time zone differences.

If the virtual team geographical separation is far enough, time zones will make a huge difference in the logistics of work, meetings and deadlines. To work around time zones, managers of virtual teams need to think, lead, and communicate differently than a traditional team leader. Methods to do this include:

  • Change up meeting times:
    Instead of having Skype meetings at the same time every week, for example, on Wednesdays at 5:00 p.m., switch it up! It is counterproductive to force the same team members to meet each week at what is less than convenient for them but convenient for other team members. Let everybody know that you're aware of the different time zones, and that you care enough to accommodate these variances for all team members (even if occasionally, the majority must accommodate just one team member to be fair).
  • Use the time zone to your advantage.
    The goal for the virtual team is to leverage time zone differences so that the team is always making progress. Team members who sign off in one time zone can hand off team responsibilities to another team member who is just starting his or her workday in another time zone. This is a very efficient way to save time and energy, and to ensure that your company is always progressing forward—around the clock.
iii. Technology:

In today's world, we would not be able to deliver successful projects using virtual teams without the effective use of technology. When setting up your virtual team, as a project manager, you will need to decide on which set of tools everyone is going to be using for the duration of the project. Tools include those for:

  • Communication: Skype or Lync to allow conference call at no cost across multiple regions
  • Desktop Sharing: Skype, WebEx, Go To Meeting, Lync to allow live demo, presentation and cross-sharing information
  • Collaboration team website: SharePoint, Basecamp, Project Server where any team member can share and access the latest information concerning the project
iv. Cultural Differences:

Successfully managing cross-cultural differences is a major challenge associated with virtual teams, especially those located in different countries.

With today's technological development and tools available, geographical distance issues can easily be overcome and the teams can adjust their work hours to ensure that you have several hours of overlap per day in common or at least for meetings with all team members, but effectively managing people from diverse cultures requires a different set of skills.

Therefore, it is becoming increasingly important to "know," "accept," and "manage" the cultural differences between you and your virtual team members. Individuals from different cultural backgrounds often have different beliefs, values, attitudes, behavioral norms, and perceptions from one another, resulting in high risk for miscommunication. For example: some cultures find it hard to say "no," whereas in some other cultures communication is characteristically direct, and saying “no” is not so hard. Take the case in which you are a project manager located in the United States and you have a team member working from India. A meeting is scheduled for late in the evening in India, and the team member in India has another commitment that same evening. The team member from India would probably rather compromise on the personal commitment than having to say "no" to the team meeting, especially to an authority figure on the team. So rather than sending a “yes” or “no” meeting invite, it would be better communication to ask that team member if he or she is free during that time.

In some cultures, where hierarchy, ranks and titles are not as important as in other cultures, team members are expected to offer direct comments, even criticisms with their opinions and concerns. Other people live in cultures where this same situation might be viewed as disrespectful if the team member offers an opinion without being asked for one. So a manager who is expecting feedback from his or her team but not getting it may need to adjust his or her expectations and directly ask for it.

Some cultures consider it rude for a colleague to be criticized publicly, rather than spoken to privately. This is true in Chinese culture, where it is considered rude to publicly criticize a colleague; rather, it is important that the person not lose face, and criticism needs to be handled with that in mind.

Here are four things you can do to overcome cross-cultural differences:

  • Create a shared understanding of team goals and objectives.
  • Do not assume things — Communicate, Communicate, and Communicate.
  • Build trust.
  • Have a project manager or coordinator who is receptive and experienced with managing cultural differences in a virtual team.

In view of globalization wherein the physical boundaries no longer exist, virtual teams and globally dispersed teams are here to stay. Effective project managers and project coordinators must adapt themselves to this ever-changing global environment and manage virtual teams by accepting and managing cultural differences.

v. Trust:

No trust, no team. Task-based trust is one of the most important factors that differentiate top performing teams. In virtual teams, trust seems to develop more readily at the task level rather than at the interpersonal level. There are four warning signs that trust is in low supply in virtual teams:

  • Team members do not refer to themselves as "we."
  • Team members do not appear to know one another very well.
  • Team members are openly negative.
  • Team members do not regard others as credible.

To develop trust among your team members, you must set the foundation. Trust within a team doesn't simply develop because a team has been working together for a while.

Specific methods to build trust within a team include:

  • If possible, try to have your entire team meet face-to-face at least once early on in the team's formation, even if this requires travel. Spend some part of the meeting focused on building relationships and learning about other team members’ capabilities.
  • Be sure team members feel empowered to make and act on decisions. Because virtual leaders do not have “face time” with team members to check in, leaders are more likely to micromanage team members without realizing it.
  • Help people manage conflicts, dealing with any that arise, and not avoid them. Conflict is more likely to be ignored or may escalate quickly in a virtual setting; therefore, leaders need to more proactively manage conflict.
  • The team leader should model and reinforce these positive behaviors.
vi. Leadership

Virtual team leadership matters. Leadership is the factor most important to the success of virtual teams. Research shows that leadership does, in fact, have a statistically significant correlation with higher performance on virtual teams. To overcome the limitations of distance and to be fully effective, team leaders in a virtual environment must be especially sensitive to interpersonal communication and cultural factors.

There are four key warning signs that a team leader is not effective:

  • The team is not meeting its performance objectives, and deliverables are delayed or of poor quality.
  • Relationships between the team members and the team leader aren't strong.
  • The team leader is not clear about the team's direction or purpose.
  • The team leader pays more attention to team members who are at the team leader's location or who the team leader likes.

Organizations can avoid this performance barrier by selecting team leaders who not only have the necessary technical skills, but also have the soft skills required to effectively lead in a virtual environment. If you're a team leader, it's not easy to learn that you may be the cause of your team's poor performance. But there are many ways to improve your performance and get your team back on track.

Specific methods to accomplish this include:

  • Set clear goals and direction and revisit these as priorities shift.
  • Engage team members in the development of team strategy.
  • Provide time for team building through periodic face-to-face meetings when possible.
  • Provide timely feedback to team members, and be responsive and accessible.
  • Emphasize common interests and values and reinforce cooperation and trust.
  • Create a system to easily integrate and accept new team members.
  • Teach the importance of conflict resolution.
  • Celebrate team achievements and successes.

III. Earning the Respect of Your Team

You need to be able to earn the respect of your team regardless of location.

I have found that these three keys are crucial to gaining respect:

  • Communication
  • Modeling Behavior
  • Empowerment

We all have our unique management and communication styles. It is important to be fully aware of your style and how you are being perceived. It is also necessary as a good leader to make sure you know the communication style of everyone in your core team and to adapt to his or her needs.

When your project hits a bump, it is important to model the behavior that you want to see in your team members. I call it “The Golden Rule:” treat your project the way you want your team members to treat your project. When things get difficult, jump in as an extra “brain,” and encourage collaboration by participating yourself, rather than just waiting for status updates.

And empower your team. My team does not work for me, I work for them. A good leader is there to remove roadblocks to the team's success.

IV. Conclusion

I have seen many well-intentioned projects fail because project managers treated their virtual teams the same way they treat their co-located or “traditional” teams. Using a virtual team might be the best option to deliver projects successfully; however, it requires you to plan and execute differently than a traditional team leader if you want to guarantee success.

References

Lecoq, B. (2012). Learn how to be a great project leader. PMI Puget Sound Chapter Dinner Meeting, Bellevue, Washington.

Lepsinger, R., & DeRosa, D. (2010). Virtual team success: A practical guide for working and leading from a distance. (Jossey-Bass (a Wiley Imprint)

Virtual Team (2012). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_team

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, Bruno Lecoq
Originally published as part of the 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Vancouver, Canada

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