Teaming in the virtual world--getting beyond location


Mary Elizabeth Diab, PMP, Resource Deployment Manager IBM Global Services

In this increasingly electronic age, virtual teams have become a way of life. Maintaining communications and continuing relationship building among a virtual team—project or department—across miles and oceans presents a host of new challenges. Traditional communication methods simply will not work in a virtual organization. This paper will highlight four primary lessons learned by a virtual department and a workgroup within a multinational corporation.

While timely communication is necessary in the virtual arena, care must be taken to pass on only pertinent information. By utilizing technology appropriately, virtual teams can create the family feeling necessary to allow proper team integration. The examples given have been used and validated in both a virtual department and workgroup that have managed to get beyond location and demonstrate that collocation is not necessary for good communications. References in this paper to project team apply equally to work teams or department as well. Project team has been used as the default.

Lesson One: Create a Team Culture

Team culture is an often-overlooked dynamic in collocated teams, to do so in a virtual team can cause communication breakdown. What is a team culture? Team culture is used to describe the manner in which different teams work together. How formal is your communication? What values are important? What is the focus of the team? How do team members work together? All of these are elements of team culture.

Project Type Differences

The culture of the Christmas Party project team will be very different from the new Accounting System Implementation team. The Christmas Party project team is likely to be very informal. Communications will consist mostly of small team meetings and informal e-mail updates. The team has a very limited goal with a small impact on the overall profitability of the business. The leader of the project is likely to be self-appointed from among the volunteers on the team.

On the other hand, a project team brought together to implement a new Accounting System is likely to be very formal. It is likely to have a defined Project Manager and communications for the team will be much more formal. The seriousness of the impact of the project on the business will make this team be more structured by default. In addition, tensions over the implications of changing systems makes communication regarding status and impacts more critical.

Industry Differences

In the same way, a team in the insurance industry will have a different culture than a team in the manufacturing industry. In the insurance industry, the overall corporate culture is likely to be very formal and inflexible. This team has a Project Manager formally appointed by the Project Sponsor and operates in a less flexible manner. Documentation is done throughout the project on all activities and issues.

In manufacturing, the project may be less formal. Several team members will come out of the production environment. Their operations tend to be more broadly documented with more of a “go-out-and-do” attitude. This will provide a less rigid and formal team culture.

Setting the Stage

At your team kickoff meeting, you should come to consensus among your group as to what your core team values are. Some of the values to consider include: We don't interrupt the person who has the floor, every member's input is valuable, no question is silly, documentation and communication are key success factors, anyone not attending a meeting or portion of a meeting agrees to all decisions by default. Once you have defined these core values that play into your team culture, you should document them, distribute them, and ensure that they reside in your team room.

The Project Manager and fellow team members should hold each team member accountable for living up to the values and operating within the defined culture. At all team meetings and in your team room, you should keep documentation of your values and distribute them with the agenda so that they are in the front of team members’ minds. So, why is this concept of team culture important?

Building the Team

When operating in a virtual environment, where the team is not collocated, it is easy for team members to feel isolated and disassociated from the team and its goals. Creating a team culture, or a “family feeling”, helps team members feel connected as part of a whole. It also helps keep them focused on the overall project objectives and remember that they are important to the process. It is important to recognize that your culture helps to solidify your team. If your team has an identifiable culture, the team members will feel included rather than excluded. So, this sounds good, but how do you do it?

In addition to documenting your team culture, you should consider other ways to create this culture. One example might be, on an informal team, send e-greeting cards to recognize birthdays, anniversaries, or important events. On a more formal team, give a gift or a card to recognize achievement of the PMP® or other certifications. All of these items will help to build a team culture allowing for a cohesive unit, whether across the street or around the globe.

Lesson Two: Document Your Communication Plan

In both departments and project teams (or workgroups), it is important to set expectations among all stakeholders. To do this, your team should have a documented Communications Plan. According to PMI’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), a good communications plan should include the following items:

• A collection and filing structure that details the method your team will use to gather and store project information.

• A distribution structure that details how project information will be sent and to whom.

• A description of the information to be distributed including format, content, level of detail, and definitions (see Lesson Four on Team Lexicons).

• A schedule of when each communication will be produced.

• Methods for accessing information between distribution (See Lessons Three on Team Rooms).

• How updates to the plan will be made and communicated.

These plans can be either formal or informal. To some extent, this will track back to your project culture. If your project culture is formal, you communications plan should be formal. However, whether it is formal or informal, you should document it in writing to get buy-in from your team members. The plan can also be very detailed or quite broad depending on your project needs.

The plan should help all team members understand their individual role in the communications process. One way to help your team members buy-in to the process and to ensure that they understand the team's expectations of them is to have them create a personal communications plan. Following the above, it would identify what information is expected from them, when they will provide it, how they will distribute it, to whom and how often. The communications plan can incorporate each of these individual plans into the overall plan. Having your team member go through this exercise enables them to better understand the project management process, appreciate their importance in the team and help them really use the project management communications plan.

As part of your communications plan, define how you will recognize success on your project. What communications tools will be used to celebrate project victories. How will you ensure that team members get due recognition for project success? One way to do this is to use your team room (described below in Lesson Three) to provide special recognition. Again, use e-greetings to recognize and congratulate team members. Finally, the Project Manager should drop a note, where appropriate to the manager of the resources who are completing tasks on time or have some recognized successes to ensure that their “wins” are known.

In your communication plan, you should also include a contact list. For each major deliverable or issue you should have a single point of contact. For virtual team members, it is very frustrating to get transferred from person to person, each saying someone else is the right person, when you can not just drop by the office and straighten things out. In order to empower your team and make them productive ensure that team members and stakeholders know whom to contact when they have questions or problems. This will also help improve overall communications amongst the team.

Finally, use the individual communication plans that your team drafts to help review their performance at the end of the project. Many people view reviews as something that a Manager does once a year to determine pay changes. Take the time to provide feedback to the team on how their performance compared to their commitments. This can be useful to them in obtaining management support for changing roles on projects or for dedicating more time to the truly valuable project activities. In addition, it is always good to get constructive feedback that helps us develop our skills.

The Communications Plan is the house on which your virtual project team is built. Making the foundation strong will help you achieve overall success. Many projects never get a written communication plan in place. Failing to do this can be the death knell of your project.

Lesson Three: Create a Team Room or War Room

For collocated teams, creating a central place for the team to gather, keep documentation, and document project status is much easier. This area is one where technology can provide assistance. Groupware solutions can provide the opportunity to create a virtual water cooler. As isolation and communication are the most difficult aspects of virtual teas, providing a central location, a “home” for your team is vital. There are a variety of solutions out there with different features and strengths. You will hear many terms used to refer to these tolls including team rooms, war rooms, and knowledge cafes. Some of the features that they may contain are listed below.

Your team room can be used to provide vital information on each team member. It can be used as a central repository for phone numbers, fax numbers, e-mail addresses, and other vital statistics. And in support of Lesson Two, you can add pictures to each team member's profile to add a bit more color and personalization to the space. It can be very helpful when talking to a team member to pull up a picture of them instead of simply visualizing them in your mind. This can produce camaraderie and a feeling of belonging otherwise unheard of on virtual teams. Also, you can keep a team calendar including important team or project milestones. This can be viewed by all team members and provides a single point for important dates.

The team room can be used as a central repository for information necessary to the functioning of your project. It can house your team documents including the documented team culture guidelines and communication plan. It can also hold intellectual capital that team members have gathered that may assist others in completing their project deliverables. Lessons learned and best practices can be shared among the entire team without cluttering e-mail inboxes each time a team member remembers something else they have. Project status updates can be provided on the team room and make updating schedules and documentation easier. However, some team rooms offer functionality far beyond the repository.

Many team rooms allow you to have interactive areas for team business including issue identification and response. The issue may be posted for the entire team or one team member. The team members can respond in the team room and save several phone calls. It also ensures that parking lot items, those that need to be discussed by aren't strictly on point in the discussion, aren't lost. Parking lot items can be posted and help until a resolution can be determined or until the proper party is notified. In addition, some team rooms allow you to provide action items and request updates to those items.

The technology can automatically route the update request to the assigned party. This allows for easier updates on action items that are not related to the schedule. Finally, some team rooms offer areas for team members to have threaded discussions. Those conversations that in a collocated team happen in the hallways or other meetings can happen in a forum online allowing the sharing and interaction without requiring face-to-face meetings.

Finally, some team rooms even allow the capability to establish subteams within the overall team. Access can be limited to only subteam members. This can allow work groups and subcommittees privacy to work on ideas and solutions before bringing them to the entire team. It can also allow for some information to be maintained in private. This functionality can allow the team to feel it is part of a larger whole, but still keep groups small enough to get work done.

In this ever-changing world, it is important to put technology to work for you. Strides are made each day in getting teams together, regardless of location. However, it is important to note that you should use technology only once it is stable and established. The first run of a new technology always comes with errors that need to be fixed. It also tends to not be very user-friendly or intuitive. Subsequent versions get better and better in these areas. So, use technology to help, where possible, but not just for technology's sake.

Lesson Four: Define Your Team Lexicon

Across industries, the same terms and acronyms can mean many different things. In addition, in some companies a generally recognized term may not mean what is does in another. The PMBOK® Guide definition of a project plan is “A formal, approved document used to guide both project execution and project control.” However, many companies use the term project plan to refer to their schedule. It is not always wise to try and fight this, simply document it so everyone is aware that this is how you will use the term.

You may need to create another term to refer to the generally accepted meaning of the term. Another example of this phenomenon is in a company where I have worked. PMP® not only referred to Project Management Professional certification, but also the Program Management Plan template developed by one department. Across the company, PMP® meant one thing, in that department, it meant another. A lexicon can help everyone understand what you mean by terms, acronyms, and idiomatic expressions.

In effective communications, it is key to ensure that everyone is speaking the same language. To do this, document your lexicon and issue it to all members. If your team decides on using the PMBOK® Guide glossary as its lexicon, document that and ensure that all team members have a copy of the PMBOK® Guide. Provide this documented lexicon to new team members to help them maintain a basic understanding amongst your team, old and new members alike. It also helps bring team members up to speed with the thinking of the team overall on words, terms, and acronyms. This information can be included on your team room to ensure access to all team members. However, do not forget to also share your lexicon with your sponsor and other stakeholders. Your reporting should follow the lexicon as the recipients will need to understand the meanings as well to read your reports correctly.


The introduction of virtual teaming and new technologies requires that team members operate in a new paradigm. The lessons learned provided in this paper, learned in the operation of a virtual department and workgroup with team members living around the U.S. and working around the world, can help you navigate through the new world of virtual organizations with success that leads to happier clients and team members. Focusing on communications as a key to project success can assist you in providing excellent results to your sponsor, company, and customer. Creating an effective virtual team is not easy, but the results are worthwhile.


PMI Standards Committee. (1996). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge. Upper Darby, PA: Project Management Institute.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston, Texas, USA



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