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Managing the Virtual Team Member Print
The Project Management industry is changing; we are moving away from the days of the boardroom meetings and group gatherings, to the virtual team world. Full and part time employees work each week from a home (Home office employees) or a remote office (corporate or remote office, in another town or state) 100% of the time. This is still a relatively new direction but more and more companies are starting to offer this kind of work arrangement for their employees. The question is; how effective is it? How does a Project Manager (PM) handle a virtual team? What are the challenges and issues he/she faces on projects? Can a PM be effective with a team spread out across the country, and in some cases the world? Can they really bring a team together and be successful?

 

Virtual Team Members present the following challenges:

Lack of Accountability

Out of site, out of mind! When a team member does not have a PM around to make sure a task is completed, sometimes tasks do not get finished.

Missed meetings/deadlines

Sometimes team members don't show up to meetings or miss deadlines on their assigned tasks. There are also times, due to other priorities, team members will miss multiple project meetings leaving the PM not knowing what is happening with their piece of the project.

Lack of communication

Sometimes team members do not communicate enough with the PM and/or the rest of the project team. This lack of dialog will become an issue when something goes wrong and you are unable to solicit any help from that team member.

Training Issues

How does a PM handle the situation where the virtual team member is not capable of handling the assigned task? This is not just a situation with virtual employees, it occurs with onsite staff as well, but the situation is more serious when the virtual team member is not on site and cannot easily be helped or trained.

Home Office Infrastructure Issues

Hardware, power failures, phone or ISDN line down, all issues that are common to a home office, that hardly ever occur in a traditional business facility.

Home Office Family and home Issues

When virtual employees work from a home office, sometimes family and home-related issues receive a higher priority than work issues. That is only human nature. These issues come in the middle of getting the project work completed. Issues such as: kids sick at school, doctor's appointments, car-pooling all seem to take top priority when the employee is home and able to get away for a "couple minutes" to do these chores.

All of these issues can be showstoppers for projects. They can literally stop a project in its tracks if a PM does not have established procedures in place to use to handle these issues when they do occur.

What can a PM do?

Here are a series of tips to make managing a virtual employee or team-member more effective:

Virtual Office Rules and Guidelines

Establish, document, approve, and adopt firm guidelines to set the virtual team member expectations for communication, infrastructure, work hours, interruptions, etc. Make virtual employee policies, not guidelines, and ensure that they are followed while the employee is working in an offsite work place. Each employee or team member is to sign and approve these polices before they start in this virtual work position. If they don't sign the agreement, then that employee will not be eligible for any virtual positions and should not be allowed to work remotely.

Virtual Employee Qualifications

Not all employees fit the role of a virtual team member. There are three basic qualities that a person needs to have before they should be approved to work in a virtual position.

  1. Great Communicator.
  2. Very experienced in existing position or similar position.
  3. Dedicated to project and a team player.

 

If the virtual team member has all three of the above qualities, the PM should have very few problems while they are working together on their project(s). If any one of these are missing, it could lead to some serious issues for the PM and the project as a whole.

Communicate

Communication with your virtual project team member has to be well documented and occur frequently throughout the project. When working with virtual team members, it is a good idea to establish communication guidelines. Those guidelines could include, maximum amount of communications per day, standard times to communicate…etc. However, a PM should not be afraid to call, email, or do whatever you have to do to understand what is happening on your project, if your virtual employee is able to provide that information. When team members are remote, quite often they tend to forget that they are accountable to your project. This is where good communication skills, established guidelines, all play an important and critical role on projects.

Team meetings

The PM needs to have mandatory recurring team meetings (scheduled per project requirements), regardless of the size of the project. The PM must make sure there are open communications between all team members at those meetings. When the team is virtual, there are tools such as Net meeting or Video conferencing that could be used to help bring the team together. If that is not possible, try to schedule a meeting room and bring the team members who do sit onsite into the same room, to allow some "face" time between the onsite team members. This will go a long way to team building on your project.

The frequency of these meetings will depend on the stage of the project. Some PM's like to setup daily, weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly meetings. The meeting frequency will depend on what stage in the life cycle the project is in and what issues are occurring. At the very least, weekly team meetings need to be established and made mandatory for all team members. The point is, if the PM leaves a virtual team too long without updates or communications, it could cause some serious issues in your project.

The length of the meeting will also vary based on the size, complexity, and outstanding issues. The meeting length will also depend on each team member opening up and communicating on his or her portion of the project. As long as there is open dialog and good communications happening at each meeting, the PM has a very good chance for a successful project. The PM's main responsibility is to open communications and get a basic understanding whether or not each team member is on track with their piece of the project. If not, the PM needs to be able to react and get that portion of the project back on track.

One Team

The PM has to treat their virtual team(s) as they treat a "one-location" team. The locations of your team members cannot be a barrier to the success of the project. The PM has to do everything they would normally do with the project team as if they were all sitting one or two cubes away. If possible, if the entire team can be brought together at a single location, do so, it will be a great way to put a name, personality and face to each team member. This face to face will also go a long way in building a great project team.

Follow-ups and hard deadlines

The PM needs to do follow-ups and set hard deadlines for your project tasks. This is usually done in a scheduling tool such as Microsoft Project. When this is done initially for the project, the PM must do a team review of the project schedule and get individual buy off on the assigned tasks. Throughout the project, the PM must continue to follow-up with each team member and ensure that assigned deadlines are met.

When the team members are a couple cubes away, the follow-ups are very easy to do. When the teams are remote this becomes much harder and trickier to do for the PM. This is where the strong personal relationships that the PM has built up throughout the project will assist them in these follow-ups.

Ownership

All team members (on site and virtual) must have both ownership and accountability on a project to make it successful. If either of these qualities are missing, it is going to be very difficult to have a success in the project. If the team member commits to a date to have a task completed, then they must make those dates. If they miss the deadline, then that team member is accountable to the project team and needs to do whatever it takes to get the task done as soon as possible. When having virtual team members, it seems that it is much more difficult to get a handle on and put corrective action into play when deadlines are missed. The PM throughout the project needs to stay informed by each team member to ensure that dates are not missed whenever possible.

Multi-Tasking

As the PM of a virtual team member, you need to be aware of the multi-tasking that each of the team members will be involved in. The PM must try to make sure that those "other" tasks do not get in the way of completing the project. Multi-tasking is unfortunately a reality these days, but if the PM is aware of this, understands the impacts, factors it in, it should not affect the project deadlines.

In closing, managing virtual teams is not an easy task, but if the PM is prepared ahead of time and follows the tips above, this will go a long way in being successful in your projects. The most important tool a PM can use is to communicate. This is nothing new, and something that all successful PMs do anyway, but it is very important when your tester is 2000 miles away and you are shipping your product in the next 2 hours.

What do you think?

2004 © William Dow, PMP. All rights reserved.

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