Distributed project teams are the norm now, right? I expect you have more examples of projects done with colleagues in different offices, time zones and countries than projects done by a team of people who all work in the same building.

A distributed team is one where its members are split across several locations. Even if your colleagues are all in the same country and nominally based in the same office location, if you communicate mainly via electronic means or the phone and don’t meet up in person then your team is distributed in nature. Geographical distance doesn’t really come into it – virtuality is an attitude!

Despite the ubiquitous nature of distributed teams, project managers still struggle to get them set up and working effectively. Here are some tips for making sure that your virtual team gets off to a great start.

1. Get the ground work right

Don’t dive straight in to the project. Make sure that you have fully understood the problem and what it is that you are trying to achieve. The whole team should understand the goals and objectives for the project, even if they will only play a very small part themselves.

Share the vision with everyone and take the time to answer questions. Then when you divide up the work, you’ll have a better idea of who should take on which part and they will be able to see how those tasks link back to the overall project strategy.

2. Change locations if you need to

Distributed teams work well, but sometimes it helps to have core resources cited together. In that case, move them. Check you’ve got the money in the budget to do this and then un-distribute that element of the team (if that’s a word).

This is most useful if you are delivering a project for a customer and you want to have someone present – or at least able to pop in – to the customer’s location. If it is not possible to parachute in someone for the duration of the project then at least send your team on site visits to each other’s locations or to the customer’s site.

3. Meet daily

This might seem like overkill, but a short meeting on the phone can really build collaboration and engagement between team members and help with overall project communication. You’ll end up with less rework and faster problem solving if you can find time each day (or every other day if you have to) to get everyone on a call.

4. Don’t be a bottleneck

Let your team members talk directly to each other. Give them the online project management tools they need to do that including online access to the project plans with a system like Online Project Viewer. Instant messaging can also help. You’re looking for ways to get the right information to the right people without having it go through you.

5. Be a facilitator

With a distributed team you can’t be there to micromanage each person, even if you thought that micromanagement was a good style to have (it’s not, by the way). So you have to let go some of that need to chase up and monitor status and trust that your teams are doing what they said they would.

Instead, focus on facilitating the work and removing roadblocks. Liaise with the customers and team and make sure that expectations are being met. Your role shifts from being task management to ensuring that good communications and stakeholder management happen to the degree required to deliver the work successfully.

Of course, task management is important too, but empowering your remote team members to do as much of that as you can frees you up to do the extra value-added work of resolving issues, making decisions and keeping the work moving forward. Monitoring the health of the distributed team forms part of that.

These 5 tips are a good starting point for managing distributed teams and starting off on the right foot. As you get further through the project these points still stay relevant and valid. Review your meeting schedules and make sure that your team continues to have the tools they need to get the job done. Over time, you’ll find that managing distributed teams is no more difficult than managing on-site teams and can sometimes be even better!