Whether you work with colleagues off-shore, in another city, or based from home, most project managers will have experience of being in a virtual team.
It might be you who is working from your home office (i.e. the kitchen table) or other people in the team who can’t make it into the office or choose to work remotely.
If your normal way of working is to have everyone in the office, then a shift to remote work might feel uncomfortable. After all, if you can’t see the project team, how can you be sure they are working on the right things?
When I made the switch to home working, I made sure my manager knew that I had a dedicated room in the house as my office, and I had childcare provision. I felt like I needed to be super clear that I could still be productive, even if she couldn’t see me.
Ultimately, if you trust your team, remote working won’t cause you or anyone else any issues.
Here are five quick tips for ensuring your virtual team keeps up the momentum.
1. Stay in Contact
Above all, don’t forget that you have virtual team members! Especially if you are still based in the office or their switch to remote working is recent.
Put reminders in your diary to check in with your colleagues – and not just those weekly project team meeting calls. Find other reasons to ring them, or drop them an email. Include them in ‘broadcast’ messages and make sure any communication to office-based colleagues also reaches your remote team members too.
Of course, it’s important not to be annoying! No one is going to be grateful that you’re calling them up every day just to have a chat. Be measured in how you communicate, and consider how best to stay in contact when you might be dealing with lots of different time zones.
2. Check your Tools
I’ve been guilty of not staying on top of messages in our collaboration tools, and not always loading the latest documents into our shared document storage.
Remote teams rely on collaboration tools to help them do their tasks, so they need to have confidence they’ve got the latest information.
Make sure your project schedules are up to date with relevant information. Keep documents updated. Shift as much of your working practice as possible into your software tools so everyone knows that’s the place to go for updated project information.
When you lead by example in this way, you will hopefully influence the behaviour of others, and make it easier for them to engage with the software too.
Make sure everyone on the team has an active login and knows how to use the collaboration software. Provide support and refresher training to anyone who might need it.
3. Use Different Communication Tools
Having said that you should get your collaboration tools in order, don’t be overly reliant on one software tool.
Try to mix up how you engage with the team. Some degree of routine and predictability is fine, and Thomas P. Wise talks about engaging reliably in his book, Trust in Virtual Teams. But sometimes a little bit of variety is a good thing to keep momentum going and morale high.
Try a virtual scavenger hunt in the office (here are some instructions) or switch on your webcams if you normally have them off.
Being creative with how you interact with the team can prompt different types of engagement. You might get more creative responses to a brainstorming session, for example, if you use a tool you’ve not used before.
If you’re limited by what tech is available, simply ask someone else to chair a meeting. Having a different voice take the lead can also be enough to shift the energy of the team.
4. Be Specific About Task Ownership
One of the challenges I’ve had in virtual teams is that when a message is sent to the group, no one steps up to take ownership of the action.
When you make a specific request of someone as an individual, they are more likely to respond. Think about how you interact with the team – if you are struggling to get people to take responsibility for tasks, could that be the reason why? Try to engage with people on a one-to-one basis and set out the project tasks they are responsible for.
I’ve found that working in a virtual team creates more of a ‘management’ overhead than working in a co-located team, because of the extra effort involved in communication and engaging stakeholders. It’s not harder – it just takes a longer time. Delegate as much as you can so that you can spread the work between the team.
5. Use the Hierarchy
Many project managers work in a matrix, so not only do you have to engage with individual team members, but also their managers.
If your project work isn’t moving forward as fast as you would like, consider escalating to the appropriate manager. However, do this sensitively. Sending an email to a colleague and copying in their line manager is a passive aggressive way of escalating – avoid this!
I mentor project managers and sometimes the concern comes up that they don’t feel they can talk to someone’s manager. Of course you can. Your role as the project manager is to make sure the work gets done. If the work isn’t getting done, and you’ve exhausted your own ways of trying to ensure it is, then escalation is a proportionate and responsible next step. Plus, you should be seen in the organization as a business leader, not someone who carries out project admin. Stepping up and flagging problems where they exist is a way to be seen in that role.
I love working in a virtual team. It’s an amazing sense of freedom, and I know my team mates get on with their tasks with an incredible work ethic. We’re more productive, and we actually work more hours because we don’t have to spend time commuting.
Keeping your project going with a virtual team does require a different mindset to working in an office with all your colleagues, but there are many advantages. With some creative thinking, you can still make great progress on your work.