Managing Remote Teams for Projects

Over the last 10 years, technology has allowed team members to work at home in great numbers. That is in addition to the contractors and stakeholders from other locations. The technology for remote team members forces changes to the project manager’s leadership techniques.  The most frequent mistake we see (and we made it ourselves at first), is to think that technology will let you manage the team the same way you did when they were all in the same office.  Leading Teams Main Page

The truth is that your leadership style still has to accomplish 4 things with all your team members, no matter where they work. You must:

  1. Give them clear performance expectations and explain how you will measure their work.
  2. Gain their commitment to the team’s goal and understanding of how their assignment fits in.
  3. Ensure that they understand the status of the project and their assignment(s) each weekly.
  4. Practice giving praise publicly. That’s your most valued reward.
Live Video Conferences

PMs can use live video conferences to make their leadership effective for remote team members.  When you use the video conference as a substitute for face-to-face meetings,  you need to avoid falling into the video conference Tar Pit. Let me explain what I mean.

Video Conference Tar Pit

In the Tar Pit, managers start the video conference off by logging into the meeting, saying hello and then turning down the sound.  They proceed to catch up on emails and phone calls while occasionally glancing at the screen and listening to the muttering voices.  The Tar Pit spreads like the flu when these managers mistakenly call their subordinates who are in the same video conference. Oops! People quickly realize that faking their attendance and attention is the “cool” thing to do.  Soon no one is listening.

The project manager realizes that the absence of any questions from the attendees is a symptom of the Tar Pit.   So they start asking questions of random people or threatening the group with a test.  That works for a while until an attendee answers the question with, “I can’t hear you; there’s too much static” or “Excuse me, I need to use the restroom.”  The excuses and their entertainment value skyrocket until the PM stops asking questions. Here’s how you can avoid the Tar Pit:

  1. Limit the size of your video conferences to 1-4 people.
  2. Limit the video conference time to 30 minutes.
  3. Use the conferencing software feature to display everyone’s image, not just yours.
  4.  Keep the conversation moving. Schedule 1-on-1 sessions to discuss details that aren’t of interest to the entire group.
  5. Keep the meeting moving by asking people’s opinions.

You should also leave the video conference open to other team members. You can decide whether to admit them based on the topic being discussed. That gives the meeting a social boost which people working at home need.

Collaboration between remote team members

You need to give your team members tools to work with each other.  This collaboration is important for both efficiency and social bonding.  It’s where remote workers are made to feel they’re part of the team.

Most of the “remote team” software products provide several communication tools that can function between team members, working from home, in different offices, or another country.  In addition to video conferencing, they include: texting, email, Twitter, Facebook, live streaming of meetings and much more. These tools have enabled remote team members to collaborate effectively. But some programs have a few bad features. Among the worst are the “drop in” communication packages. They let you or a team member connect directly with another team member’s PC.  That team member is rudely interrupted (and possibly frightened) when someone’s face appears in a window on their screen.   Working remotely, however, can also create some challenges when working as a team.

Successfully managing remote teams requires keeping up with technology and producing the same, if not better, results than if you were working with your team locally.  Here are five suggestions for effectively managing your remote teams.

  1. Conduct the Remote Project Teams Kick-Off as You Would for Local Projects
    Managing a project remotely may not allow for a face-to-face initial kick-off meeting, but the same principles should apply during initiation, determining scope, etc.  Brainstorming sessions, although potentially easier in person, can still be conducted thoroughly via video conference.  This is opportunity to identify as many questions, concerns, ideas, timelines, constraints, etc., as possible to help ensure clarity toward the end goal throughout the project.
    Other Suggestions:  Kick-off with a clear agenda that includes project purpose, goals, and success factors. Ensure team member roles are established and explained and include appropriate people to positively support the project.
  2. If in Your Control, Form Strong Remote Project Teams
    If you have the opportunity to build your own remote project team, seek motivated, positive, self-sufficient and of course, knowledgeable people.  A self-sufficient and motivated team member will help offset the potential communication challenges a remote environment offers like time zone differences, meeting availability, or lack of face-to-face meetings.  An opportunity to work with the most qualified candidates increases with the pool of employees from across the country or even globe. This is a big advantage of managing a remote team.
    Other Suggestions:  Invest time in your project team.  Get to know your team members. You can use LinkedIn to learn something about them.  Also, it’s best to speak with your team members about more complicated items rather than using email.
  3. Conduct Regularly Scheduled Meetings (as needed – daily, weekly, etc.)
    Communication is key, especially when distance of any length exists among your team.  Project team members can easily get distracted and focus more on other tasks or projects when “out of sight, out of mind.”  Detailed status reports containing issues, items for attention, etc. should continue to be sent before each meeting and used as an agenda for the meeting. This helps keep meetings at an appropriate length. I have never heard anyone complain about a meeting being too short.  Please be mindful of time zone differences (if needed) to accommodate the entire team as much as possible.
    Other Suggestions:  Gain a reputation for being reliable and dependable.  These characteristics become even more important when working in a remote environment.  Respond to inquiries and issues in a timely manner.  This behavior typically is replicated and benefits the entire project.
  4. Set Expectations Throughout the Entire Project Lifecycle
    Similar to an exercise program, consistency is crucial.  In addition to regularly scheduled meetings, project statuses and updates should be communicated frequently. The team must be aware of exactly where the project is on the overall timeline, which tasks remain open, and the status of each task for each team member.  Consistent and appropriate communication should occur at both the individual and team level.
    Other Suggestions:  Customize for individual expectations.  Work with each member individually, as needed, to ensure expectations are clear.  While some members may prefer and even excel in multi-tasking various responsibilities, other members may be more effective with a shorter list of tasks.
  5. Recognize Team Members for Positive Performance
    Most people enjoy some type of positive recognition.  Recognition can be tailored to each individual team member depending on their preference.  For example, a team member might finish their task early, which could correlate to an earlier project finish time.  That person might appreciate even more responsibility and assisting with another task. Another person might appreciate getting the “extra time” to work on other projects. In addition, an email to their immediate superior recognizing their good work is always appreciated.
    Other Suggestions:  During each (weekly) meeting, do a “shout out” in praise of at least one team member and document the recognition  of their achievement in the meeting minutes.

Managing a unique project from start to finish, whether working with a local or remote project team, will always present challenges.  Working with a motivated team through appropriate and timely communication channels can help overcome at least some of these challenges.

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Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 90 short project management training videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows, PMP are on Amazon.com