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Managing Remote Teams and Projects

Posted by Duane Colley on May 7, 2012 5:42:45 PM

With organizations expanding their markets across geographies and the global economy getting closely integrated, more and more people need to work together across physical locations. Projects being delivered in a distributed manner are a reality of today. In a distributed project delivery set up, one has to put in a lot of extra effort to communicate, form relationships and build trust when you cannot see the body language and facial expressions and share an occasional lunch. Following are some of the key areas which a Project Manager (PM) needs to pay special attention to:

  • Remote customers/users – Sometimes the team might be working in a remote development center set up where you and the project team are in same location and the customer is in a different location. You must have regular face-to-face meetings with the customer(s) in the beginning to establish the trust and expectations. The communication must be constant and should contain formal reports and informal updates. It is especially true in a remote situation that you will need to establish relationships with senior users in addition to the sponsor. Ideally, lot of communication should take place with end users throughout the life of the project.   
  • Set ground rules and expectations for team – Not everyone is comfortable (especially at the   beginning) working with people they have never seen or met. On many occasions there might be cultural as well as organizational differences which you as the PM must respect and ensure that everyone on the team respects those differences.  You should set ground rules in the very beginning to ensure mutual respect and equality of opportunity for everyone to present thoughts and share knowledge across the team. You will need to encourage use of all communication methods available. 
  • Set up the teams based on similarity of work – If possible, assign team members work which they can do with others at the same location; for example, having all testing resources at one location will help them benefit from each other’s experience and knowledge of the application.
  • Protect your distributed team – Sometimes team members may be allocated to the project on a part-time basis and, with their remaining time, working on other commitments for which they report to local (functional area) management. This, on some occasions, can lead to your project taking lower priority. Regular communication with expectation setting and monitoring with the remote team is one of the ways to ensure that this doesn’t happen. This situation becomes more complex when there is a matrix structure involved and functional managers are collocated with the team. You as a PM always need to work out clear (formal or informal) terms of references (ToR) with the functional managers. 
  • Do not be a distant “ruler” – This sounds like a medieval term, however it is still true at a psychological level. When you have a team at a location with the manager, the teams at other locations can sometimes feel like they are being “ruled” from a distant city. This can bring down team morale and trust level like nothing else. As a PM, you will need to ensure that the team local to management is never perceived as being favored. A PM of a distributed team should never identify himself as belonging to specific location. Make sure you visit each location at least once during the life of the project; the sooner you meet the teams face to face the better it will be. A success celebration at one location needs to have similar celebrations at other locations; you as a leader might have to work hard to achieve this. Different locations might have different holidays, so you will also need to maintain a holiday calendar. 
  • Time zone difference – More often than not there will be a time difference between various locations. It is easy to manage a time difference of a couple of hours by having conference calls during the “core” part of the day. However, if you have more than 4-5 hours of time difference, then the practical solution is to have various locations work on a slightly early/late schedule on a rotation basis so that the pain is shared by everyone. There is no silver bullet for this scenario and needs to be managed on a case by case basis.
  • Collaboration tools – There is a vast collection of technologies which enable distributed teams to share information and solve problems together. You will need a conference call facility and might need more than one “virtual” conference room depending upon the size of the project. Products such as GoToMeeting or WebEx will be needed to enable people to share desktops. If needed, you can also make use of video calling facilities like traditional video conferencing, Skype, Google+ hangouts, etc. You will need to setup file sharing mechanism for the project team like shared folders, or collaboration sites like SharePoint or some other tool. Get your people headsets for desk phones because telephone calls will be more frequent than when the team is collocated. 
  • Communicate, Communicate, Communicate – A common theme in all of the above points is communication. Communication in general can make or break a project team and the impact of a good or bad communication strategy is amplified in a distributed team setting. Both formal and informal communication has its place in a distributed setup. Many times, casual one to one discussions can bring a lot more issues to your attention than formal meetings and reports. You will need to make sure that the calls do not stretch any longer than they have to, have a clear agenda and stick to it. Ensure that people know in advance what information they need to bring to the call so they don’t end up looking for it during the call. 

In summary, the soft leadership skills of a PM become even more important in a distributed setup as a PM must form and maintain a culture of openness and mutual respect, as well as promote team culture across locations.

Further reading

Topics: Leadership

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