Updated: Feb 9
Today, we will talk about the subject of how to support and engage in a virtual team. A virtual team means that the team members who engage in the same project are dispersed in different cities or countries. For those who work in big companies, virtual teams are very common. The use of a virtual team can significantly save the expense of travel costs, but would also add many troubles of management. Troubles like cultural differences and differences of working hours between different areas/countries would lead to difficulties of team cooperation.
In this article, we would talk about how to manage a project with a virtual team as a project manager.
1 A practical case
Here is a project which I have personally been through.
At the beginning of last year, I engaged in a software project as a project manager. The project was to develop a customer relationship management system. Considering the high expense of human resources, the company decided that the project would be executed and performed by the Shanghai team, but the subsequent operations work would be performed by the Wuhan team. In order to be able to smoothly transfer the deliverables to the operations team, in the beginning, we intentionally invited two engineers who would certainly participate in the operations phase from Wuhan to develop the software together with the Shanghai team. But due to the long duration of the project and the high expense of travel cost, we decided to cooperate with these two engineers remotely.
At the early phase of execution, I already found some issues regarding the virtual team. Because the two engineers who were in Wuhan were not in the same city as I was, therefore I had no intuitive feeling regarding their work status, emotions, or their working enthusiasm. After some mismatching between what the two engineers delivered and what the local team requested, the two teams of two cities began to distrust each other. This situation caused the project very difficult to push forward and led to a delay in the project.
After I analyzed what was going wrong with the management of the virtual team, several problems could be identified as follow:
The first problem, there were environmental differences between the two teams, which required me to assign their tasks in different ways. For example, the Wuhan team’s office hour was always 30 minutes ahead of the Shanghai team, which means sometimes the Shanghai team wanted to communicate to the Wuhan team at the last half an hour but the Wuhan team had already off duty. This situation had caused the Shanghai team to be slightly dissatisfied because while the member of the Shanghai team thought the team members of both sides should resolve a certain problem together, the member of the Wuhan team who raised the problem was already off duty, which the Shanghai team considered disrespectful.
The second problem, the virtual team was a lack of necessary communications, and sometimes there were deviations of the two teams’ perception of certain matters. For example, as mentioned in the case above, the deliverables which were delivered by the Wuhan team mismatched with the original requirement. The reason for that was the two teams’ earlier communication was not sufficient regarding the relevant deliverables.
The third problem, when the problems between the two teams happened, the project manager did not intervene in the situation soon enough. Before any problem with the deliverables was discovered, I did not monitor the work or progress of the remote team (AKA. The Wuhan team), on the contrary, I trusted them completely. As a result, the disqualified deliverables developed by the Wuhan team caused a big loss of the project.
2 Suggestions of virtual team management
After the problems were identified, I quickly developed a solution and communicated with the department director and the leader of the Wuhan team. Together we reached a consensus on how to solve the problems.
First, we have to understand the detailed information and expectation of team members from the two teams and develop reasonable methods of collaboration in different circumstances. In the case above, I communicated to the Wuhan team about how the Shanghai team did their work and when they usually needed to communicate to the Wuhan team to acquire certain information. Most importantly, I asked the Wuhan team what time would be appropriate and what kind of communication methods were acceptable.
Second, based on the suggestions of virtual team management in PMBOK, we have to effectively use the internet and build a common communication platform for the project. In the case above, I assembled a communication group using the company’s communication software. In the group, I only included members of both the Wuhan team and the Shanghai team, without any external stakeholders such as department directors/leaders. In this way, the internal team members of both teams can communicate any issues or problems in the group freely.
Third, we have to develop common ground rules which both teams agree upon, in order to satisfy the needs of both teams. In the case above, I developed team rules of communicating regularly and review regularly. I altered the time of the daily meetings and weekly meetings to ensure that members of both teams could take part in the meetings, which would guarantee all project information can be delivered to all team members as soon as possible.
Finally, the work of both teams must be regularly reviewed by members of both teams. In this way, members of both teams can reach a common understanding of the project objectives and requirements of deliverables. And the mismatched deliverable problem in the case above can be avoided.
Except for the solutions above, as a project manager, I would also communicate with each member of both local and remote teams personally and regularly. The purpose of this communication is to listen to the opinions and expectations of each member and give some recognition of their achievements.
With all the arrangements and steps being performed, the project was finally back to normal and turned out to be a success.
In summary, this article gives a practical case of virtual team management and gives some suggestions of how to avoid or fix the common problems of virtual team management.