How many of can relate to this situation? You’re in a conference call with all of your team members from several different countries and across different time zones. You’re on a good quality audio device but you’re talking over each other, there’s interference on the line or you’re having issues understanding what the other members on the call are saying. What can you do about it?
Working with remote teams can cause a lot of conflict from areas that you might not expect. A lot of Project Managers underestimate the amount of time that it’ll take to have an effective project working when you are using remote teams. Using video devices can really help with avoiding certain situations but it’s quite difficult to maintain a good dynamic with remote teams and keep them feeling engaged and committed to the project.
“One of the biggest issues that I’ve got at the moment is that I’m spending so much time with the offshore team in explaining, justifying and clarifying what needs to be done. We’re working with people who tend to resist and argue rather than cooperate and work with us. They always give the priority to their local interests despite being dedicated to my project. I’m utterly exhausted in having to battle with them every day on this. Help!”
This was just one example of nearly 50 messages that I received after my webinar on leading a virtual team on projectmanagement.com. It’s a really common issue and one that I’ve seen a lot of Project Managers struggle with. So, what can you do about it? In this situation, I’d try to understand the reasons behind their resistance and if there is a cultural issue or if there is something else/larger at play (e.g. issues from their parent group/company, problems within the group etc). Once I’ve understood the reasons why I’d then look at the following:
Work with your local counterpart
I’d strongly recommend that when you’re seeing a conflict with your remote team, that you work with your local counterpart to work out where the issue lies and what they can do to support you in getting a harmonious relationship ongoing. This could be something as ‘easy’ as getting the teams together/ having the PM on site at the offshore location for a while. Furthermore, if you haven’t visited your offshore team for a while, I’d recommend that you do so! Working closely with them and in ‘their’ environment will give you an insight into how they work, what issues they could be having external to your project and also allow you to build a closer working relationship with them.
Look at what technology you’re using to keep in touch with your remote team. Are you using video conferencing for your meetings? Look at investing in video link ups in your team rooms to get your teams bonding with each other. In one of my projects, we had a live video link where the teams could talk to each other or it could just show the teams working. The remote team loved being able to talk ‘live’ to their team members and share in the daily life of the office. There are little things you can do like ensuring that everyone’s image in their IM/Messenger is actual (and not one of Spongebob Squarepants!). There are so many technological developments now for sharing your screens/documents that it makes it so easy to do this with your remote teams and update instantaneously.
Keep all of your meetings with the remote teams short, on topic and relevant. If you need an example of what it’s like for your remote team, try it yourself! Go into another meeting room than your team and connect to your meeting. How long does your concentration last? Do you feel that you can contribute your point as a participant?
If you haven’t already done it, I’d strongly recommend that you learn about who you’re working with, what their culture is, how they work/think. This will help you understand if your differences are because of other reasons other than a difference of culture. At the start of every project or with every new colleague that joins my team, I make sure that I send them on a culture course so that they can learn about their own culture and also about those that we’ll be working with. I’ve found it’s invaluable in understanding who we’re working with and how teams work differently across the globe.
Clear stage gates
An area that remote teams fail is with delivering below required quality requirements and results. One way to get around this is to ensure that you have regular stage gates with clear requirements. If you’re working slightly agile, you could make sure that you have clear Definition of Done (DoD) in place so that any work delivered meets these agreed steps.
When teams own tasks, they tend to feel more responsible for delivering it on time and to the agreed quality. Give your offshore team the responsibility to accept tasks and deliver them. You’ll need to adapt this accountability based upon the culture that you’re working with, but it works nevertheless!
This is a really easy win and so easy to achieve! Make sure that you’re doing regular team building with all of your teams and also ensure that this is being done in the remote location independently. I’ve led projects where there has been no budget for team building, so I made my own. I chose low-cost activities over lunch (e.g. a weekly educational film, going out for lunch/walks together…) and made sure that the team was feeling included. Naturally, I also asked them what they’d like to do and what they would find valuable. When working with my offshore team, I would dedicate as much time as possible to them and team building when they came over to our offices for training or meetings. I would also make sure that they were included in the team activities. I’ve been extremely fortunate that I’ve been in teams that all want to perform and work together. Even if they don’t all agree on everything, all the time.
Working with remote teams does require an additional skill set and you need to have a pragmatic approach to your remote team. You need to make sure that you’re working effectively but also that you’re not losing time unnecessarily. Utilising the team that you have in your offshore area will help you gain momentum and fully understand the dynamic of working with this team.
Do you have any suggestions for what helps you working with remote teams? Share them below and let’s start a dialogue!