Virtually speaking…

Recently, I’ve had a lot of emails and questions about working in virtual teams so I decided to ask my Twitter followers about where they were struggling and then create a series of blogs on how to excel at working in a virtual environment.

In this blog, I’ll be focusing on “How to create an environment that your team can excel in”. This is one area that a lot of Project Managers feel is out of their control but I’d argue that there are changes/things that you can do that can make a lot of difference.

1) Forms of Communication/ Communication plan:

One thing that is vital in a virtual environment is communication and being very clear with your team about what will be communicated, when, and how it’ll be communicated. I like to have this set out at the start of the project as part of the “Expectation Management” for how we’ll be working in the project but if you have new colleagues or changes, this should be addressed accordingly with your team.

2) Expectation Management.

Is your team aware what you expect from them? What they expect from you? Is everyone clear on how you’ll be working? Which forms of communication are used? Are they rules when it comes to onsite presence and time if they’re remote? Are working hours clear for the different locations?

All of this, I like to set out in the project and reiterate it if it starts to be forgotten. One key area of confusion that can arise is around how things will be communicated or managed. An example could be: your team meetings are held every Monday and you expect the team to deliver their updates and where they are needing support but the purpose of the meeting gets disrupted due to national holidays and Business Critical issues and soon the agenda is not adhered to. This means that the PM does not get the updates they need and become detached from the day to day running of the project or start adding in other meetings to make up for this deviation.

3) Become the Bouncer at the party

It’s a common occurrence that in your project, your team can get distracted or diverted by other projects or requests coming in. One area of critical success is being able to create an environment where the team are able to focus on their tasks and not get distracted by other people/requests. Here are some recommendations for how you can “be the bouncer” of your project:

  • Put the team in one room with a door that can close. If you’re sitting in the location, then sit in the room by the door and use your physical presence to stop disturbance coming into the room. I’d suggest encouraging the team to decorate their door with their Team Name or decoration.
  • Get stakeholder/management support to not have your team diverted. This is great if you have a strong stakeholder and an area where good stakeholder management can really pay off. To be able to explain to stakeholders you can iterate the opportunity cost of the team being diverted (i.e. tasks take longer, team are not focused/rework).
  • Depending on the virtual team location: have strict management and control from your local counterpart for the team and making sure that they’re all accountable for the work being done/executed.
  • Give consequences: I’m always happy to help another PM out (if I can) but if this affects my project or the official process is not followed, I make sure that I show the consequence to my stakeholders/the team/ my steerco as needed. An example that I have done in the past included highlighting to the Steering committee that we would not make our agreed deadline because one of the Steerco members had diverted the team to another project for 1 week whilst I was on holiday.

4) Team building /does everyone know what role they play?

I recommend this for every virtual project. At the start of your project or on a regular basis, make sure that you’re doing team building activities to build a strong team and also make sure that everyone is aware of the roles of each team member. This doesn’t mean that it needs to be a formal “this is Bob and he’s your lead developer” but more an opportunity for the team to learn about everyone and what they’re doing in the project: “Hi, I’m Rob and I’m working on the Power BI reports and using the outputs from the software to give management the updates they want”.

Another idea for your teambuilding activity, could be how you communicate informally within the project. Do you have a group whatsapp chat? or a slack chat for your team? This can be really useful for sharing non work related things that can help build a good team environment. During the recent summer holiday, we had everyone share one picture from their holiday destination. This was really nice and helped start some great discussions about food and the best places for an active holiday.

5) Friday = Funday.

How do you celebrate success in a virtual environment? Is it just about formal HR recognition? Maybe. Or it could also be about joint drinks on a Friday afternoon, cake Wednesday, sports activities. During the recent women’s football world cup, we had people pick countries to support and we had some great banter between the different locations about the different matches and the teams.

One activity that has proven successful in my distributed teams is celebrating each locations national holidays. For the Netherlands “Kings Day”, we sent orange bunting and Stroopwafels to each team’s location. For Australia Day we had TimTams and Vegemite sent to the all the teams and had a joint TimTam Slam during lunch (If you don’t know what a TimTam Slam is… Please watch this video). For Divali, we had traditional sweets delivered and participated in our own “Festival of Lights”. It’s small touches and activities but they can bring all of the locations closer together and bind the team into a closer relationship. It may also start a black market in bringing suitcases of Stroopwafels to the remote locations!

What I have not touched upon here is the importance of having good connection and bandwidth available between your onsite and remote locations. If you foresee that this may be a problem, I’d recommend raising this immediately as a risk to the Stakeholders and trying to get it resolved ASAP. You should also make sure that you plan and budget in sufficient travel for the core team members to be in the different locations. The frequency of these visits will depend entirely on your own project and what is important for the project.

What is clear is that creating an environment for your team to excel in, will provide you so many benefits to your project and team motivation that I strongly recommend that you invest enough time and effort in this activity.

What do you do to create an environment of excellence with your remote teams? Let’s share knowledge!

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