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Run properly, virtual projects have three advantages that nonvirtual projects don't: diversity, locale-specific insights and working time. These advantages have a price, however. As you can imagine, the biggest cost of virtual projects is that they come with communication challenges. Mitigating these challenges will take not only additional resources but additional virtual-collaboration smarts as well. To mitigate the risks of virtual collaboration best and create a team that works, you must master the three biggest challenges of managing a virtual team: building a strong bond between your team members during the project kickoff, finding the right technology to foster virtual collaboration, and optimizing team coverage by organizing the project's leadership by geography.
The first step in building a virtual team that works is to maximize the time when you're physically together. When your team is in virtual collaboration mode, the best communication architecture will still fall short of having a colocated team. A smart CIO will compensate with team solidarity. Unfortunately this happens best when your team is in the same room together. To manage a virtual team effectively, you must closely manage the time its members are together.
To set the tone properly and cement a foundation for your virtual collaboration, I suggest you kick off virtual projects when the team is colocated. Whatever the expense, bring everyone together under one roof for at least a few weeks -- four weeks or more is ideal. The kickoff is the most important time in a virtual project's lifecycle, and it's absolutely essential that your leadership skills shine. Don't bring everyone together just to have a few meetings. This should be an intense, virtual team-building event.
During the kickoff, pay close attention to the way your pivotal players work together. Move quickly through the forming stage -- where everyone is cordial with one another -- to the storming stage. That's where inter-team conflict shows up and your project leadership will challenged. By working through these issues while your team is together physically, you'll set the stage for a virtual team that works. If you're fortunate enough to reach the norming stage before your team members go off to various corners of the world, you're in very good shape. Of course, building effective virtual teams isn't something you can do by force. It helps, however, when you maximize the amount of time team members spend together as a group.
The project kickoff also is the time for you to demonstrate strong guidance as the team's leader. Make sure the virtual work team is very clear on each member's role, responsibilities and escalation paths. Clearly explain the ground rules and the way decisions are made. If you have a team of virtual project managers, make sure you delegate the appropriate amount of authority -- and ensure that everyone on the team knows and respects the managers' role. If possible, work with these project managers ahead of the team's arrival. You'll want not only to coordinate the project kickoff event but also to sync coordination, goals, objectives and key risks for the project.
The project kickoff meeting isn't only time the virtual work team should get together in person. Through the life of your project, make sure the team comes together in person at regular intervals to recharge the team dynamic and refresh your leadership influence.
Virtual collaboration tech is vital to success
With the basic group dynamics of your collaboration covered, it's time to tackle communication challenges. Obviously, communication technology is crucial in building a virtual team that works. Fortunately, some very good products have emerged in the marketplace: Skype, GoToMeeting and WebEx, along with an assortment of free Web conferencing tools. Turn the technology selection into a team event, especially if it includes a good number of technical, Gen X or Millennial members. If everyone is already comfortable with a certain virtual collaboration technology, start with it. Address more than just real-time communication. Also hit on file sharing and collaborative development. This could involve using multiple tools. Enterprise social media solutions like Jive and Yammer offer pretty comprehensive products for virtual project teams.
It's best to evaluate and test-drive this communication technology when everyone is together, in a colocated setting. This way, you can not only exchange feedback in person but also work out protocols for working together when things go virtual. As part of your on-site event, set up controlled simulations with the proposed technology, and have your team come together after the simulation to discuss positives to be reinforced, improvements to be made, and risks to be mitigated. After a few cycles of going through this, you and your team should have most of the kinks worked out.
Managing a virtual team locally
If you plan to run a continuous operation (that is, one that's nonstop or follow-the-sun), have at least one project manager physically in each "office" represented by your virtual team members. It's hard enough to bring in a project with one project manager; the communication risks introduced with multiple project managers can be overwhelming. You run an even greater risk if you try to use one project manager for a virtual project team that's spread out around the world.
Work closely with the virtual project managers on coordination and communication. Your project's goals and objectives have to be synchronized. Project plans are very fluid, so synchronized change management procedures are absolutely vital as well. There always should be a project manager on duty, depending on the locale. The manager from the previous shift should stay online for at least another hour while the current manager moves into his shift. The manager in the upcoming shift should plug in at least an hour before her shift begins, in order to acclimate to the new project realities. Done properly, with subteams strategically located in different countries (the United States, Europe, India and Singapore, for example), it's possible to run a highly effective, continuous project implementation.
More about virtual project teams
If you have nonvirtual time, communication and localized project management under control; the rest of your virtual project management issues should fall into place. Managing a virtual team might seem like a lot of trouble, but the benefits are amazing: Virtual work teams can produce results that their colocated counterparts simply can't touch. Once you start building confidence and getting results with virtual teams that work, your teams can tackle bigger projects, until they're the automatic choice for your organization's most difficult challenges.
John Weathington is president and CEO of Excellent Management Systems Inc., a San Francisco-based management consultancy.
Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.