According to a Gallup survey, an estimated 43% of American employees spend at least some of their hours working remotely. This trend has been facilitated by advances in technology, such as web-based project management software, and video conferencing software, as well as communication technologies such as Slack. Though remote work offers several benefits for both employers and employees, it also introduces some new challenges for project managers trying to manage projects across geographically distributed teams.
Communicating at a Distance
For teams with remote team members, you'll no longer be able to have important conversations in person. As a result, you'll have to rely more heavily on emails and online chat. However, there's a bit of a learning curve to communicating primarily through written word. Without being able to read each team member's tone and body language, brief responses over email or chat can be interpreted as rude and direct, creating misunderstandings and having a negative impact on team morale.
Encourage better communication and collaboration by allowing team members to put a personal touch on their written communications. Adding avatars or headshots to user profiles help team members recognize each other quickly and make a big difference in the tone of written communications. This is especially helpful when the headshots include a smiling or positive expression.
When using chat applications that allow font and color changes, team members can choose to personalize their font to help differentiate themselves. While not all instant messaging applications allow this, it is also true that doing so can make the text difficult to read. The IT team may even enforce restrictions for this reason.
Emoticons clarify tone in written communications and express emotions that can be useful for celebrating team wins. Instead of refraining from sarcasm, a quick smiley face allows the sender to communicate humor rather than malice. It's important to note, however, that excessive emoticons may come across as unprofessional in emails, but are fair game in instant messaging applications such as Slack or Skype.
Ideally, virtual teams should leverage video conference calls to add the face-to-face element to their communications. The added body language and expressions help prevent speaking over each other, as is common during voice only calls. When it's not possible to hop on a video call, voice-only conference calls are the next best alternative. Meeting over conference calls for projects has the added benefit of giving team members deadlines by which they should expect to show progress made. Screen sharing is strongly recommended for project meetings over the phone, as it allows team members to focus on something visually, to help team members follow the conversation. Taking notes on the shared screen also allows other team members to correct notes on the fly and recognize when their names are being written down for particular action items.
Getting several team members on the phone at the same time can be difficult, depending on time zones and working hours. If your team uses the same calendar system, such as Outlook 365, take advantage of the suggested times feature on the calendar to find meeting times.
Here are some scheduling considerations for teams with remote members.
Working Coast to Coast
When team members are scattered across the United States, it’s common that the most reasonable meeting times are during somebody’s lunch hour. If, however, team members are flexible about their working hours, these meetings can easily be scheduled in the early morning or early evening to accommodate. Determine the urgency of the meeting subject and plan accordingly.
Working with Global Teams
Global calls are a different beast. It’s always the end of someone’s day or the start of someone else’s. For this reason, it’s highly recommended that these are as brief as possible, and if longer sessions are required, it may be better to spring for a business trip.
Bridging accents and other language barriers is especially difficult for international teams, so screensharing whenever possible is highly recommended. Use built-in attendee lists to take attendance and save time, but make sure to verbally check if anyone’s name isn’t listed.
Working with Multiple Companies
When checking availability via shared calendar software isn’t an option, there are several tools available to help identify good meeting time. FindTime integrates with Outlook and automatically updates the organizer’s calendar with the accepted meeting time. In the worst case scenario, a representative from each company should create placeholder meetings on their team’s calendars and collaborate to identify the best times for all parties. Once a meeting time is agreed upon, unused placeholder meetings can be cancelled or repurposed.
Setting up regular meeting times in advance, such as weekly every Tuesday at 10am prevents the need to constantly search for open spots on a large team’s calendar.
Don’t forget that some meetings are flexible in nature, and team members may be able to move their other commitments around to meet with the project team.
If your meetings are inputs to project deliverables, make sure to ask for team member’s vacation schedules, so any issues can be addressed while they are available. While checking to see if a team member is at the desk and asking their neighbors when they’ll be back works great for in-person teams, getting ahold of virtual team members requires forethought and planning.
Projects that involve deliverables such as process maps, prototypes, and mock-ups benefit greatly from proper collaboration tools. Emailing attachments back and forth and trying to keep track of who has the latest version, or merging edits can introduce unnecessary complications to the project. Too often does emailing mean searching through inboxes and forwarding documents. To avoid this hassel, consider collaboration tools that allow centralized document sharing and editing. Project management software such as TimeCamp or collaboration spaces like Google Drive provide multiple options, including calendars and versioning.
For time-sensitive deliverables or truly collaborative efforts, look into software that allows simultaneous document viewing and editing. Atlassian’s Confluence and Google Docs both offer this feature. Alternatively, ensure that your team is well versed in checking-in and checking-out documents in software such as SharePoint, to ensure that no effort is wasted when team members try to work on the same document at the same time. This requires discipline on the part of the editors and viewers, so the simultaneous editing options are still preferable.
Problems requiring active problem solving and real-time collaboration can be addressed using whiteboarding tools commonly included in screen sharing programs like Zoom and Skype for Business.These features can either appear as a blank canvas for typing and drawing, or the presenter can display a prompt, problem, or backdrop to the virtual whiteboarding session.
Managing projects with remote team members introduces new challenges for modern-day project managers. The proper choice of software tools and processes can help alleviate the new pain points that are commonly encountered by virtual teams, and ensure that your remote teams are happy, productive, and effective.