Building a Successful Project Team in a Virtual World

February 19, 2016 Appirio

By Diane Shotton

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Project management is complex, and when you factor in managing virtually and being agile, the skills needed to be successful have evolved. Managing people across time zones where you have little (if any) face-to-face time and a team that expands/contracts over the course of the project means project managers (PMs) should ensure they inject the following key elements into their management psyche.

Team members are people first

PMs want to get the job done and sometimes overlook the need to get to know the people who will be working with you on the project. Timelines, deadlines, and task completion are all important, but if you connect with folks on a personal level, you get to engage them in non-work conversations. Remember to ask how someone is feeling after they’ve said they didn’t feel well, how their son’s birthday party went, how they did at the match they participated in. Bring a little of this into team meetings — especially stand-ups, as it balances the “gotta get things done and through the meeting” with the fact that we all have lives outside of the project.

Connect to a higher purpose

If I have no idea why I am doing something, I am not likely to be successful or do what is needed. When team members feel connected to the project purpose, they can see and feel how their contribution affects the outcome. Give the team feedback at least once a week on what they did, expand on what they’re about to do, and reiterate how it ties back to the goals. Support the team by using the same tactic with customers and stakeholders. This ensures context and value for better collaboration and results.

Touch base

We spend lots of time with the team — mostly talking as a group. But it’s important that team members have a way to be heard as individuals. Set up 15-minute bi-weekly calls to see how they are feeling. Start this early in the project, so you can build trust. You’ll hear all sorts of things — some you should act on and some you should not. But never break confidences! You’ll kick trust in the head and never get it back. Also use IM to touch base when you sense someone is having a hard day, or you know what you’ve asked for is going to be a challenge. Don’t be intrusive and don’t defend your ask. Just see how they are feeling about things. (I often say hi, ask how they are doing, and say thanks for all that they do!)

Ask their advice

PMs often think they have to have all the answers. We don’t and we shouldn’t… That’s why we have a team! Even if the PM thinks they have an approach or idea that will work, check in with the team to get buy-in and ensure all impacts are covered. The outcome will be richer and folks will feel shared responsibility for the outcome.

Have fun!

Ever been in a stand-up meeting and the leader railroads the group through the agenda and cuts laughter short? After all, there’s only 15 minutes to cover everything. Yep, that happens. And it’s because PMs can get too focused on getting things done and administrivia. Take time to laugh as a group or at the expense of one another (if you have that kind of comfort level). It lightens the mood and helps de-stress the team. PMs who cut laughter short or don’t join in make everyone else feel like the task at hand is all that’s important.

Video is better than audio

Getting your meaning across via audio requires extra effort on your part and extra effort for the listener to pay attention and digest meaning. As most people prefer visual interactions with audio, use tools like Google Hangouts or GoToMeeting to share information and interact. Team members get more from meetings where there’s face-to-face contact, as you can read body language and facial expressions. There’s also the added benefit of sharing your screen to focus the conversation (but be mindful of overuse as it diminishes the benefit of face-to-face). You can also inject a little fun into Google Hangouts by adorning on-screen faces with ridiculous accoutrements such as pirate hats, tiaras, and monocles.

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