Virtual teams are a fact of today’s projects. With outsourcing and increased mobility for the workforce, there is a higher proportion of people who either work in satellite locations, or simply work from home.

The project team becomes virtual. How can we keep up with everyone when we can’t see them?

A huge part of project management is getting a feel of how the team is doing

How can we do that without seeing the people we work with? After all, the biggest part of a person’s message is not conveyed with words. It’s transmitted via pitch and intonation of voice, the way she sits or stands, her facial expressions and hand gestures. These are all things someone can’t show in an email, a tweet or a chat window. And while video conferencing and conference calls can help getting a bit more from that team member, it’s still not the same as being right in front her.

Another issue is created by writing instead of talking. In writing, people have different personalities. When we write something, it’s not spontaneous. We get to re-read it, improve the message and control the information we send more closely. This means that someone can be very unhappy about something in the project, and never express it in her communications. Weeks or months later, the problem has grown exponentially and it may not be fixable anymore.

A third issue with virtual teams is the ability to hide things better. Since the project team is not in a war room and the team is not physically together, a team member who would have difficulties would be able to hide it from the team and her project manager. This can cause significant delays in projects, and even compromise the whole project.

As a project manager, how can we adapt to the virtual team?

Step 1: Remember the eyes. One very important thing is to keep something visual going on during a conference call (this article has good examples of desktop sharing applications). I’m sure everyone has been on a conference call while doing email at the same time 🙂 When there is a visual element to the virtual meeting, it’s easier for everyone to stay focused on the subject.

Step 2: Don’t skip the one-on-ones. Even if it’s only by phone of chat, it’s important to dedicate time to each of your team members. The easiest way for me is to plan a weekly 30-minute meeting with each person. When someone works from home, it’s very easy for her to feel left out if no one takes time to talk to her personally. The one-on-one is a great time to get a feel of how things are going with this person, without everyone else listening in on the conversation. Actually, with virtual teams, this a must. If you don’t have those one-on-ones, you have very little chance of learning that a team member’s kid has been sick lately, or that she’s having technical issues with one of her tasks.

Step 3: Keep it social. If at all possible, have a face-to-face kick-off meeting, and have a party when a big milestone in you project has been delivered. The fact that people don’t work in the same place doesn’t mean they don’t work together. Getting the team to know each other (and their project manager) will help everyone adapt their working habits to suit the team.