By Dr. Wanda Curlee
Faculty Member, School of Business, American Public University
Communicate, communicate, communicate. The importance of communication in virtual project management cannot be over-emphasized enough.
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The virtual or remote work environment can be isolating. Isolation was felt by many people when they were suddenly pushed into an online environment due to COVID-19 social distancing. Remote workers are feeling stressed because they do not have an office, or if they do, their environment is not set up for a virtual office.
I know when I first started working remotely, I was quite naïve about office space. I bought myself a small desk, but that was it. Boy, did I learn a lot. I did not realize how isolated I would feel. I am an introvert by nature, so being alone is not a bad thing for me, but it was still a shock.
I knew my extroverted co-workers would have a harder time. I did not realize how much I would have to communicate with the team, the team leads and stakeholders. Trust started to diminish on the team, and I had many emails that were not complimentary of my leadership. All were good but hard lessons learned.
Communication Is Key for Team Members Working Remotely
I have led virtual projects for over 20 years. Over the years, I found that over-communicating on virtual projects is essential.
In fact, it is the most important thing I do when I work remotely. In fact, maintaining communication was so important that I included communicating with the team in the project schedule. You might think this is not necessary, but here’s why you should talk with your team members regularly.
Communicating with Direct Reports and Teams
All projects are busy environments, and tasks are sometimes forgotten. If the task is not in the schedule, there is no reminder of when it is done, who is involved and how long it should take.
Ensure that each of your direct reports is contacted weekly. Also, each team should be contacted weekly or biweekly. Finally, the whole team should be brought together at least monthly.
Your weekly chats with your direct reports should not only be work-related. It is important to understand that isolation is an issue with direct reports, especially now that they will be working remotely for the foreseeable future.
If they have shared a personal feeling in a previous chat, make sure to chat about it if that feeling is appropriate. For example, during COVID-19, a direct report may have expressed being stressed about having kids at home and having to teach them as well as adhering to a regular work schedule.
In such chats, show your direct reports that you care about them. Of course, you need to talk about business as well. Trust is vital on a virtual project, and this type of interaction is an excellent way to establish and maintain trust.
These chats don’t need to be too long—schedule between 15 to 30 minutes. If more time is necessary, consider scheduling a subsequent time.
Similarly, the amount of time spent with each of your teams needs to be similar to your direct reports. Granted, the discussion will not be on such a personal level.
But there should be time given to allow the team to discuss issues affecting it. Is there another team that is not pulling its weight? Is there a team that is consistently late or providing poor quality deliverables? Listen and then make sure you follow up with the complaints.
After that, it is time to get to business. Make sure that you end the discussion on a positive note.
The entire project team should meet periodically, which may be difficult if the team is located in separate countries and over several time zones. To make it more equitable, the meeting times can be done on a rotating schedule.
Also, most video conferencing systems allow for recording. The recording can be sent to all team members who could not make it to the meeting. The meeting could also be posted on an intranet or portal for the team, so that email boxed won’t become clogged.
Help Your Team Be Creative and to Do Their Best Work
A YouTube video that I recently reviewed had 21 suggestions for managing a remote team. There were some excellent recommendations, and some of them I have used myself.
The first thing that I do in every project is to have a virtual water cooler open 24×7. The virtual water cooler is an online site where the team can discuss anything.
One thing I learned quickly in virtual project management is that there must be rules around the virtual water cooler. If not, individuals may not act appropriately for a professional environment. The first time someone logs into the virtual water cooler, they have to agree to the rules.
The reason it is called a virtual water cooler is it is to take the place of the “traditional” water cooler in a brick-and-mortar setting. What can you discuss on the water cooler? You can chat about family, movies, activities done over the weekend or a brainstorming session to resolve tough project problems. Any topic can be discussed, but it must be respectful.
Also, remind employees to close down every night and on weekends. Your brain needs a rest from email and chat. When you stay on all the time, your brain does not have time to recharge to be innovative and creative.
Neuroscience studies have demonstrated that brains that do not rest from being on a laptop, cell phone or other electronic devices are not as creative. Don’t let your team down by not being at your best.
When you want to do brainstorming or figure something out that might be complex, DON’T use email or even chat. Instead, use a video conferencing system. Trying to resolve something ambiguous or complex via email or chat will upset all those that are participating.
Remember, remote work relies on keeping your team happy and productive. Many systems have video conferencing built into their offerings. For instance, there is Skype, Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Macintosh computers have both Zoom and FaceTime.
Virtual Project Management Should Also Use 360-Degree Performance Reviews
Depending on how long your project is and what your company allows, consider conducting a 360-degree performance review on each person. This review should not be a scary thing for those on the project.
Instead, these reviews should be used to help the team work better together, help employees to be more helpful to teammates and encourage everyone to be more creative. Work with your human resource department to discuss what your goals are for the 360-degree reviews; the HR team will be more than happy to help you develop open-ended and closed-ended questions.
Good Virtual Project Management Also Relies on Trial and Error
When you search virtual project management, you will get so much information returned in your search results that you’ll get overwhelmed. What is sound advice, and what should you reject?
Wisdom comes with many failures, and not all failures are catastrophic. I learned many good management techniques for virtual projects through trial and error.
In addition, I have found that speaking with your team leads helps a lot when you have a flop regarding something you tried that didn’t work. Use them as a sounding board, and get their feedback regarding what happened.
Remember that what works with one project team may not work with another team. And at times, don’t be shy to dictate how it will be.
But pick and choose your words wisely. Your team will remember everything you communicate to them!
About the Author
Dr. Wanda Curlee is a Program Director at American Public University. She has over 30 years of consulting and project management experience and has worked at several Fortune 500 companies. Dr. Curlee has a Doctor of Management in Organizational Leadership from the University of Phoenix, an MBA in Technology Management from the University of Phoenix, and an M.A. and a B.A. in Spanish Studies from the University of Kentucky. She has published numerous articles and several books on project management.
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