By Dr. Wanda Curlee
Faculty Member, School of Business, American Public University
Dispersed projects, remote projects and global projects are different terms for virtual project management. During the recent pandemic, most virtual project managers quickly moved to a virtual setting.
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Being a virtual project manager, however, is not just switching from going to someone’s office to picking up the phone. There are many shifts in thinking that virtual project managers need to do.
For instance, virtual project managers need to make sure to remember small things about their direct reports (family situations, anniversaries and birthdays, for example) without being intrusive. They should communicate more often, especially with a team in various parts of the world or working at home. Virtual project managers should also make sure to use email judiciously, and use other forms of communication such as chat or video conferencing when the resolution to a problem needs to be quick or is complex.
What Is a Virtual Project Manager?
What is a virtual project manager? Simply put, a virtual project manager has one or more core team members who are not working in the same office space as the team.
Some even believe when one of the team members is on a different floor or more than 50 feet away, this distance counts as virtual. Fifty feet away is pushing it a bit, however. But whether it is 50 feet or a country away, how do you keep your sanity when you’re a virtual manager?
Virtual Project Managers Should Keep Four Areas in Mind
Remote teams must worry about different time zones, and language may be a barrier. Also, a virtual project depends on trust between the team members and the project manager. Without trust, the project will quickly fall apart.
According to Entrepreneur writer Matt Keener, there are four areas the virtual project manager needs to keep in mind: email, tasks, chats and processes. He recommends using email appropriately, setting recurring tasks, considering the use of group chats, and developing clear processes.
Most of us can identify with having far too many emails in a day. We each have a way to handle the emails but is it efficient and the best use of email?
When you are tasking someone to do something, use the appropriate tool. That tool could be a log, Trello or a project management tool. When you need to ask a quick question, would it be better to use a chat tool or pick up the phone? Ideally, the project team needs to help minimize the amount of email generated on a project.
There are repetitive tasks on a project, so the project manager needs to note them and include them in the project management tool. Recurring tasks should be given to those that know how to do them; do not ask someone to update the project management tool if they do not know how to use it.
Remember, you are in a remote environment, and it is not always easy to find the person you need. Also, do not overload someone with many recurring tasks.
Instead of recurring meetings, consider group chats. Group chats may resolve a quick issue more naturally than a back-and-forth email chain.
Remember, the person reading your email may not understand your intent. If English is a second language for that person, the subtle nuances of the email may be even more challenging for him or her to understand.
Processes should be developed to help team members how to get their work done, but that does not mean that everything is crystal clear to remote workers. The processes keep the project team from the necessity of hunting where they need to go to complete their work. For example, if someone needs to have a document approved, the process advises them who approves the document and how that approval is verified.
Additional Advice for Virtual Project Managers
In the article 10 Ways to Successfully Manage Virtual Teams, writer Rocco Baldassarre has some additional suggestions for virtual project managers. For instance, Baldassarre notes that a virtual project should have clearly defined deliverables, an overlap of work time for team members in various time zones and a professional work environment. The virtual project also needs the right person for the work, a meritocracy developed over time and project management tools.
Defined deliverables are not any different than in a project in a brick-and-mortar environment. Team members need to understand what they are working on, what is included in the deliverable and what is not.
Understanding what feeds into the deliverable and who needs it next should also be clearly defined. This also ties into having the right person for the work to be done.
Work Time for Team Members in Different Time Zones
Baldassarre suggests that having regularly scheduled meetings helps to establish a routine for the project team. Sometimes, however, these meetings can be difficult for a team that is dispersed globally, and it may mean that some cannot attend at the scheduled time.
In this same vein, he recommends having an overlap of working hours when more than one time zone is involved, but this would be virtually impossible in a global team. A project manager will have to see how overlap teams could work together.
Baldassarre also notes that face-to-face meetings can be more productive. But too many video meetings can take precious time away from the team members.
A group chat can resolve some issues quickly. However, a video chat should be used when the topic is more complex or tricky to explain in a written environment. Consider what you want to discuss before jumping to a video chat.
Professionalism in the Work Environment
Having a professional work environment is a must, whether it’s in a brick-and-mortar environment or a remote office. As we have found out through some mishaps on Zoom and other video conferences, Zoom users should always make sure to show up appropriately dressed.
What is proper dress for a Zoom chat? Dress according to the guidelines of what is appropriate for your company. If business casual is what your company uses as a standard, then dress accordingly. Of course, if you tend to be more formal, that would be all right as well.
Choosing the Right Person
In his discussion of choosing the right person for the work, Baldassarre focuses on making sure the person can adapt to the remote work environment. He suggests tests to assess a person’s personality and adaptability.
But working in an isolated environment may depend more upon generation than personality. Consider that millennials and Gen Z are comfortable with technology and communicating remotely, while others of older generations may have to get used to using other technologies.
A meritocracy can be tricky. Companies reward personnel on different criteria and one’s skill set may not be one of those criteria.
For instance, some companies emphasize teamwork over skills. Other companies may focus on results.
As the virtual project manager, you need to follow the guidelines of your company. However, you can also recognize members of the team for many different areas. People always appreciate being recognized for doing something well.
Project Management Tools
Using project management tools is common sense. However, note that there are sophisticated project management tools and there are simple tools.
MS Excel is particularly useful for developing a project schedule. But be sure to use the right tool for the job.
Do not use a complex tool for a simple project. Your team will not appreciate using a difficult tool when a simple one will do.
In the End, Virtual Project Managers Must Do What Makes Sense for Their Teams
What are project managers to do when they have different recommendations from experts like Keener and Balderasse? Use the advice that makes the most sense for your team. It may take some trial and error to determine what works, but you will have a happier team.
Remember to talk to your team. Reach out to all your direct reports at least weekly to see how they are doing in a remote environment. They may also have ideas on how to help the remote team. Remember, they have probably been on one before.
Have your direct reports reach out to their team members as well. Trust needs to be maintained on a virtual project, and Reaching out and touching others can help keep trust intact.
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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