How is working remotely with others different from the co-located face-to-face settings we are used to?
The main difference lies in the fact that projects have become very complex. As companies and organizations become international, project teams become more and more distributed.
While in the past there might have been 1 or 2 remote team members, today, we find a lot of teams distributed across many time zones, where physical distance and cultural differences create a very diverse setting.
It is not just the complexity within the team that has increased. Also, the organizational and team contexts have become more diverse.
For instance, more stakeholders have influence over a project and can effect changes that impact your work. Distance forces organizations and teams to rely much more than in the past on new forms of communication and collaboration, namely online tools.
While these tools have the potential to making the lives of project teams easier, they, first, require new skills and styles of communication, again increasing the complexity of teamwork.
What does this mean for teamwork?
Project and team management approaches are still valid
First, classical team and project management concepts and methods are still useful.
What is different now is how they are applied in teamwork or in a project. I just explained that complexity has increased and change that affects you and your team is faster and less predictable than in the past.
This means that we need a much more agile approach to team and project management where feedback loops are much shorter, so we can react and correct faster.
For example, we need to define smaller work packages that can be done in a week or less instead of the typical 3-month milestones in traditional projects.
The importance of planning in this approach does not lie in its thoroughness or detail orientation.
Rather, preparation and planning should be used to reach clarity within the team and between the sponsor, project team and stakeholders about goals, scope, and key terms and concepts that will guide the project or teamwork in general. Then, teams need to connect regularly and consistently, to better coordinate and change course fast if needed.
Distance requires teams to use online tools
Second, working across distance requires new ways of communicating using online tools.
For many, this technical dimension of virtual project work is the biggest challenge to more satisfying and productive teamwork.
Knowing which tools to use and how to use them, however, is only one aspect of this challenge. The other is integrating the tools with your work processes, which requires the project team to review and adapt the way they work together.
Misunderstandings arise faster and have bigger impacts
Third, team differences, communication issues or misunderstandings lead much faster to severe problems for the teams and might undermine trust or even end in open conflicts.
Does that mean we need a new way of thinking about leadership? No!
The concepts and approaches that have been taught in business courses in the last decades are still valid. In the virtual work situation, however, carelessness in leadership will be punished.
How? With distance.
Appointments are not met, employees do not appear to the agreed-upon meetings. In meetings, they leave. Collaboration simply no longer takes place. And worst of all, you can hardly do anything against it. Classical command and control actions and methods have no effect.
One of the consequences is that project leaders have to be very explicit in communicating with their team. Can you be sure that everyone comes at the same time when you agree to meet at 10 am? Which time zone? Are there cultural differences in punctuality?
If you are on facebook or twitter you might have connections who post what they ate and where they are at any given time during the day. I, at least, often find myself frowning at such useless news. In a virtual team, however, these bits of information can go a long way in getting to know each other and creating team cohesion.
Knowing if my colleague is traveling or has private problems, for example, gives important contextual information. If my teammates and I sit in the same office, there is a lot of context information I get without actively seeking it out.
The new team and project leader
To summarize, a good project manager has to master classical project management methods to be able to prepare, plan and monitor her team and project.
She also is skilled in using technology to effectively work across distance and master virtual leadership and facilitation to motivate and engage her team.