Information distance is becoming more and more independent of geographical distance. Outsourcing projects and virtual teams are becoming commonplace in software development and other related business.
Project management in virtual teams is a challenge because some of the traditional time and material concepts breaks down when worker works on their own schedule.
Based on my experience with virtual teams, I have compiled a list of things that can make it more efficient.
1. Long term virtual team
It takes a lot of effort and due diligence to find the right team for outsourcing projects. Once done, you do not want to waste this effort and do it all over again. To use remote workers efficiently you need to think about a long term relationship with the remote worker.
2. Use appropriate collaboration tools
Because you do not see your project partner face to face, it does not mean that the communication burden is less. Having virtual teams dictates the need for communication that is better, efficient and precise. Choose communication tools that mimic face to face meeting, for example, video conferencing software like skype etc. can share screen, video and voice. Some of the useful tools are notes, shared calendar, time tracking, task tracking and issue tracking.
3. Team Discipline
It is easy to lose motivation when you are far apart and not communicating well. The virtual team members (including you, the project manager) needs to setup and follow the standards strictly. These needs to be discussed with the team and everybody must buy in on it before starting the project. Some examples are, team members should not be late for meetings for more than 10 minutes, or all time sheet and status report are due Monday morning by 10AM EST. All time-offs needs to be declared (unless emergency) at least three days before. Create the rules that works for you and everyone else in the team follow religiously.
4. Meetings and Communication
Virtual team meetings should follow the same pattern as face-to-face meeting. Meeting agenda needs to be created in advance. For regular review, an agenda can be looking into past status reports etc. One thing I found useful for each team member to publish a sheet mentioning their working hours (when they will be at their desk), personal hours (when they can only be contacted during emergency) and flex hours (when they may or may not be available at their desk). Meetings should be to the point and at the end of the meeting the deliverables needs to be written down so that they can be compared with the actual progress during the next meeting.
5. Is Micro Management necessary?
Due to the physical distance between the team members, it may appear that unless micro managed, the team will lose track of the work and divert. This is not totally incorrect and some amount of micro management may keep everyone on track. With time when there is more trust between team members, macro management may be more useful than micro management.
6. Sharing time
In many cases the virtual team members work on different projects (some of them are not yours) and manage their time. If you can keep the virtual worker busy full time, it is better to engage them full time for a shorter period rather than dragging it over for many months on partial time.
7. Definition of success
One thing I found working with virtual teams is that when the worker understands what constitutes success, it creates better end result. For example, if you want to implement a widget, you might want to let your virtual worker know that success defined as the widget code working after quality assurance, the quality of widget code review is up to standard and bugs are fixed within reasonable time.
8. Due diligence during team selection
If you are looking for long term relationship, the extra work done in the beginning of the selection process pays back many times over. The factors you may be looking at are, how busy the worker is currently, how many similar work he/she has done in the past, whether the worker can work independently and how are the communication skills (not necessary the language skills)
9. Getting lost in translation
Although this seems like a trivial issue in the world of projects and tasks, the success of your project will depend on how efficiently your worker works in completing the projects. The understanding of culture is important for virtual team managers. For example, workers in asian countries tend to over promise and under deliver. This is due to the fact that the culture does not dictate saying painful truth at the face. An understanding of the culture will allow project managers to put some leeway in the project plan to counter these effects.
10. Protecting intellectual property
Enforcing intellectual property violations across the virtual space is challenging. On some cases you may not even be able to trace the virtual worker who may reside in another country. If intellectual property is an issue, and you need to use virtual teams, make sure that you are working with the virtual team from a reputed company who can be the responsible party. Another option is to define the project in many small parts that can be independently done by various workers which can later be integrated by a local team.
Photo courtest flickr - creative commons attribution