The novelty of remote workers has worn off. The days of picturing the lady from the marketing department in her fuzzy slippers, rollers, and sipping coffee working on her laptop on the sofa have, thankfully, gone by the wayside. Rather, this image has been replaced by business professionals ranging from engineers, to salespeople, to customer service employees and even Executives calling their home their office. And, it’s set up like a real office with all the accoutrements and trappings thereof, including multiple monitors, laser printers, copy machines, dedicated phone lines, and even water coolers. Gone are the days of lounging on the couch and checking your email throughout the day. It’s time to get down to business…virtually.
This recent switch and viewpoint toward the workforce has caused some concern for Project Managers who now wonder what project collaboration looks like with teams that are dispersed in multiple locations and time zones.
What is collaboration in the first place? Collaboration is the ability for people to work together towards a common purpose to achieve business benefit. Sounds very noble and inspirational, doesn’t it? It’s great to be connected to a group of people that are working together toward a common purpose. Everyone pulls in the same direction, has each other’s back, and has a mutual feeling of pride and accomplishment once the task at hand is complete. These are your peers who you have been through the good and bad times, stayed late at night together, traveled together and put forth that extra effort necessary to get the job done.
But, what if you never see these people? What is collaboration in the new virtual work environment that is becoming more common every day? Is it even possible?
Yes. Collaboration with a virtual environment is possible. It’s just a little different and requires a bit more effort. The following are some guidelines you can keep in mind when it comes to project collaboration with a virtual team.
Know Your Team
It takes a self-disciplined, self-motivated, and self-energized person to be able to work remote. Not everyone is able to handle the responsibility that comes when they are put in that environment, and many do not enjoy being away from the core team. If you know the strengths and weaknesses of your team you can choose which team members will thrive in a remote environment and which ones will sputter and not succeed. If you don’t start with a strong foundation of those who can be successful working remotely, then you certainly won’t be able to maximize your collaborative efforts.
Keep in Touch
It’s up to you as a Project Manager to keep in touch with everyone on your team. You need to take the lead when it comes to collaboration, and what is collaboration without people knowing what is going on? Disconnects will arise if you only meet with your remote team members during scheduled virtual meetings. Team members may be reluctant to bring up topics that need to be addressed in a group setting. Make sure to set up individual conversations, incorporate these into your Communication Plan and use collaborative technologies that are available such as webinars and video conferencing.
Conduct Effective Virtual Meetings
A big part of working successfully and collaboratively with remote workers has to do with how effectively conference calls and virtual meetings are conducted. People need to view meetings they attend remotely just as important, if not more so, than the ones they attend in person. It’s hard to sneak into a face-to-face meeting without everyone knowing you are late, disrupting the meeting while you are finding a seat, and then getting caught up with what everyone has already discussed. This frustration is compounded when you add the element of distance, not being in the same building or not being able to get in touch with someone who is critical to the call. These are all collaboration killers.
Reward Collaborative Behavior
If you are fortunate enough to have someone on the team who is used to collaborating virtually and is very effective at it, make sure you reward and reinforce this behavior. Maybe they share their screen every chance they get, or send out files ahead of time to make sure everyone is on the same page, literally. Catch people doing this type of thing correctly and make a big deal out of it the next time you get together.
Use the Best Collaborative Tools
What is collaboration effectiveness if you can’t see or work on the same documents or materials together? The trick is finding which tools are the best ones to use. How can this be done? First, you need to start with your objectives. Do you just need the ability to set-up conference calls every now and then or do you need full-fledged video conferencing where the team members can see each other? Next, you need to determine the size of your typical team and the budget you are able to spend. The good news is that for smaller teams (5-7 people) there are numerous free options out there that range from Skype, to Free Conference Call (http://www.freeconferencecall.com/) for phone conferences, to AnyMeeting for web and video conferences (http://anymeeting.com/).
Finally, understand how these tools work and make the most out of them. Work out the kinks before a “real” meeting takes place. Set up a meeting for the purpose of understanding and testing the functionality of whichever platform you have chosen. There is nothing worse than fumbling through technical glitches for 10 minutes before everyone can get up and running and move on to the business at hand.
What are “the best” tools to use? There really is no one answer to that question. There are so many “really good” tools on the market today that it becomes a matter of understanding your personal preference, budget, and collaboration needs. What’s important is that they consistently and uninterruptedly work for you and your team.
Be the Person that Sets the Lead
If people ask you “what is collaboration?”, then it is up to you as the Project Manager to provide the answer. You need to make sure that you take every opportunity to work with and collaborate with others to work together towards a common purpose to achieve business benefit. This becomes challenging in a virtual environment, but it is certainly not impossible. Make it a point to show others how to collaborate, what the benefits of collaboration are, and how some of the obstacles can be overcome in this new work environment.
Provide for Face-to-Face Meetings
There are countless projects that are done where the people have never even met each other. They are just a voice on the other end of the line that you can actually establish a relationship with and feel a sense of camaraderie. However, if it’s within your authority and budget, there is nothing like getting this online team together every now and then for face-to-face collaboration sessions. It may be a special project that is being worked on, or the kick-off of a new project, or celebrating the completion of an old project. If you have worked well virtually up to this point, you will see the effectiveness of your team’s collaboration skyrocket after these face-to-face opportunities.
Embrace the new working model as a Project Manager. People are choosing to work remote for many reasons and you need to know how to make the most of this arrangement. Mastering this skillset of managing and collaborating with remote teams is another skill you can add to your resume that will serve you very well in the future.
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