Tracking, monitoring, and updating the project plan/timeline is one of the major responsibilities of a project manager. Unfortunately, when working with a remote, or distributed, team, you can get bogged down with the details of contacting team members for updates on their tasks and entering the status information from each team member.

Microsoft Project has a few built-in workgroup management features that allow you to streamline this process using e-mail. In this article, I will discuss those features and show you how to use them to keep team members up to date with project status and reports.

First in a series

This is the first installment in a series of articles that will examine the features in Microsoft Project that consultants can use to manage distributed teams. The next article will discuss setting up the workflow systems for both project managers and team members.

Workgroup features
Using Microsoft Project’s workgroup features, it only takes a few keystrokes to manage the project status process via e-mail. The following workgroup features eliminate most of the time you’d normally spend manually inputting project updates:

  • TeamAssign sends an e-mail directly to each team member listing the tasks on which they will work. Team members can then reply as to whether or not they can accept each task.
  • TeamStatus sends an e-mail to each team member asking for the status of his or her work. Team members can enter their responses directly into the e-mail and return it to you.
  • Send Schedule Update sends either a copy of the updated project file or an image of the schedule to team members and contacts.

These features will work for teams that use Internet e-mail addresses or Exchange e-mail boxes on the local area network. Only the project manager is required to have a copy of Microsoft Project. Team members can install a small utility that comes with Microsoft Project that can be freely distributed. The primary limitation is that all users (including the project manager) must be operating on a Windows platform.

Task assignments
Here’s how you might use these workgroup features to assign project tasks to your team members.

Project manager sends task assignment information
Let’s say you have just drafted a project plan and need to get agreement from your team members on the task assignments. Follow the steps below to send an e-mail message announcing the task assignments. Figure A shows the completed message Project will send to your team.

  1. From the Tools menu, choose Workgroup, then TeamAssign.
  2. In the Workgroup Mail dialog box, choose the option for sending messages for all tasks and then click OK.
  3. Customize the subject line and body message for your team.
  4. Click Send.

Figure A

When you send e-mail from any of the workgroup functions, you may be prompted with a message reminding you to make sure recipients have the workgroup messaging for Microsoft Project set up or one that warns you that a virus may be trying to send e-mail using the address book from your e-mail client. (This message may be a patch or service-pack feature from Microsoft, but you might also get a similar message from an antivirus product.)

After you have sent a message but before you receive all the responses, an icon will appear preceding each task for which the message was sent indicating that not all responses have been received (Figure B).

Figure B

Team member receives, reviews, and returns message
Now that the message has been sent, each team member will receive a message (shown in Figure C) listing only the tasks assigned to him or her. The following image provides an example.

Figure C

At the bottom of the message is a list of task assignments with several columns of information:

  • Accept? indicates whether or not a task assignment has been accepted.
  • Task Name displays the name of the task assigned.
  • Work displays the planned number of hours for completing the task.
  • Start Date displays the planned start date for the task.
  • Finish Date displays the planned finish date for the task.
  • Comments holds any notes or questions about the task entered by the team member.

When team members are ready to respond to the message, they click Reply, make any changes, and click Send.

Managing input for status updates
Project manager sends status update request
At regular intervals (e.g., each week), you can request status updates on tasks from team members. The process is very similar to sending task assignment information.

The command used for this is Tools/Workgroup/TeamStatus. Once this command is initiated and generates the message, you can then customize the subject line, body text, and date range for the status update (Figure D).

Figure D

Team member receives, reviews, and returns the message
For team members, the process is the same. In this instance, team members can edit the fields for anticipated remaining work hours, actual start date, actual finish date, and number of hours worked per day on each task.

Importing messages from team members
You will receive return e-mails from team members in your e-mail inbox. Simply open the attachment in the e-mail to review each response and then click the Update Project button near the top of the message window to import the information into Microsoft Project (Figure E).

Figure E

The information will be directly imported into the Project file, which will open automatically if it is not already open.

Sending updated schedules
Once you have updated the project, you can send out updates to team members and other contacts. You have two choices for the schedule format: Send the entire file or send a bitmap image of the schedule. To do this, choose Tools | Workgroup | Send Schedule. (At this point, you will need to make option choices from the dialog box, shown in Figure F, and click OK.)

Figure F

Microsoft Project generates an e-mail (shown in Figure G) with a copy of the project file and/or image of the project schedule attached.

Figure G

From within your e-mail client, you can customize the message and then send it.

How do you manage remote team members?

As a consultant or a project manager who has remote team members, how do you ensure that they’re kept up to date? Send us your tips in an e-mail or post your suggestions.