Five tips for managing a dispersed project team

IT leaders who oversee teams of remote workers have some obstacles to overcome. Tom Mochal offers some practical advice for successfully managing a distributed workforce.

In the past, a project team usually resided in one location. The reason is obvious: it wasn't easy to communicate and collaborate with people who were not in the same physical location. But now, it's common to have team members physically located in many places. In some cases, you may have team members teleworking from home. In other cases, you may be partnering with a third-party company -- perhaps even internationally.

All of this is more common today because of advances in technology and software. People can access your company's computer network remotely with almost the same speed as if they were in the office. Software is available to share documents and make updates available real-time to the rest of the team. The team can get together as needed using phone conferencing, teleconferencing, or video technology over the Web.

That's all good news. The not-so-good news is that it is still easier to manage a team when the members are located together. But even though no technology can take the place of talking face to face, the following ideas can help you better manage a dispersed project team.

Note: These tips are based on an entry in our IT Consultant blog.

1: Make sure people have the right attitude

Both the project manager and team members must be especially diligent and sensitive to collaboration and teamwork concerns when part of the team is remote. It's easy for a remote worker to feel isolated from what's going on with the rest of the team. People who are working remotely must be proactive communicators and must be especially good at working independently and meeting their deadlines.

2: Establish good communication processes

The project manager needs to develop a proactive Communication Plan to ensure that the dispersed team works well together. For instance, if possible, there should be regularly scheduled meetings where the remote workers attend in person. If the team members are in different cities or different countries, look for common times when you can have a video or audio conference.

3: Plan the handoffs

Sometimes, multiple people in different locations are working on the same, or related, deliverables. In these cases, the project manager may need to establish rules for handoffs, especially if different time zones are involved. Don't leave the handoffs to chance. Set up processes to ensure that work on shared deliverables can transition smoothly from one person (or team) to another person (or team).

4: Make sure everyone has the right technology

Provide your remote team members with the right hardware, software, and other equipment to get their work done. For instance, if some team members are working from home, a slow dial-up modem probably won't cut it. Each remote location needs communication equipment, printers, fax machines, phones, and the other basic equipment needed to communicate effectively.

5: Take advantage of collaborative technology

Many products on the market, much of it Web-based, allow for easier collaboration among people who are in different locations. For example, you can get software that facilitates Web meetings, common document editing, discussion boards, and remote testing.

Meeting the challenge

Project managers must recognize that there is inherent risk associated with remote team members. To a certain degree, the risk increases the farther away the team members are because you run into time differences. However, a proactive project manager can work through the difficulties by looking holistically at the people concerns, process concerns, and technology concerns. You can set up a plan to mitigate the risk and ensure that the dispersed team works well together for the common good of the project and the team.