Use special project management techniques for dispersed teams

In the past, a project team almost always 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. Although it's still common for a project team to be in relative close proximity, it's not out of the ordinary to have team members physically located in many different places. In some cases, you may have team members that are 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. You can even see each other if you like using teleconferencing or utilizing 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. There's no technology that can take the place of talking to them face-to-face. But these ideas can help you better manage a dispersed project team.

  • 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're working remotely must be proactive communicators and must be especially good at working independently and meeting their deadlines.
  • Establish good communication processes. The project manager needs to develop a proactive Communication Plan to ensure 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 videoconference or audioconference.
  • 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 transitions smoothly from one person (or team) to another person (or team).
  • Make sure everyone has the right technology. Make sure that your remote team members have the right hardware, software, and other equipment to get their work done. For example, if some team members are working from home, a 14.4 modem probably will not cut it. Each remote location needs communication equipment, printers, fax machines, phones and the other basic equipment needed to communicate effectively.
  • Utilize collaborative technology. There are many products on the market that allow for much easier collaboration among people who are in different locations, much of which is web-based. For instance, you can get software that facilitates web meetings, common document editing, discussion boards, remote testing, etc.

The bottom line is that the project managers must recognize that there is inherent risk associated with remote team members. To a certain degree, the risk gets larger the further away the team members are because you not only deal with distance, but also 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 risk management plan to mitigate the risk and ensure that the dispersed team works well together for the common good of the project and the team.