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Remote control: how to support a virtual IT project

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I remember reading a report called "The Challenges of Remotely Managing A Project". It must be more than ten years ago now and it's interesting thinking back to how I felt reading it.

I and many others were already enjoying benefits in working collaboratively with colleagues who were not in the same office, the same building or even the same country but back then there were fewer projects managed in this way.

The reason, I guess, is that the project management universe wasn't set up for it. There were few tools available that allowed real time collaboration across time zones. What a difference a decade makes!

Nowadays, remote IT project management is the norm for many and there plenty of tools to accommodate this expanding and exciting area. However, in the ten years or so since that report "The Challenges of Remotely Managing A Project" was written  - has it become any less challenging?

As always the answer is a mix of "yes" and "no" and, most crucially, "depends on your approach".

So ... how do you support a virtual project team?

The greatest challenge or, as I prefer to see it, the greatest trick with a virtual team is to try and get it to behave as if it was not virtual at all. All the usual rules apply, communication, belonging, support, etc. These are all hugely important to the team members regardless of whether they are sat on the other side of the office or the other side of the world.  What is different, of course, is the way that this is achieved when team members are not usually located near each other, or share the same values, objectives or goals.

In Stoneseed’s case, for instance, our virtual teams are both virtual and separated by geography but by carefully selecting tools and techniques we can ensure positive outcomes are achieved. Online collaboration tools like Skype, Microsoft Teams, Yammer (to name just a few) give you an ability to function as a team even when you are miles apart and available at different times. 

When you select the right tool you are able to share documents, review plans, create documents and comment in real time via these platforms and as they are mobile you can access them across all your devices.  This provides your teams with a unique ability to operate across multiple virtual teams and not lose the thread of the conversation. 

This, of course, is only part of it and doesn’t replace traditional conversations, you still must work hard to speak to all of your teams on a weekly basis and get them together as frequently as possible ... nothing really fosters team work like a work/social get together.

When I decided to write a blog about remote working I decided to contact a number of CIOs and Project Managers to get an idea of their concerns, challenges and experiences. From the feedback, there appeared to be three main threads ...

1 - Progress Tracking

At first blush, this sounds like a considerable challenge. When team members are spread around the globe and available at different times - how can progress be easily tracked?

If you get it right, tracking of project progress in a collaborative environment is massively improved – not impaired!

It’s not just choosing the right tool. You have to set out ground rules at the start. For example, who is responsible for what? When individual team members post their own individual status messages, when everyone pitches in, those project status updates can lose their impact somewhat -  so a rule about who is authorised to sign off milestones and update the status will help hugely.

That said, you already set ground rules like this in traditional IT Projects so what's the difference?

In a similar vein, you should also set in stone a rule that your project platform is just for project communication. Sounds obvious but a recent project I was asked to consult on had fallen into the habit of discussing everything from last night's Eastenders to what they should get for a colleagues birthday through their chosen tool, in this case, Yammer. The result was a lot of noise but no signal! Yammer had been spammered!

2 - Communication

Done right, communication has actually improved in IT Projects that operate remotely. There is greater transparency and a clear information trail that didn't exist when most communication was face to face, by phone or even by e-mail.

However, get it wrong and it can be catastrophic!

In a Projects At Work survey, 33% said that communication was their greatest challenge so it is worth careful attention, not just at the start but throughout the life cycle of your project.

The Project Management as a Service market can help massively with communication but it is a case of buyer beware, there are lots of tools that actually over complicate communication so seek advice from someone who will give an independent "client-side" opinion.

As an aside, I often hear the much quoted "rule" that only 7% of communication is verbal cited either as a reason against remote collaboration on projects. The thinking being that, as the rest is made up of non-verbal cues like body movements and language, tone of voice, facial expressions, etc, you lose much of that 93% when you work remotely.

I don't buy it.

Firstly, this much quoted "rule" was published in 1971 - in a time before e-mail and social media. The world is very different now! The last reply I got from a project team member was just a thumbs up emoji - nothing else - just that! The 7% rule is based on research and thinking that is almost 50 years old - even the author might opt for the face palm emoji if he knew he were still being cited today!?

Secondly, I believe the author Professor Albert Mehrabian is massively misquoted. I don't have space to explain in detail here but take it from me ... Mehrabian's research had nothing to do with communications within an IT Project.

3 - Expertise

In the Projects At Work survey, I referred to above, 14% reported problems accessing the knowledge they needed to succeed.

Project Management as a Service now offers expertise that you can patch in when needed.

Although expertise is a common project issue, it seems to be exacerbated by remote management. Why? Remote team members often report feeling disconnected from the parent organisation that is running their project and a sense that as they have been entrusted with tasks they should be seen to be capable of executing them.

I often tell the story of my friend who delegated the job of mowing the lawn to his son in return for £10 a week. It turned out the son wasn't terribly green fingered but in the pages of the local free paper ... a lawn mowing service was advertised. For £20 a month this company offered to feed, weed and mow as part of a round. The lawn looked better than ever, the delegated task was completed, my friend was happy and the son was quids in -  without lifting a finger!

He sought expertise that he didn't have. Wouldn't you praise his ingenuity? So what's the difference in an IT Project? 

Creating a structure where channels for accessing necessary expertise are clearly set out and where asking for help, advice or inspiration is not seen as failure or a weakness will improve your project team’s potency in an instant and be a huge boost for morale.

Remember every aspect of the Project Management process is available in the “as a Service” market – even the end to end process itself. It’s no different when your team is stretched across the planet.

How do you support a virtual team? In the same way, as you do a traditional one, current technology and carefully choosing a partner for the journey just makes it a little bit easier.

You will find virtual teams face challenges above and beyond regular ones, but as with traditional projects knowing what you're likely to come up against and how to deal with these challenges gives you a head start.

Find out more about Project Management as a Service from Stoneseed

Sources
projectmanagement.com  
pmisouthalabama.org

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