This is the first in a series of articles on this subject which will cover many aspects of managing projects remotely, particularly when project teams are located in different parts of the world. I will cover all of the challenges I have faced, and explain how we, as a team, turned them into successful relationships.
I work for a large multinational health insurance company and have been managing global projects here for a number of years. I work from home with occasional visits to one of our main headquarters in Connecticut. That means that all of my projects are managed remotely.
There are a couple of different sets of challenges when managing projects this way, not just because the project teams are not collocated, but also because the team is made up of men and women from several different countries, each with their own culture and value system.
In each of these articles, I will address one of these challenges, and my intent is to cover them all by the time I have finished the series. If you are facing challenges I have not yet covered, please feel free to describe those in a comment, and I will do my best to incorporate them in a subsequent article.
This is not a new challenge as workforces become more and more distributed across different office locations, telecommuting, and the use of resources outside of the US. In these situations, meetings are held via conference calls, and in most cases, the project team members are disembodied voices at the other end of a speakerphone. Most of us are familiar by now with the assertion that 80% of communication is nonverbal, much of that being body language. When you are in a meeting around a conference room table, the facilitator can easily determine who is engaged and who is not. He/she can then use a number of techniques to re-engage that person.
However, when you can’t see the person, there is no easy way to tell when someone is answering an email, on another conference call at the same time, driving home from work, or otherwise not fully engaged in the matter at hand. Anyone who has experienced this will agree that you eventually find out because a question posed to that person is not quickly responded to, and the person will usually apologize and ask that the question be repeated.
This challenge is complicated further when people live in countries outside of the US. There may be cultural barriers concerning appropriate interactions between genders. For example, if an individual appears to be less engaged, and even disconnected, it is possible that their behavior could be the result of their cultural practices and norms rather than a lack of interest. Also, males and females, from different cultures have different boundaries concerning what might be embarrassing; so it is very important to understand who your team members are, and where they live so you can study the cultures involved and be aware of the effect that culture has on the interaction between team members.
I have found that the best way to do that is contact that person directly one on one. That contact is usually initiated via email, but the contact itself should be at least on the phone, and at best, using some sort of electronic “facetime” or WebEx type of technology where you can see the person while you are speaking with them. In most of these conversations I did have, I did not have the luxury of being able to see the other person, but I was able to speak with them about how they run meetings where they are, what their culture is like, and just get to know them as a person. I rarely discuss the project itself in these conversations because the object is to build a relationship of trust with the team member, and I don’t want to be distracted by “talking shop.”
Once I have spoken individually with each of the team members, project or team meetings are conducted using a feature that allows the users to share their faces on webcam. My organization uses Skype For Business and WebEx, and after my initial conversations with team members, nearly all of them are willing to be “visible” on the initial (and subsequent) calls.
This does put extra responsibility on the shoulders of the facilitator, but if you can arrange for someone else to take notes, you can manage the engagement level of the team members and run a far more productive meeting.
At the kickoff meeting, the team agrees on the ground rules which include an agenda from me for each meeting and full engagement from each participant unless an emergency arises and they notify me via instant message, text message, or email. My experience is that the trust level starts in the initial individual call, and increases with each subsequent engagement, to the point where it becomes easy to confirm there is engagement without embarrassing anyone.
Phil Katz, PMP, SA, ITIL, has 25 years of project management experience spanning various industries and currently works at a major insurance company managing infrastructure projects and providing infrastructure support to application development. He remotely leads large and globally diverse project teams. His experience extends into the area of infrastructure procurement, and he advises stakeholders on the best way to navigate that process at a fortune 100 company. Phil writes about procurement and remote project management.