With the advent of instant collaboration and videoconferencing tools, virtual professional services teams have become the norm in many organizations. Project management best practices for these virtual teams require a different set of processes and strategies, as Penny Pullan and Evi Prokopi point out in their thoughtful PMI.org article “Leading Virtual Project Teams: Do’s and Don’ts.”
Virtual teams project managers’ challenges
If your company has a global presence, you’ll need to bridge time zones, culture, and language differences among your teams. Furthermore, if your organization is one of the nearly 45% who have outsourced some of their professional services teams to third-party providers, contract workers, or freelancers, that adds an additional level of challenge. Flexible work schedules and remote in-house teams, too, factor into the equation.
All those factors demand a flexible, yet practical set of best practices that leverage technology, cultural sensitivity, and labor law awareness to ensure that the teams complete each project on time and with excellence in every detail. Pullan points out that in a 2015 survey she conducted among project managers from around the world, the same challenges arose:
- Engaging remote participants (76% of the respondents)
- Inability to pick up on conversational nuances and dynamics (58%)
- Time zone differences (56%)
- Cultural differences (56%)
- Trust-building (55%)
- Monitoring the work (47%)
- Language differences, especially key terminology (44%)
- Detecting and defusing conflict (42%)
- Difficulties in developing relationships with virtual teams (42%)
- Using technology (41%)
Remote team best practices to solve challenges
Since virtual teams face unique challenges, a set of best practices that target these challenges will create a more cohesive workforce. Specific, consistent ways to work with virtual teams can ease these challenges, boosting efficiency and productivity.
1. Combine video conferencing and video streaming with adaptive features
As Vern Hanzlik advises, communication with virtual teams works best when an organization uses both videoconferencing and video streaming. Collaborative meetings go more smoothly when participants can see and hear each other. Nuances and dynamics come through, just as if the participants were in the same room. Participants feel a genuine connection with the organization during these virtual meetings, building engagement by 87%.
Perhaps that percentage could rise even more if accessibility features enter the mix. For teams who have members with disabilities or who speak a different language (or even dialect), recordings, transcriptions, translations, user analytics, and phonetic searchability can be game-changers.
For overseas teams, it pays to have a participant who is fluent in both languages to clear up any “lost in translation” moments. Having someone who is bilingual is a must when the second language is one that is difficult to translate – even with the most sophisticated algorithms – such as Turkish. Even a simple admonition can lose its meaning unless someone who knows both languages can explain what the speaker meant.
Video streaming is best for larger meetings, such as onboarding, training, and executive speeches, Hanzlik advises. Again, adaptive features are a must for participants with language differences or disabilities.
With these two tools, combined with adaptive features as needed, an organization can tackle many of its most pressing challenges:
- Engaging remote participants
- Inability to grasp conversational nuances and dynamics
- Building trust
- Language differences
- Developing relationships with virtual teams
2. Use meeting agendas to focus remote teams
As Pullan’s survey indicates, meeting agendas can help virtual professional services teams get on the same page before the meeting starts. When participants can prepare for the meeting through research and brainstorming ideas, they are more likely to come to a consensus on solutions quickly.
3. Find workable solutions to time zone differences
Although online tools like TimeandDate.com’s popular time zone converter can provide an accurate conversion for any given date and time, that’s only half the battle. Finding a time to meet when both teams will be available for meetings, for instance, can be a challenge.
For meetings, both sides might have to compromise a little. Whether it means getting up a couple of hours earlier or delaying bedtime a bit, teams can brainstorm together to come up with a workable solution. To avoid too-frequent meetings, an organization can use collaboration tools sto iron out most issues.
As Zapier’s Matthew Guay advises, taking advantage of time zone differences with team assignments helps get work completed more efficiently. A team of writers on opposite sides of the globe, for instance, can take turns writing and editing each other’s work, producing more accurate work in the process.
4. Develop an inclusive, yet cohesive company culture to overcome cultural differences and conflict
A 2013 New York Daily News article underscores the need to develop an inclusive company culture. To reduce the chance of theft, several US banks prohibited headgear and sunglasses inside their doors. Their reasoning? Headgear and sunglasses hid identifying features, making it more difficult to identify customers or employees who attempted robbery or fraudulent transactions.
Such a rule, however, discriminated against employees (and customers, for that matter) whose cultural norms included hoodies, turbans, hijabs, bonnets, or other head coverings. A Mennonite or a Muslim employee, for instance, would feel excluded – even if the company made an exception for employees to avoid anti-discrimination employment laws.
Instead, put into place inclusive policies that take cultural differences into consideration.
Furthermore, an organization would do well to encourage its staff to learn more about cultural differences among its teams. With virtual teams whose members cross international borders, learning about – and practicing – culturally appropriate behavior is a must. Affirming cultural differences by celebrating diverse holidays, encouraging traditional dress when appropriate, and learning at least a few phrases in the overseas team’s language goes a long way toward building an inclusive culture.
Secondly, as Kevin Gardner advises, an organization should create a cohesive culture that knits its teams together despite cultural differences. An emphasis on teamwork, as well as “strong standards, merits, and shared vision,” helps build teams whose bonds transcend their differences. Again, having such a transformative culture is even more important when teams are separated by distance.
Gardner points to five vital areas in which an organization can foster a culture that crosses time zones and cultural boundaries:
- Transparency: Teaching teams how and why the organization functions, as well as setting measurable, transparent performance goals, goes a long way toward building cohesiveness.
- Easing away from bureaucracy, micromanagement, and silos: Instead, an organization should stress collaboration, teamwork, and an agile culture that fosters communication and problem-solving. When team members monitor each other’s work, they can ease the burden of supervisors, empowering themselves in the process.
- Empowerment: To take full advantage of every team member’s skills, an organization needs to provide educational opportunities, value an individual’s contributions, and allow their ideas the space to take root.
- Valuing every team member: Recognize even the smallest accomplishments. Sending small gifts on special occasions helps build bonds that transcend time zones and borders. When a company treats its remote staff as if they were valued customers, those team members feel like a valued part of the organization.
- Encouraging collaboration: Encourage each team member to get others’ input on their ideas. Such collaboration gives teams a new perspective that can lead to a breakthrough in a new product or service. Empower teams to take ownership of each project to build a team spirit that overcomes distance and cultural barriers. Such an approach can better detect and defuse conflict by putting differences aside to concentrate on a goal.
5. Improve training to ease new technology adoption
As Inc’s Adam Heitzman puts it, “Slow down to speed up.” When new technologies come on the scene, it pays to educate your virtual teams on every aspect of the new tools and processes – including why the new technology will help them do their job better. When an organization anticipates roadblocks and finds workarounds to get everyone up to speed before putting the new tech in place, it can improve efficiency, leading to greater profits in the long run.
When an organization takes the time to integrate new technology with their virtual professional services teams properly, it can turn those professional services teams into organizational thought leaders, as Elena Tewari points out. Well-trained and -informed professional services teams, she observes, become the “front line of technological disruptions” within an organization.
Best practices produce fruitful results
With a thoughtful set of best practices backed by a cohesive company culture, engagement and productivity will rise among all teams, whether contingent or in-house. When empowerment, transparency, and innovation become your overarching priorities, managing your virtual teams’ projects will produce fruitful results, no matter where they are in the world.
Learn more about the future of professional services.