Evi Prokopi was invited, among other speakers, to the Project Management Institute Webinar about Communications Management. In this webinar, speakers discussed best practices for leading and managing virtual teams and why building a dialogue with stakeholders can become the most valuable leadership capacity in overcoming stakeholder resistance.
During this webinar, Evi answered the questions below but you can find the complete webinar on the PMI website.
Webinar host: How can I make sure no time is lost in miscommunications in virtual teams regarding project requirements?
First of all you should know what you are looking for.
Finding the right person for the role is of paramount importance. Virtual project managers may be able to recruit team members from around the world but in order to be able to select the right person for the role, project managers need to understand what is possible,as in doable, and they need to be familiar with lessons learnt such as behaviors and motivations that worked successfully in previous projects.
Understanding what should be done in every single component of the project is very important because this is the way you can make virtual team members understand project requirements and thus what is expected of them.
You should have a good grasp of the required knowledge, such as technical information, required experience, for example work achievements with successful performance of job activities, and personal characteristics needed for your team. When you require, for example, fast two-way communication and feedback, you should look out for people who will be able to communicate well across cultures and will be flexible to work across time zones or people who will be located nearby and not in a time zone of +/-10 hours. It is also a very good idea to have reserves available not only in case something goes wrong with the first choice but also in case of a crashing emergency.
I would like to give you a real life example about the significance of the reserves at this point. I used to work for a company and we had hired a freelance developer to manage our marketing automation system. He was basically responsible for our online communication, such as newsletters, news blasts, etc. And then came one day when we wanted to send out an urgent announcement and we were looking for him everywhere, like emails, Skype, telephone, you name it. He was nowhere to be found and he emailed me back 1.5 days later saying that he was in his honey moon and that he wanted to tell me but then forgot about it. We were lost, we had no back up and it took us 2 more days to find someone to replace him. I’ve always been working with reserves since that incident, because I learned my lesson!
So a good tool you can adopt is checklists. Always have a checklist when you communicate project requirements to your team. Include all the team members, what you require of them and all the information they should have access to. Once you start communicating requirements to each team member, you can cross them out on your list. I love checklists because they can work as reminders – when you need to include attachments in emails or create accounts on your online systems for the team members for example.
So basically to sum up, what you have to do is to find the right people, understand what should be done and then meet with the team online, preferably using video, clearly communicate the requirements to the team and then ask them questions to make sure they have understood exactly what you need from them. You may also consider meeting each team member online individually for a re-cap of what each individual should be doing. All these will help from saving time to project execution and successful completion.
Webinar host: How can I achieve rapport and build trust in virtual teams?
First of all, you need to create an inspiring Virtual Presence that cares about the team members.
The successful virtual project manager needs to understand the particularities of a virtual team and act accordingly. "Out of sight and out of mind" is a natural human behavior that works against the virtual team project manager. So you need to be visible, add a face and a voice whenever possible to establish connection with greater involvement and create a balanced virtual presence. If a project manager overcommunicates, important information may be lost. If the project manager is not visible and is not heard for weeks, virtual team members may consider this as a lack of interest in the project. Every virtual interaction is a clue for the team members about the personality of the project manager.
You need to show interest in the team and build professional relationships with every team member so they can understand who you are and how they can help with projects, issues, and challenges. You need to plan everything around your virtual presence; you need to be consistent, to understand how your voice sounds, what words you will choose to use and how clearly your messages get across. It is a good idea to inform the team about your regular virtual office hours so they can reach out if they need to.
Working remotely means more time spent in interactions with team members. The amount of time spent planning communications and communicating is at least double what it is for a co-located team. Virtual project managers need to include informal communication in their plans that will bond a team. Co-located teams have some informal small talk at the copy machine or the water cooler and this needs to be transferred to the virtual workplace as well so that team members can interact on a regular basis, bond, become a part of the organisation and be more productive. Even five minutes to talk about weekend plans can make a difference. Sacrifice some efficiency now for effectiveness later.
Virtual relationships are built faster when they are one-to-one so find ways to divide the team into smaller working teams so they mix in pairs or small groups.
When we communicate virtually, we often become less influential. It is common knowledge that moving our body while speaking enhances our voice quality. Virtual project managers sitting behind a computer screen lose part of their persuasive personality. Walking around or simply moving your arms is just one of many simple but effective communication tricks that project managers can use to improve the sound of their message and this is one of the reasons video is essential.
Take time to listen to people’s concerns and help them to overcome problems that they face. This will help people to engage with your project and prioritize it amongst the many tasks they need to complete. The project manager is like a host at a party. The host knows each guest. The project manager wants to create an interesting virtual place where team members want to be and interact. A good host is interested in their guests, is polite, and concerned for their guest's comfort. A good host also knows when the guest wants to leave and get work done. The great host can ask good questions, is friendly, approachable, and fun.
A couple of ways you can create informal bonding time is by:
1. Daily five-minute video calls with each team member.
2. Creating a virtual water cooler. Keep an online open communication, such as chat room, open all the time for team members to just hang out.
Webinar host: How can I ensure successful virtual meetings?
Virtual team meetings are required when working remotely and are the core of great virtual teams. They are the means to create and increase engagement from all team members on a regular basis. Poor meetings can really affect productivity.
Clear ways of working agreed at the start of the meeting will help everyone to know how to work together effectively. For example you can inform the team from the beginning that you will be asking questions during the meeting or that when someone speaks, they need to state their name.
There are several techniques that help in achieving more engagement in virtual team meetings:
- Make sure that people are mute if they are in a noisy environment, so that everyone attending can hear well
- Avoid monologues and force interaction after a couple of sentences
- Ask questions frequently so you can help people focus and not to zone out and do other things
- Verify that everyone hears you or another team member who is speaking
- Call people by names, and ask everyone questions
- Use a virtual notepad to keep track of who spoke on what topic and when
- Speak slowly, use short sentences, be concise
- Be polite and avoid slang and cultural references
- Make the implicit explicit; describe and state what seems obvious; for example you can say things like: we will be closed on Monday for a holiday; a snow storm may cause power outages this week, etc.– it’s good to give details especially when your team is spread around the world
- Finally, a meeting agenda as well as long explanations should be written down and sent out a while ahead of the meeting
To sum up, as with every meeting, there is virtual meeting etiquette; you should make sure everyone attending can hear you well, ask questions frequently and make notes, and strive for a dialogue instead of a monologue.
Webinar host: How does a communications management plan dedicated to virtual teams differs from a standard communications management plan?
Firstly in virtual environments, it is a great idea to use both a communications management plan and team operating agreements. A communications plan helps in setting clear expectations since it gives a clear idea of how the team will interact during the project. Team operating agreements on the other hand are sometimes developed as an extension of the communications management plan and focus on how to work together daily; to resolve issues, report status, how to deal with holidays, conflict, and what to do if deadlines or meetings are missed. The operating agreements allow virtual team members to take off their virtual blindfolds and interact with each other more effectively and not just when an issue arises or during formal team meetings.
A communications plan dedicated to a virtual team takes into account which technologies and collaborative software are appropriate for team interactions based on the individual needs and preferences of each team member,since these will be their communication tools. Communication tools need to be user-friendly, of high quality which will transfer audio and video with no interruptions and may offer a range of choices such as archiving, recording (so misunderstandings can be prevented), record keeping, and be of course within each organization’s budget. An important aspect of the communications management plan for virtual teams is that it should include informal time for bonding of the team, like a virtual water-cooler forum.
When used properly, the communications plan and team operating agreements will improve virtual team’s interactions. To be effective, they must become dynamic documents that are understood, realistic, applied, updated, and shared with all the virtual team members.
Why slowing down to speed up is a necessary strategy for successful virtual projects?
Well while it is tempting to race ahead, slowing down gives project managers the time to understand what’s needed, how things work and what may help or hinder the ability of the team to operate seamlessly. It is really helpful to take time upfront to build a team charter as a group and agree how the team will operate together, thus avoiding many pitfalls ahead. A common vision and objectives, with shared goals and a strong purpose, will help each team member to find their place and to work together with their virtual colleagues.
Once the team members are identified, elaborate on what you need from each one of them so no time is wasted. Make sure that all team members have access to the same technology and tools, that there aren’t any site-specific obstacles that will lower the project's priority, that you and the team know each other’s working hours, the norms, as well as any cultural considerations that may present opportunities or challenges for the virtual team.
And then, document your findings and use the communications plan and team operating agreements to address how these can be worked through or can benefit the team. If you don’t have a system worked out in advance of team member expectations, how to deal with conflict, how decisions are made and so on, when it comes to dealing with these issues, it then becomes a negotiation and you have to deal with adversity which in turn will take time and energy from your side. By slowing down upfront like this in a virtual environment project managers have the opportunity to focus more on all interactions, to set clear expectations on how the team interacts on a daily basis, and have set the foundations for the team ultimately to move on to a faster project execution.
If you enjoyed this webinar and you want to learn more about managing virtual teams, read the white paper on our PMI Congress section.