Professional team in a hybrid meeting with colleagues on a video call displayed on monitor, engaging in corporate strategy session, blending in-person and virtual collaboration.

Managing Virtual Teams: Strategies for Project Managers

By: Hajime Estanislao, PMP, CSM & Dr. Michael Shick, MSPM, PMP, CSM

Are you a project manager grappling with the complexities of managing virtual teams in today’s interconnected world? As remote work becomes increasingly prevalent, project managers like you face the challenge of overseeing teams across different locations, working hours, and continents.

In this fast-paced digital era, managing virtual teams has become essential for project delivery success. However, navigating the intricacies of virtual collaboration requires a unique set of strategies and approaches to ensure seamless communication, productivity, and alignment among all the team members.

Imagine being equipped with tools and techniques to overcome the hurdles of virtual team management, from establishing clear communication strategies to track productivity to optimizing meeting efficiency and leveraging project management software features. With knowledge and a plan, you can lead your dynamic teams toward achieving project completion and driving innovation in today’s dynamic work environment.

In this article, we will explore the actions PMs can take to manage virtual project teams effectively, addressing common challenges and providing practical insights to enhance collaboration, governance, and performance. By implementing these strategies, you can empower your team members to thrive and deliver value to your organization.

Welcome to virtual project management!

"Professional team in a hybrid meeting with colleagues on a video call displayed on monitor, engaging in corporate strategy session, blending in-person and virtual collaboration."

What are Virtual Teams?

Virtual teams represent a fundamental evolution in the realm of work, encapsulating collaboration where team members are geographically dispersed and rely on digital communication mediums to work together towards common project objectives. Virtual project teams have become common due to technology advancements, globalization, and the rise of remote work practices. 

In project management, a remote team is a group of individuals who collaborate online or co-located, often spanning different locations, cultures, and organizational boundaries. These teams leverage virtual project management tools, communication software, and online collaborative platforms to facilitate seamless interaction, decision-making, and project execution.

For professionals in project management, understanding virtual teams is important as it reflects the evolving nature of traditional project management practices in response to changing work dynamics. As dynamic teams continue to redefine traditional notions of collaboration and teamwork, PMs must adapt their strategies and approaches to lead and manage online and co-located teams.

This article provides a few tips and strategies for an effective and efficient virtual team environment, thereby ensuring collaboration, productivity, and a successful project.

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Relevant Reasons for Managing Virtual Teams

Global Collaboration

Globally distributed teams enable access to diverse talent pools across geographic boundaries, fostering innovation and leveraging the expertise of best talents from different regions.

Agile Adaptability

Dynamic work environments online, hybrid, and virtual project teams offer flexibility and agility, allowing for rapid adaptation to changing project requirements and market conditions.

Enhanced Communication

Leveraging digital communication tools, virtual project management tools, and teams facilitates seamless interaction, decision-making, and collaboration, overcoming barriers of time and distance.

"Creative female artist with curly hair drawing on paper with color swatches and digital camera on desk, in a cozy artistic studio space, showcasing individual creativity."

Strategies for Project Managers

Effective virtual project management relies heavily on establishing clear communication among team members. Leveraging diverse communication tools and platforms is imperative for fostering seamless collaboration of project teams. Video conferencing tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams enable face-to-face communication, bridging the gap created by physical distance.

Instant messaging platforms like Slack facilitate real-time communication, allowing for quick updates and informal discussions. By embracing these communication technologies, virtual project managers can enhance collaboration and cohesion among virtual team members, ensuring project success in the digital realm.

Equipped with the strategies of virtual project management, PMs approach the emerging occurrence of virtual projects with effective collaboration with remote employees working on complex projects.

Establish Clear Communication Channels

Communication lies at the heart of effective virtual project management teams. A project manager should leverage different communication tools and platforms to facilitate interaction among team members.

Video conferencing tools such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams enable face-to-face communication, fostering a sense of connection despite physical distance. Additionally, instant messaging platforms like Slack or Microsoft Teams allow real-time communication, quick updates, and informal discussions, enhancing a virtual project management team’s collaboration and cohesion.

Define Roles and Responsibilities

Clarifying roles and responsibilities is essential for governance. Project leaders should utilize tools and techniques to clearly outline each virtual team member’s role, tasks, and expectations. Project management software such as Asana, Trello, or Jira can be instrumental in assigning tasks, managing projects, tracking progress, and managing workflows.

By establishing governance, virtual PMs ensure accountability, alignment, and effective coordination among remote teams.

Optimize Meeting Efficiency

While routine meetings are needed for collaboration and alignment, project managers must be mindful of unnecessary meetings and consider replacing them with alternative communication methods (i.e. email). To optimize meeting efficiency, PMs should evaluate the purpose and agenda of each meeting, considering whether objectives are possible through asynchronous communication or other means.

Techniques like stand-up meetings, where team members provide brief updates on their project’s progress, can help streamline communication and reduce the need for lengthy meetings.

Utilize Project Management Artifacts and Software Features

Project management artifacts and software features help the virtual project manager and teams throughout the project lifecycle. Documenting project requirements, timelines, and milestones using tools like Google Docs, Microsoft Word, or Confluence can provide a centralized source of information for the virtual project manager and team members.

Project management software features such as Gantt charts, Kanban boards, and task-tracking dashboards enable virtual team members to visualize and track project progress together, identify bottlenecks, and allocate resources effectively. By leveraging these artifacts and software features, PMs can enhance transparency, collaboration, and productivity in virtual teams.

Managing their virtual office teams requires virtual project managers to adopt a proactive approach to communication, governance, meeting efficiency, workflow automation, and the use of project management artifacts and software features. By implementing these strategies, PMs can overcome the challenges of managing virtual project teams and collaboration and lead their virtual office teams toward achieving project success.

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Insights Supporting Management Virtual Project Teams

Virtual Team Composition

Virtual teams offer a unique advantage: access to a diverse talent pool spanning various geographic locations and cultural backgrounds. With the rise of remote work practices, organizations are no longer bound by geographical location constraints when assembling project teams. This newfound flexibility in team formation allows PMs to handpick individuals with the specific skills and expertise required for each project, fostering an agile and adaptable approach to team composition.

Additionally, virtual teams transcend borders, enabling global collaboration that leverages the expertise of team members located in different regions and markets. Harnessing the collective knowledge and perspectives of a global team enables organizations to drive innovation, creativity, and virtual project completion.

Diverse Talent Pool

With remote work becoming increasingly common, virtual teams have the advantage of accessing a diverse talent pool spanning different geographic locations and cultural backgrounds.

Flexibility in Team Formation

Virtual teams allow virtual project management professionals to assemble teams based on specific skills and expertise required and assign tasks for each project manager, enabling a more agile and adaptable approach to team composition.

Global Collaboration

Virtual teams facilitate global collaboration, allowing organizations to leverage the expertise of remote teams located in different regions and markets.

"Rear view of a person attending a virtual team meeting on laptop with diverse participants, indicating global connectivity and the modern approach to remote teamwork."

Virtual Team Tools and Techniques

Collaborative Platforms

Remote or virtual teams rely on collaborative tools and techniques, such as project management software, cloud-based document-sharing platforms, and virtual whiteboards, to facilitate seamless communication and collaboration.

Agile Methodologies

Agile project management methodologies, such as Scrum or Kanban, are often employed by both co-located teams and remote teams to promote iterative development, frequent feedback, and adaptability to changing project requirements.

Remote Work Policies

Establishing clear remote work policies and guidelines for project timelines is essential for virtual team success. Project managers should define expectations regarding remote working, hours, communication protocols, and performance metrics to ensure consistency and accountability among remote-working team members.

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Virtual Team Capabilities in Learning and Unlearning

Continuous Learning Culture

Virtual teams thrive in environments that promote continuous learning and skill development. Project managers can encourage remote team members to participate in online courses, webinars, and skill-building workshops to enhance their capabilities and stay abreast of industry trends.

Adaptability to Change

Virtual teams possess a high degree of adaptability, allowing them to quickly pivot and adjust to changing project requirements, market dynamics, and technological advancements.

Embracing Virtual Collaboration

Teams are adept at leveraging virtual collaboration tools and techniques to overcome geographical barriers and foster creativity, innovation, and knowledge sharing among team members.

These insights highlight the importance of virtual team composition, the utilization of tools and techniques, and virtual teams’ capabilities in learning and unlearning to effectively manage and lead remote teams.

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Virtual Teams and Their Role in the Project Lifecycle

Virtual project management teams play a critical role throughout the project lifecycle, from inception to completion. During the initiation phase, project managers assemble virtual project management teams based on specific project requirements, drawing upon various skills and expertise available across different locations. Throughout the planning phase, virtual project management teams collaborate to define the virtual project goals, scope, timelines, and resource allocation, leveraging virtual communication and project management software to ensure alignment and clarity.

As the virtual projects progress into the execution phase, virtual teams work cohesively to execute assigned tasks well, address challenges, and deliver on project deliverables, leveraging their flexibility and adaptability to overcome geographical barriers and time constraints. Finally, during the closure phase, virtual project teams reflect on lessons learned, celebrate successes, and prepare for future projects, embodying the principles of continuous improvement and knowledge sharing.

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Advantages and Disadvantages of Virtual Teams

Advantages

Access to Diverse Talent

Virtual teams enable organizations to tap into a diverse talent pool, regardless of geographical constraints. This advantage is particularly beneficial in industries such as healthcare, where specialized expertise may be scarce in certain regions.

Enhanced Flexibility

Virtual teams offer greater flexibility in work arrangements, allowing team members to work-life balance between work and personal commitments more effectively. In industries like retail, where seasonal fluctuations and dynamic market conditions are common, virtual teams can quickly adapt to changing demands.

Cost Savings

Virtual teams often result in cost savings for organizations, as they eliminate the need for physical office space, commuting expenses, and other overhead costs. This advantage is especially pronounced in global and virtual environments, where teams can collaborate (virtual meetings) seamlessly across borders without incurring significant travel expenses.

Disadvantages

Communication Challenges

Remote workers may encounter communication challenges due to differences in time zones, cultural norms, communication styles, and language barriers. In industries such as services, where effective communication is critical for customer satisfaction, these challenges can impede collaboration and productivity among remote workers.

Limited Team Cohesion

Remote teams may struggle to build strong interpersonal relationships and foster a sense of belonging, leading to higher employee retention and reduced team cohesion and morale. This disadvantage is particularly relevant in industries like healthcare, where effective teamwork and collaboration are essential for delivering high-quality patient care.

Potential Security Risks

Remote workers may face security risks associated with remote access to sensitive data and information. In global environments, where data privacy regulations vary across jurisdictions, ensuring compliance and protecting confidential information poses a significant challenge for virtual teams.

While virtual teams offer numerous advantages, they also present unique challenges across different industries. By understanding and addressing these advantages and disadvantages, organizations can harness the full potential of virtual workers to drive innovation, collaboration, and project success. Managing virtual team members, remote employees, and virtual projects contributes to additional hurdles in project delivery.

Navigating Collaboration and Time Zone Challenges in Virtual Teams

One of the primary hurdles of virtual teams is the coordination of collaboration efforts across different time zones. While virtual communication tools have made it easier for team members to connect regardless of location, managing time zones and cultural differences among remote workers remains a persistent challenge.

Team members may find themselves working remotely or asynchronously, leading to delays in communication, decision-making, and project progress. Furthermore, scheduling difficulties coordinating meetings and collaborative work sessions becomes increasingly complex when team members are working remotely and spread across various time zones, requiring careful planning and consideration of everyone’s availability.

Despite these challenges, a virtual team member can overcome time zone barriers by implementing strategies related to flexible scheduling, establishing core working hours for remote employees working in overlapping working hours, and leveraging asynchronous communication methods to ensure continuous collaboration and progress.

"Female professional waving at coworkers in a virtual meeting on a large desktop screen, with post-it notes and office supplies on desk, representing remote team engagement."

The Role of a PMO in Governing, Supporting, Leading, and Managing Virtual Teams:

Governance

A Project Management Office (PMO) supports the establishment of governance frameworks and standards to govern virtual teams effectively; defining roles and responsibilities, establishing co-located or remote project management methodologies and processes, and ensuring compliance with organizational policies and procedures. By providing clear directions, the PMO helps virtual teams operate cohesively and align with strategic objectives.

Support

The PMO provides ongoing support to virtual teams by offering resources, tools, and expertise to facilitate project execution. It may involve providing access to project management software, training and development opportunities, and technical support to address any challenges or obstacles virtual team members encounter. Additionally, the PMO serves as a central point of contact for virtual meetings, addressing issues, managing projects virtually and resolving conflicts, managing projects, and providing guidance to ensure virtual teams have the necessary support to succeed.

Leadership

Effective leadership is essential for guiding and inspiring virtual project management leaders and teams toward achieving project goals and objectives. The PMO plays a leadership role in setting the tone, vision, and direction of virtual team project management, fostering a culture of collaboration, accountability, and continuous improvement. Project managers within the PMO act as leaders, providing guidance, mentorship, and motivation to the virtual project team members, empowering them to overcome challenges and deliver successful project outcomes. PMs don’t just manage projects but also empower and are a focal point in building trust amongst members of the modern workplace.

Management

Managing virtual project teams requires proactive communication, coordination, and performance management. The PMO leverages project management tools, techniques, and best practices to manage virtual teams effectively, including establishing clear communication channels, tracking project progress, and monitoring key performance indicators.

Additionally, the PMO facilitates regular virtual meetings, check-ins, and feedback sessions to ensure that virtual teams stay on track and aligned with project objectives, enabling timely decision-making and course corrections as needed.

The PMO plays a multifaceted role in governing, supporting, leading, and managing virtual teams, addressing collaboration and timezone challenges while ensuring project success. By providing governance, support, leadership, and management expertise, the PMO empowers virtual teams to overcome obstacles, maximize productivity, and deliver value to the organization.

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Incorporating Unlearning and Learning

One of the critical factors for supporting virtual teams is the incorporation of unlearning and learning processes within the team dynamic. The ability to adapt, unlearn outdated practices, and acquire new knowledge and skills is relevant for employee retention and achieving stability and capability within virtual teams.

Unlearning involves letting go of outdated or ineffective habits, processes, and attitudes that may hinder virtual team performance. This process is important in virtual teams, where traditional ways of working may no longer be relevant or efficient. For example, virtual team members may need to unlearn the notion that face-to-face interaction is essential for effective communication and collaboration and instead embrace virtual communication tools and techniques as primary means of interaction.

Simultaneously, learning is essential for virtual teams to acquire new competencies, tools, and strategies that enhance their effectiveness and adaptability. It includes learning to utilize virtual collaboration tools, mastering new virtual project management tools and methodologies tailored to remote work environments, and developing cross-cultural communication skills to navigate diverse virtual team dynamics. By fostering a continuous learning and improvement culture, teams can stay ahead of the curve, capitalize on emerging opportunities, and drive innovation in their projects.

Incorporating unlearning and learning processes within virtual teams requires proactive leadership, open-mindedness, and a commitment to personal and collective growth. Project managers and leaders within the virtual Project Management Office (PMO) play a role in promoting and facilitating unlearning and learning initiatives within virtual teams. They can encourage other team members to challenge existing assumptions, experiment with new approaches, and seek opportunities for skill development and knowledge sharing.

Furthermore, the PMO can provide resources, training, and support mechanisms to facilitate the unlearning and learning process within remote or virtual teams. It may include organizing virtual workshops, providing access to online learning platforms, and fostering communities of practice where team members can exchange ideas, best practices, and lessons learned.

By embedding unlearning and learning into the fabric of virtual team culture, organizations can cultivate stable and reliable virtual teams capable of navigating complexities, driving innovation, and achieving project success.

"Focused team members working on a financial analysis with laptops and tablets on a white office desk, highlighting teamwork in data analysis and digital strategy development."

Wrapping Up and My Experience with Managing Virtual Project Management Teams

Leading virtual teams in project management is essential for navigating the dynamics of an interconnected world. From building trust and establishing clear communication strategies to leveraging project management tools and fostering a culture of continuous learning, effective virtual teams and traditional project management strategies are key to driving project success whether you work remotely or not.

As someone with experience collaborating with different teams across diverse projects and industries, I’ve witnessed firsthand the challenges and opportunities associated with virtual collaboration. Through trial and error, I’ve honed strategies and techniques to overcome obstacles, optimize team performance, enhance productivity, and achieve project objectives in virtual environments.

By sharing my insights and experiences, I aim to equip project managers with actionable advice and best practices to lead and manage virtual project management teams. Together, we can embrace the potential and benefits of virtual project management, drive innovation, and elevate the best tools and practices in the digital age.

References:

Pullan, P., & Prokopi, E. (2016). Leading virtual project teams: Dos and don’ts. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2016—EMEA, Barcelona, Spain. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Keup, M. (2020). Virtual project management: Benefits, challenges & tools. ProjectManager.com. Retrieved from https://www.projectmanager.com/blog/virtual-project-management

Villanova University. (n.d.). How to manage a virtual project team. Retrieved from https://www.villanovau.com/articles/project-management/how-to-manage-a-virtual-project-team/

PR Newswire. (2018). The end of the traditional 9-5? IWG’s new study finds that 70 percent of the US skip the office to work elsewhere. Retrieved from https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/the-end-of-the-traditional-9-5-iwg-new-study-finds-70-per-cent-of-us-skip-the-office-to-work-elsewhere-684048561.html