Remote control: Managing projects in a virtual world
Mathias Deisinger and Paul Geuting discuss how to build and maintain engagement when your project team is not in the same building – or even in the same country.
One of the biggest disruptions created by the Covid-19 pandemic has been to the way we work – and in particular, the explosion in remote working.
The trend towards remote working is not new, but lockdowns and social distancing requirements during the pandemic have dramatically accelerated it. The pandemic has also shown that many things previously thought best done face-to-face can be done as well - or even better - remotely. That’s why an increasing number of businesses are reducing their physical footprint and offering significantly more flexible working arrangements. It’s also why, even when conditions return to something approaching normality, remote working will continue to grow.
With businesses becoming increasingly project-based, project work will also become increasingly virtual. But managing virtual projects needs a different approach, particularly when it comes to keeping project teams engaged and motivated.
At Genioo, remote working and virtual teams are in our DNA, and are fundamental to our business model. In this article we’ll present some insights from our experience on how to build and maintain engagement when your project team is not in the same building – or even in the same country.
Why remote working is here to stay
While Covid-19 has opened the floodgates to remote working, it has also served to highlight the benefits. These include:
- Cost savings - for example, reduced need for office space and associated overheads, reduction in travel, etc.
- Improved employee satisfaction and retention - numerous studies show employees value flexible working arrangements and factor this into employment decisions. They also show that organizations with flexible working options record greater levels of staff satisfaction and retention.
- Easier access to people and skills - removing the need for teams to be in one location means you can hire the best people with the best skills for the job - not just the best in your area.
- Increased diversity - greater diversity brings new perspectives and drives innovation. That’s why it’s a major focus for many organizations. Remote working enables diversity by making it easier to bring in a wider range of people, insights and experiences.
- Business continuity and resilience - the move to greater remote working makes organizations better able to continue operating in the event of natural disasters, new pandemics and other situations where central locations may be at risk.
- Improved productivity - perhaps counter to expectations, many organizations report that productivity amongst staff working at home is as at least as good and often better than when they were working at the office. The lack of commute time, fewer distractions, and better work-life balance are some of the reasons for this.
For all of these reasons, the future will be one where we increasingly connect with our colleagues not over the water cooler, but over the Internet. However, these connections will take different forms.
Research shows that the more engaged a project team is, the higher the chance of the project succeeding1. Building engagement is even more crucial in virtual environments where people can sometimes feel isolated. But it’s also more difficult.
In physically co-located teams, a lot of communication and teambuilding occurs informally – in the kitchen, at the water-cooler or in impromptu team lunches or social events. All of that is much harder in a virtual environment.
For example, face-to-face interactions often have visual clues such as expressions or mannerisms. These clues make it easier to tell whether the person you’re talking to is joking or serious, pleased or frustrated and so on. In virtual environments people have to rely more strictly on what is actually said or written – rather than what isn’t said.
Social activities, which are often an important way of creating a team culture, are also easier when the team is physically co-located. It’s hard to meet up for a drink at the end of the week when you’re all in different places and often, in different time zones.
But there are solutions to these challenges. Here are six ideas we’ve found are effective in building and maintaining engagement in virtual project teams.
Long-distance relationships: Six tips to build engagement
1. Have a team communication plan
In most projects, considerable time and effort is spent creating an external communications plan setting out how key stakeholders will be kept informed and involved. But given the extra difficulties of communicating across different geographies, cultures and time zones in virtual project structures, it’s important to put the same effort and planning into communication within your team. Without timely, relevant and appropriate communication team members can easily become disengaged and switch off – with negative results for the project.
A key component of your plan should be ensuring that team members clearly understand the big picture, context and background to the project. This information is more easily accessible and reinforced when the team is physically together, but when you’re working remotely it’s easy to lose sight of it. Understanding why you’re doing the project, why it’s important and what it means for the organization will help build commitment, give purpose to the work and keep your team focused on the end goal.
2. Select for success
Remote projects provide the opportunity to select from a different mix of people, but they also require a different mix of skills. While they’re important in any team, ‘soft’ skills are particularly important in remote projects to manage the additional complexities involved. Team members need to be comfortable navigating the different ways of working, different perspectives, different language and cultural backgrounds that other team members can bring. As well as technical proficiency, team selection processes should take into account soft skills such as communication, the ability to work independently and intercultural awareness, amongst others.
3. Stay positive
To stay motivated and engaged, everyone needs some positive feedback from time to time. In ‘traditional’ projects this often occurs informally; in the form of team members congratulating others on their achievements in the course of everyday conversations, or managers delivering a few words of positive feedback and encouragement in passing.
However this often gets lost in virtual projects where the video-call culture means interactions tend to be much more functional and focused. Remote project leaders need to make a conscious effort to add praise (where it is earned) and motivation into the communications mix.
4. Build trust through social glue
Every team operates better when there is a high level of trust and understanding among members. Often this comes down to knowing your team-mates as people, through non-work and social interactions where the team can mix and interact outside the stresses of the normal work environment. Obviously this is more difficult in virtual teams, especially when the ‘onboarding’ of team members is increasingly virtual as well.
To counter this, leaders should build in mechanisms where people can get to know each other in a virtual environment. For example, virtual team dinners, virtual coffee ‘blind dates’ with different team members, virtual pub quizzes and happy hours have all proved successful ways of creating social glue within the project team. You may also want to consider setting up informal communication channels such as Slack or Facebook groups where members can connect for social interactions.
5. Spread the load – and the opportunities
Consider sharing roles or tasks around different team members to encourage greater interconnection between the group. For example, assign responsibility for special projects or tasks, have more experienced team members act as mentors for less experienced ones, or rotate responsibility for chairing or leading team meetings. Broadening roles will help members feel more connected to the wider team, and provide learning and development opportunities that generate a greater sense of engagement.
6. Make sure you have the right tools for the job
For virtual teams to operate effectively and stay engaged, they need the right infrastructure. That means investing in the right tools and systems, from communication / videoconferencing to document and data sharing, to common processes and templates, and more. It may seem obvious - but while most organizations have mastered the basics such as videoconferencing, millions of documents are still being sent by email. Having the right tools available will help teams overcome these challenges and irritations, and leave them free to focus on the delivering the project.
It’s important to remember that not everything is best done remotely. Sometimes, there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. For example, we believe that where possible, it’s worth the investment to get teams together in specific situations. These might include project kick-offs or presenting recommendations, where there is real benefit in having everyone in the same room.
But there’s also no doubt that in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic remote working will become increasingly common. While the same fundamental project disciplines apply to both ‘traditional’ and remote projects, simply applying the same approach is not a recipe for success – particularly when it comes to creating and maintaining engagement. We hope these tips will help you adapt your approach, to meet the particular challenges of managing projects in an increasingly virtual world.
1Torrente, P., Salanova, M., Llorens, S., & Schaufeli, W. B. (2012). Teams make it work: How team work engagement mediates between social resources and performance in teams. Psicothema, 24(1), 106–112.
How we support in adapting to remote working
We have used our extensive experience to develop ready-to-use products and services that allow our clients to align their strategies with the most appropriate ways of working to help them achieve their goals. These include:
- Top Team Alignment – a structured program to ensure the people responsible for delivering change are aligned behind your vision and understand their roles in achieving it. A key outcome of the process is a bulletproof plan developed by the team with clear ownership and accountability, milestones and actions to deliver the change
- Playbook design and rollout – providing guidance for your people on ways of working and ‘how things are done’ through clearly documented mission and vision, key functional interfaces, processes, policies and operating procedures
- Change management support - facilitating workshops and leveraging remote technologies to immerse audiences in “new ways of working” and support clients at critical junctures of their change journey
We also work with you to help you define the most appropriate engagement model and the balance between virtual/remote and face to face for different interactions, for your objectives.
For many businesses, remote working is here to stay in some capacity. We believe that with the right tools, remote working can offer many benefits to enhance your current business. Find out how this new way of working can increase productivity for your remote projects.Read more