About one generation ago, management styles focused on the concept of a “happy worker is a good worker.” Organizations focused on providing employees the amenities they needed to feel valued, in hopes of it leading to higher productivity. The Hawthorne experiments by Elton Mayo found that changes in the workplace were welcomed and improved morale. Can you imagine that? The workday was so boring and monotonous that any little change made workers happier. That hardly seems to be the situation today. In an effort to respond to the ever changing needs of the consumer, companies have migrated their operations to within a few feet of the customer so that they can respond to any change almost instantly.
In stark contrast to what project managers faced a generation ago, the challenges today not only include a drastic change in where worked is performed, it also includes a variety of changes in the culture of the employee performing the work. In comparison to the workplace of the past, everything has changed, forcing project managers to refocus on some very basic skills. These basic, but critical skills, include an ability to effectively manage tasks, communication, schedule and scope, work progress and environmental variations (Niederman and Tan, 2011). This approach is required due to the overwhelming large increase of variables within this new operating environment. A project manager can’t divide their attention enough to address each variable. Therefore, it’s essential to slightly modify the normal tasks a project manager is accustomed to in order to maintain a high level of efficiency and effectiveness.
Managing project tasks. While this may seem like common sense to a project manager, several studies have found that collaboration across distance is much more difficult than in a single collocated environment. Today’s environment is global and requires the use of Virtual Teams. Virtual team members are often diverse in nationality. Although such diversity may complicate team dynamics, it can also enhance the overall problem-solving capacity of the group by bringing more vantage points to bear on a particular project. To boost the performance of these teams, a project manager needs to implement the appropriate mechanisms for boosting both socio-emotional and task-related processes. In short, the project manager must create an intelligent division of tasks to ensure they are performed efficiently and effectively (i.e. give them the core tasks for their roles). In a collocated environment, it’s possible to allow team members to expand beyond their expertise because expert advice is usually found within the same walls of the facility. However, in a virtual team, the needed expertise could be located in another country or time zone, creating a hardship for the individual team member.
Managing Communication. If you’ve managed program teams around the globe, you already know that distance makes presents a huge challenge for coordination, especially when your team is in multiple time zones. However, other potential issues can include difficulties in communication, reduced trust, anxiety, loss of group cohesion, self-doubt, over sensitivity to issues and under-performance. Physical distance decreases closeness and affinity, which then leads to a greater potential for conflict (Virtual Teams, 2009). Therefore, you must encourage team members to participate fully. Encourage interaction amongst team members to develop synergy and by using technology that promotes familiarity, such as skype (e.g. voice and video). Face-to-face is usually the best method so using technology that closely simulates this interaction will reduce most issues you’ll encounter as it is known to build community and connections to the business.
Work process supervision. Distance has shown to invoke an increased inability to establish a common ground. Poor communication can lead to a deviation from the scope and schedule if common goals are not communicated and buy-in is not achieved. This is especially true when your work is performed at a remote location and the customer is often on-site to evaluate work progress. The customer often communicates the need for certain activities that are not part of your original scope. Version control, or configuration management, is made more difficult with increased distance usually driven by poor internet access, lack of central configuration system or a slow process for incorporating changes to documentation. This failure can easily result in delivery of inconsistent products to the customer. It’s usually a thin line between delivery what the contract states and what the customer really wants, especially if the project was underbid or under-scoped.
Managing environmental variations. Too often, projects performed in other countries are overrun financially due to local variations, such as holidays, length of the work day and work week, safety requirements, union policies, taxes, tax reporting, etc. The best approach to dealing with these risks is to negotiate as many of these as possible at the start of the project so that they are incorporated within the budget. If not, you’ll need to identify them quickly as part of your risk analysis. Local consultants and even your customer are good sources of information for determining the variations in the work environment.
While this is not an extensive list, it does encompass several key aspects that project managers must focus on when working with dispersed teams. Project management is constantly being shaped by the ever-changing economy, forcing project managers to learn new ways of dealing with new people, cultures, technologies, business processes and issues. Staying ahead of the change is most likely the Project Manager’s biggest challenge.
Niederman, F. and Tan, F. Managing Global IT Teams: Considering Cultural Dynamics. Communications of the ACM, 54, 2 (April 2011), 24-27.
“How to Manage Virtual Teams”, by Frank Siebdrat, Martin Hoegl and Holger Ernst, MIT Sloan Management Review, July 2009.