Addressing the Communication and Collaboration Challenges of Remote Teams

Communicate, communicate, and communicate! On any project, you must ensure that mechanisms for effective communications are firmly in place and well understood. The more geographically distributed your team members and stakeholders are, the more you and your project are at risk of mis-communicating or simply not communicating at all.  It is well-known that poor project communications can lead to project failure or perhaps a lukewarm end result. Collaboration is equally as important, and is based on clear and efficient communications across your project life cycle. You, the project manager, are responsible for keeping everyone on target and everyone in the communications loop.

As a project manager, you are responsible for engaging and motivating your team and your project stakeholders.  A motivated team typically has an increased commitment to the project objectives. There are a number of ways to motivate the team, including coaching and mentoring activities. Of course, it is always easier to motivate folks when you can speak with them face-to-face versus dealing with them at a distance.

While you are allocating, assessing, and leveling your project team resources, you should be thinking about how to keep those resources engaged and committed to the work at hand. The rewards and recognition policies that you create for your team should reflect the distributed nature of your team and fairly recognize folks for their achievements regardless of their location.  A project team charter might be helpful in setting the ground rules for your team and in addressing diversity, awareness issues, and ethical standards of behavior.  One of the best project team charters I have ever seen was created by my team in my absence, agreed upon and then presented to me as a done deal.

Remember to work closely with your project team members and your key stakeholders to effectively define and implement new solutions. As the project manager, you set the bar for establishing a collaborative working environment where everyone shares the ownership of the team goals for the project. Experienced project managers are quite good at building effective working relationships with others in order to enhance the quality of team communications and reduce conflicts.

Another key aspect of teamwork is the ability to motivate both yourself and other members of the team. You will often find yourself using your motivation skills to energize your fellow team members and project stakeholders in order to achieve a high level of project performance and to overcome any barriers to change that exist within the organization and the user communities.

Working in virtual project teams also requires you to manage and address conflicts. The basic types of conflict you will encounter are emotional and cognitive. Emotional conflicts stem from personal interactions, while cognitive conflicts are based upon disagreements on matters of substantive value or impact on the project or organization. Resolution of cognitive conflicts requires the team to focus on examining the premises, assumptions, observations and expectations of the team members. Working through such problems can also strengthen the foundation and performance of your project team as a whole. Over the years, I have found that many conflict situations on my projects encompass both emotional and cognitive elements.

Don’t forget that project communication is multi-dimensional. You will get information from everyone, sift/sort/repackage that information and distribute it to others. On a large project, using technology and document management systems is a “must do”.  In order to provide timely and accurate information to your project stakeholders, you must address project performance status, notification of change requests to the project team, internal budgetary information, external government and regulatory filings, and any public announcements about your project.

Distributing communications messages to stakeholders can be done informally or formally, electronically, verbally or on even on a piece of paper.  Most of us commonly use email, presentation, voice mail and written reports regularly concerning technical, managerial and process aspects of the program. There are many techniques for distributing information, such as your basic set of communications skills (the sender-receiver model), information retrieval systems to share program information between team members and stakeholders, and information distribution methods to collect, share and distribute information to stakeholders.  These information systems include meetings, documents, filing systems, electronic communications tools, conferencing tools, and even project management tools.

Equally as important as engaging your team is your ability to engage your project stakeholders.  Sometimes it can be quite challenging to get them involved in and interacting with your project and your project team. I have found that having a stakeholder register and inventory of everyone involved and their role on my project to be quite helpful. Project teams also need to work with stakeholders to learn about, track and prioritize their issues and concerns. Monitoring stakeholder participation is a great way to identify non-participation of stakeholders and the associated risks of their lack of involvement. Performing root cause analysis to identify and address the causes of this lack of involvement is also recommended, particularly in a more distributed or virtual work environment.

Remember, there are many challenges present in a distributed or virtual project environment.  The more geographically distributed your project team and your stakeholders are, that harder you need to work to communicate and collaborate with them in order to meet the project objectives and get the work done. If you are looking to refine or validate your communication skills, take a look at Learning Tree’s 4-day course on fundamental project management skills.  This course is certainly a great place to begin or revisit how well you are managing your projects and your project team members and to learn some new skills and techniques for managing them even better still.

Susan Weese

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