By

Gary Hamilton, Jeff Hodgkinson, Gareth Byatt

In recent years, the way that projects take shape has evolved at or near the same pace as the information and communications technology we use in our business and personal lives. Not long ago, a project team was either co-located (all team members in the same close proximity), or connected together via express couriers and air travel (regular travel to meet face–to-face was reasonable, prudent, the best method, and acceptable in cost). Then came the email revolution. Project teams could readily and efficiently communicate in an asynchronous manner, ‘virtual’ team members were welcomed and new ways of achieving productivity were discovered. Project productivity certainly benefitted from this approach, but risks also became apparent (which we will elaborate on below). Nowadays, video conferencing, application sharing technologies, and other technology advances have enabled project teams to be assembled with talent from anywhere, regardless of location, while minimizing location costs. Communications technologies are so readily available that the virtual project team member is now commonplace in today’s working environment. Depending on the industry in which you operate, the percentage of virtual team members on a project will vary and in some cases your entire project team may be virtual – meaning no two members geographically reside in the same location, nor meet often (if at all). The Linux development was a classic example of such a team. For sure, projects where something physical is being put together always require people in the same physical location to coordinate it (such as construction of a new building, or a new mining development), however these projects also have many more virtual partners than before (such as designers and offsite manufacturers working remotely). Regardless of the percentage allocation of your team that is “virtual”, communication risks exist. What are the key risks and how can the project manager effectively mitigate them?

The basic theory of communication involves a sender, a receiver, a message and a medium. When the medium of the message is virtual, such as email or instant messaging, risks exist in that the “intended message” may not be the “message received”, Email and the like does not give you the emphasis, inflection, tone, or body language that you have when dealing with people face to face, or to a lesser extent by phone. Over the course of our careers, we have all probably been guilty of at least once, or known someone, who has sent an email, or instant message only to live to regret it as the intended message got distorted and ended up requiring far more “patching up” communication to resolve the matter than the time taken to craft the original email message. Lack of body language, tone, facial expressions and hand gestures make it very difficult to effectively communicate across all forms of virtual communication, especially when cultural and generational differences are factored into the equation. A project manager needs to be aware of these differences as well as the communication preferences of every stakeholder and adapt their communications accordingly. In order to mitigate communication risks, the project manager should think hard about how their team members select and use the most appropriate communication mediums for the messages being delivered.  Here are some suggestions for considering communication mediums.

 

Communication Medium

Suggested Uses in Virtual Teams

Don't Do This

Email

Group updates, work statuses, general management updates, delivery of documents and in some cases sign-off on deliverables.

Key: keep emails clear and concise – “write for your audience, not for yourself”

Send an ‘emotive’ message.  Any difficult discussion should be dealt with in person, or if not possible by phone.

Instant Messages

Quick and immediate clarifications, team discussions

Use for collecting sign-offs or Requirements gathering, or any other formal requirement.

Send an ‘emotive’ message.  Do by phone or in person.

Use during another meeting.

Remember:  IM’s can be stored and retrieved by law in most countries, the same as emails.

Telephone

General project discussions, conference calls to review progress etc

Personal Performance reviews for the project (if there is no way they can be held face-to-face), conflict resolution,  project on-boarding and off boarding,

Leave a message without giving detail information as to why you called, when, who you are, etc.

Conference Calls

Regular project team meetings

Continue with a sensitive discussion post a conference call, as others could still be on it.

Video Conference

Group and team meetings, more formal work reviews, Training

As close to face-to-face as you can get (some modern video conferencing is very advanced, but expensive)

Don’t use for unimportant events, it is costly.

Face to Face

General meetings and daily work interactions, Celebrate successes, Training, Project conclusion, Major Milestones

Don’t forget those that cannot travel to meet face to face, consider the best options for them.

 

Virtual teams and virtual team members offer many advantages to projects that, overall, far outweigh the communication risks that they imply. The number of virtual workers on projects continues to grow each year. In order for you as a project manager to effectively manage your project, make sure you understand the communication styles that are required for in-situ and virtual team members, and ensure the appropriate communications mediums for the messages being sent are being used for the benefit of your project.


 

Biographies:

 

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. is Head of the IT Global Program Management Office for Lend Lease Corporation. Gareth has worked in several countries and lives in Sydney, Australia. Gareth has 14 years of project and program management experience in IT and construction and he can be contacted through LinkedIn.

 

Gareth holds numerous degrees, certifications, and credentials in program and project management as follows: an MBA and first-class undergraduate management degree, PgMP®, PMP® and PRINCE2.

 

Gary Hamilton is the Manager of the PMO and Governance within Bank of America’s Learning and Leadership Development Products organization. Gary lives in Tennessee, and works out of Charlotte, North Carolina.  He has 14 years of project and program management experience in IT, finance, and human resources.  Gary has won several internal awards for results achieved from projects and programs he managed as well as being named one of the Business Journal’s Top 40 Professionals in 2007 and a 2009 recipient of the President’s Volunteer Service Award. He can be contacted through LinkedIn

 

Gary holds numerous degrees and certifications in IT, management, and project management and they include: an advanced MBA degree in finance, PgMP®, PMP®, PMI-RMP®, ITIL-F, and SSGB.

 

Jeff Hodgkinson is the IT Cloud Program Manager for Intel Corporation. He is a 30-year veteran of Intel Corporation with a progressive career as a Program/Project Manager.  He is located in Chandler, Arizona and is a past volunteer in various support positions for the Phoenix PMI Chapter.  Jeff was also the 2nd place finalist for the 2009 Kerzner International Project Manager of the Year Award TM.   Due to helping people achieve their goals, Jeff is in the Top 100 most networked and the 3rd most recommended person on LinkedIn.

Jeff holds numerous certifications and credentials in program and project management as follows: CCS, CDT, CPC™, CIPM™, CPPM–L10, CDRP, CSQE, IPMA-B®, ITIL-F, MPM™, PME™, PMOC, PMP®, PgMP®, PMI-RMP®, PMW, and SSGB.

See Jeff at the PMI Global Congress 2010-North America as he will be co-presenting a paper on, "Value of the PgMP® Credential in the Working World", Session #TRN19.