7 Strategies for Managing Geographically Dispersed Teams


by Mounir Hilal, Vice President of Customer Success and Strategic Accounts, Tenrox

It seems like every organization is faced with this scenario and it differs greatly from how companies managed teams and resources 20 years ago. In today’s world of global professional services organizations project managers, resource managers, department managers, CEOs, CIOs, CTOs, CFOs, COOs, and everyone in between seem to be managing – at some time or another – resources who are not co-located with the rest of the team members they are working with on projects and company initiatives.

While the scenario of managing geographically dispersed teams is more the norm now than the exception, it is not without it’s challenges and it’s own set of ‘best practices’. If one hopes to be successful in overseeing dispersed teams and leading them on tasks and projects – especially customer-facing projects – then there are a few things that must happen…some key concepts to keep in mind in order to effectively manage virtual teams:

  1. Efficient and effective communication. The #1 responsibility of a project manager or team lead is efficient and effective communication. And never is that more critical than when you are managing resources you can’t reach out to face to face. If you’re working on a project, it’s important to plan how and when communication will happen. I highly recommend putting together a communication plan – even if it’s a brief one. In that plan you can identify all communication points on the project, include everyone’s contact information all in one place, and plan for what meetings will happen weekly, monthly, etc. It will hold the project manager and team accountable to communication throughout the project and build customer confidence because this process has been planned for and provide upfront to every project stakeholder.
  2. Manage time zones wisely. It’s critical that the project manager or team leader manage time zones effectively. If you’re interacting with an outside customer, you’ll need to schedule critical calls when the entire team can be available….and that’s a challenge if someone is located on the other side of the world. The project manager or team leader will have to get use to the fact that one or more of their resources may often be working while the rest of the team is sleeping and vice versa. The key is to not let communication slip with those resources as they can become alienated from the rest of the team and may end up focusing on work that they are performing for other project managers who are communicating more closely with them. Stay in touch – keep every team member engaged regardless of their location.
  3. Conduct weekly internal team meetings. It’s a great idea to conduct regular team meetings no matter where team members are located. It helps the team become more cohesive and seamless in their actions and tasks and – if there is a customer involved – it helps the team leader or project manager and the entire team prepare for regular customer status calls. That team cohesion definitely works in your favor to promote customer confidence on status calls because a wise customer will be able to tell that the team gels and the distance between resources is not an issue and is not having a negative impact on the project.
  4. Peer review everything. This is an important concept, in my opinion, whether the team is co-located or geographically dispersed. But it becomes even more important when you can’t just walk a document to the office next door for a review. When team members aren’t communicating face to face, it’s easy to assume people are reviewing and proof reading team documents. Don’t skip this process and find out from the customer that you delivered an important document with inaccuracies and misspellings. I found that out the hard way and never let it happen again. You lose some customer confidence that is very hard to get back.
  5. Use of automation. Anytime you’re dealing with a project team or functional team that has one or more geographically dispersed team members, it’s important to use as much automation as possible to enhance the information sharing and collaboration experience. For projects, choose a good web-based tool that allows for the entire team to input information, update task responsibilities and completion status, and share documents and knowledge throughout the engagement with everyone on the team. It will make the project manager’s job easier and there is less chance that key information will fall through the cracks.

    For regular organizational teams, be sure to look for tools that provide good mind sharing and document storage and sharing capabilities. These types of tools are now widely available from vendors all over the world at very reasonable costs, and you can easily control the security and access of the information as well as allow access to specific customers on an as needed basis.

  6. Exchange of personnel on a regular basis to build inter-personal relationships. It’s important that the manager – employee relationship be strengthened over time. Relationships left unattended like this can lead to short employee tenures and higher turnover rates, costing the organization valuable dollars in employee training, orientation time, and knowledge transfer that is lost with the exiting employee. For manager-employee relationships that are virtual, many issues can be overcome or avoided with regular face-to-face meetings – even if it’s just every 6 months or so. Of course take advantage of any situations where you’re logically going to be in the same place at the same time such as annual company gatherings, project team meetings to kickoff a project or a major phase, etc. But when those aren’t happening in the near future, make something happen. Go to the employee’s location for a meeting one time, and have the employee come to you 6 months later. The cost savings in productivity, improved communication and reduced employee turnover will far outweigh any associated travel costs.
  7. Annual all-in-one summit bringing everyone together. Finally, if you can’t all be in one place all the time, then at least make sure everyone is all in one place at one time. An annual two or three day gathering of the team gives the manager a chance to introduce new team members, utilize some team building activities, allows all team members to review policies and procedures face to face and brainstorm on changes that will add productivity and focus to the entire team. While overseeing a corporate PMO that was comprised of project managers located all over the US, I would bring all PMs to one central location on an annual basis to share news, review our current processes and methodologies, and brainstorm on changes that would enhance the overall PM process in the organization. Most of us left with action items that created ownership and accountability and definitely brought more cohesion to the team as a whole.

Summary

The bottom line is, managing any team is challenging. And most of us are getting used to managing one or more resources who aren’t working with us face to face. In order to keep the entire team working together as one cohesive, productive unit don’t fall into the trap of assuming everything is going smoothly just because you aren’t seeing issues. Communicate – even over communicate. Conduct regular team meetings even if there isn’t much to cover during a given session. Review each other’s work as a team. It’s all about collaboration and continuing to deliver quality work even though you aren’t working physically in the same location.

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