Distributed Team Not Communicating? Build a Virtual Team Room!

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Managing communication is critical to successful projects, but when our project team is distributed across locations, time zones, countries, or even continents, good communication doesn’t come naturally. One important challenge is maintaining stable consistent communication channels across the team. When the team is not co-located, we can’t rely on proximity and incidental communication to distribute information. We have many electronic tools in available to us, from email, conference calling, web collaboration tools, cloud file sharing, the list goes on. We have all the tools we need – so why is important information still being lost? Why do we still struggle to collect, analyze, and disseminate information to the right people at the right time? Why do we spend so much time answering email and sitting in endless conference calls? Because we have the tools, but not the plan for what, when, and why to use them. So how do you select, deploy and use the right tools to serve the project needs?

Consider building a virtual team room. What is a virtual team room? Think of it as an electronic representation of a project team room. Project team rooms provide a place for team members to come to get information, hold formal meetings or information discussions, work together without external distractions. They are familiar places to many of us. The goal of a virtual team room is to build an integrated network of communication tools that are accessible equally by all team members, allow for timely communications among all appropriate team members, and provide accessibility to project information. The electronic tools are the resources – it’s up to the project manager to decide which tools will be used, and how they will be used, and to train and reinforce the use among team members. The virtual team room is the construct that informs the plan for and use of those resources.

Imagine a project team room. For this exercise, picture a good sized room with a large conference table at one end. There is a white board on the wall next to the table, and a projector on the table, projecting onto the far wall. Along the two other walls are work cubicles with work tables for individuals and small groups to work. And at the other end is a wall sized bulletin board displaying the project plan, schedule, recent successes, upcoming deliverables, project announcements, and anything anyone wanted to post. Lastly, there are several file cabinets containing previous deliverables, reference material, supplies, and work products. For a co-located team, everything they need to complete the project is in or accessible from this room. Now what if half of the team is in another state?

Replace all the physical resources with electronic ones. Replicate the room virtually, and use this visual construct to organize communications. Instead of the large conference table at one end, you have conference calling. Sounds obvious, but set a policy that before sending that one-to-one email, consider whether it’s a conversation that others may want to hear, and could the issue be resolved more quickly with a short meeting? Would you have called an impromptu meeting at the table? Use the conference line instead. For the white board and the projector, use on line collaboration tools. Bulletin board, file cabinet – we have tools like SharePoint that can serve these functions as well.

But that is just the first step. The second step is to develop a set of guidelines for using the tools, with the goal of insuring that all team members have full access to information, full participation in the project, and maximizing the productive time of the team. Would you have all your team members sitting at the table for hours every week listening to you talk? Instead, post the information on the “bulletin board”. Does the engineering team need to review and discuss the latest test results? A collaboration tool where the results are visible to everyone, and each team member can participate in the discussion and they can work together to craft the response. A discussion page can allow for detailed conversations even if team members are not in the same time zone. Each team member should come to the virtual team room to work, just as they would come to a physical team room.

And just like you would monitor your team’s behavior in the room, as the project leader you must make sure to define roles and responsibilities, manage processes and controls, and be observant of the amount of participation of all team members, particularly if members are in distributed time zones. You must also monitor the use of the tools – not just whether the team members are using the tools as planned, but are the tools serving the project team members? On red flag is if team members are using “unauthorized” tools or using tools in unplanned ways. Before taking corrective action, find out why the team member has strayed from the plan. You may find that it is the plan needing corrective action, not the team member. Work with your project team to make adjustments to meet their needs.

The number of collaboration tools is increasing every day. Many of them are now web-based, inexpensive or even free. That’s great news, but it also means that using too many tools without a plan can increase confusion and make communication worse. I can buy a power tool, and even learn how to operate it, but if I don’t know the proper use of it, and when to use it, or have reason to use it, how does it serve me? It’s just another toy sitting in my garage. The virtual team room is a visual approach to the what, when, and why of project communications.

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