Managing the virtual project team

“Bzzz. Bzzz.”, goes the iPhone. 7:39am. The first email of the day arrives, announcing that the manuscripts for Unit 4 have been successfully deposited to DropBox and are now ready for integration. I log in to the shared Google Document status report spreadsheet to confirm that the appropriate cells have been coloured green and the date correctly recorded, and welcome another day as a virtual PM.

The PMI’s Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) does an excellent job of standardizing and cataloguing the inputs, outputs, and processes required to successfully manage a project using the Waterfall approach. An unwritten assumption of the approach, however, is that project teams and project managers (PMs) enjoy the luxury of working together in a central location, sharing equal access to information, to time, to resources, and to one another. In the context of a modern business, however, the existence of this traditional team structure is fading, and enterprises small and large are composing non-traditional project teams to respond to specific project requirements.

From telecommuting to virtual teams

Virtual project teamWith the incredible advancements in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) over the past decades, it has become increasing simpler and inexpensive for companies to establish temporary virtual teams to execute projects. The trend began in the 1980s with the introduction of the concept of “telework” or “telecommuting”: an employee could conduct his or her work from home (or a remote location) and communicate with the networked, central office (via phone, and eventually through fax and email) as necessary (Pliskin, p. 166). (For a more detailed overview of IT-enabled telecommuting, see Annex E.)

The idea was avidly adopted by many forward-thinking organizations, recognizing that employees who spent less time on the freeway, or who were now able to produce while stuck at home as required by their personal responsibilities, could be happier and more productive than someone in-office. (For examples of production increases from telecommuting, see Annex A.) Moreover, they could save on the overhead expenses of the additional cubicle space and workstation. Incredible!

Meet the virtual team

Today’s virtual teams are more complex, but share a history with their telecommuting ancestors. As the business trend in recent decades has been to move away from production (assembly-line production and manufacturing) towards the delivery of knowledge and services (Hunsaker, p. 86), the telecommuting model inspired a rise in popularity of virtual teams (Hunsaker, p. 86), allowing external or dispersed experts/consultants, freelancers, and subcontractors to collaborate at the project level.

If a project is defined as “a temporary endeavour under taken to accomplish a unique product or service with a defined start and end point and specific objectives that, when attained, signify completion.” (PMBOK, p. 5), then a virtual project can be defined as a project undertaken by a virtual team: a team of contributors participating to meet the defined project goals without necessarily working in the same location or at the same time. The team is virtual by virtue of the defining characteristic that its members may never meet physically or in real-time:

Virtual teams are groups of geographically and/or organizationally dispersed co-workers that are assembled using a combination of telecommunications and information technologies to accomplish an organizational task. (Hunsaker, p. 86)

Contemporary virtual teams can be further distinguished from conventional, face-to-face teams by two key differentiators: (1) they are not necessarily physically co-located, and (2) their communication is more formal, structured, and technologically-mediated (Hunsaker, p. 86-89).  (For a simple chart illustrating the differences between the two teams, see Annex B.)

[No] one technology to rule them all

The technological challenges to virtual project teamwork cannot be overlooked. While there is a growing range of products available enabling “real-time” collaboration between project team members, there is no single technology solution that exists for the management of virtual projects (Hofer, p. 28).  For a list of the ICT tools used by the author in the management of a virtual project, see Annex F.

Until virtual collaboration on projects becomes the norm, project teams continue to create their own “toolbox” using a combination of synchronous and asynchronous tools (Hofer, p. 28). The team selects the technology that best meets their needs. The specific workflow and conditions of each project and its team dictate the technical requirements.

For the time being, email remains the dominant form of communication in virtual teams; the role of wikis, blogs, and other social media has yet to be determined (Hofer, p. 28). However, one can also assume that the prevalence of ICT tools in projects will continue to increase as web-based services become more common in the workplace, and as younger, more “tech-savvy” generations (e.g., Millennials) join project teams.

With the plethora of “web 2.0” and “cloud” services now available to project teams at low- or no-cost, the real challenge regarding technology implementation at the virtual project level is not availability or functionality of such technology, but rather one of adoption. While project managers may keenly embrace new ICT tools to meet their project needs, the tools used will inevitably fall into obscurity if they do not become adopted as routine components in the project workflow. In order for such tools to be embraced by the virtual team and by project stakeholders as integral to project processes, project managers must actively ensure that they are organized, maintained, and kept up-to-date. Further PMs may benefit from providing an overview, demonstration or training about new project tools to the project team to encourage adoption and use. Interestingly, it is reported that the overall experience of working on a virtual team improves as they gain experience and become more comfortable with the technology (Wakefield, p. 438).

So what?

The virtual team’s goals and tasks are not necessarily any different than those of conventional teams. It is, rather, the way they go about accomplishing their tasks and the unique constraints they face, that are different (Hunsaker, p. 87).

In order to succeed, virtual project teams must not only accomplish the objectives and tasks mandated by the project, but they must also overcome the technological and interpersonal challenges imposed by a developing, non-traditional team model. For the virtual project manager, success requires a greater-than-usual commitment to managing the team performance, interpersonal relations and communications.

Overcoming obstacles

The greatest challenges facing virtual team members stem from their non-traditional communication methods: a lack of shared language or vocabulary across geographically- or culturally-dispersed team members increases the risk of miscommunication (Hunsaker, p. 89-90), and a lack of face-to-face dialogue eliminates clarifying non-verbal communication methods such as body language, subtlety and nuance of intonation, tone of voice (Lee-Kelley:2004, p. 655). As formal, technology-based communication replaces the informal, casual, water-cooler and cubicle-chat enjoyed by co-located project teams, team members struggle to share information (Wakefield, p. 435) quickly and effectively.

Further, virtual team members face the decreased visibility of their contributions (both work and opinions) to the project (Hunsaker, p. 90), and by extension, a fear of lack of recognition (Lee-Kelley:2004, p. 655), and must work harder to establish mutual trust and respect with colleagues (Hunsaker, p. 90). It is for these reasons that Liz Lee-Kelley defines virtual team project members as “the invisibles” in her article. (For an illustration of competing factors affecting virtual teams, see Annex D.)

Virtual teams experience more conflict than co-located teams (Wakefield, p. 434), and virtual teams function better with greater managerial guidance (Wakefield, p. 434). As dispersed team members struggle to determine what tasks to complete in what priority, how to complete tasks (Wakefield, 440), and how to collaborate and survive interpersonal barriers, all three types of workplace conflict – task, relational, and process – are exacerbated by the virtual project environment (Wakefield, p. 435-6)

Some research suggests that the same level of task and relationship conflict exists in virtual teams as in traditional project teams (Hunsaker, p. 87). The challenge, however, is how to overcome and mediate these conflicts without the convenience of traditional face-to-face communication.

The virtual project manager as leader

While all project managers are concerned with managing the People, Processes, Information and Technology (PPTI) related to a project, PMs managing a virtual project team have additional hurdles to overcome. While a project manager may traditionally focus on one project with one team in one location, the modern, virtual PM must manage a dispersed team of contributors (Hofer, p. 22). Thus the need for effective project management techniques is paramount. Yet it is not the “hard” or technical skills that a PM must develop to successfully make the transition to managing virtual projects, rather it is his “soft skills” and interpersonal competencies that must be adapted. The added complexity of relationship dynamics in a virtual team environment render traditional approaches to project management inadequate (Lee-Kelley:2004, p. 650).

In a virtual project setting, it is critical that the PM assumes the role of the central project leader (Lee-Kelley:2002, p. 462), assuming additional responsibility than in a typical project by managing project processes, inter-team communications, and coordinating tasks. As the project leader, the PM must become more active in assuming two key roles: (1) performance management and (2) team development. (Hunsaker, p. 91). (For a holistic view of Hunsaker’s guidelines for managing virtual teams over the life of a project, see Annex C.)

To manage team performance, the PM must: clearly specify the goals and direction of all tasks for all team members (Hofer, p. 26-28); establish routine and habitual meetings and communications; establish standard operating procedures (SOPs) and project processes; and continually support the team to overcome challenges in order to maintain momentum (Hunsaker, p. 91-92). To develop “coherence” amongst virtual team members, the PM must create opportunities for trust-building (Hunsaker, p. 92) and provide recognition for successes to foster motivation.

In one study, it was demonstrated that project teams with a strong/positive perception of the project manager as a strong leader believe that their team performs at a higher level (Wakefield, p. 450). The better the project manager is able to performance as a team leader, the better the virtual project team performs (Wakefield, p. 453).


This paper explored the recent trend in project management of creating virtual project teams of dispersed team members who collaborate using ICT tools. The features and limitations of virtual project teams pose unique challenges to both team members and to project managers. Here is a summary of the key observations and recommendations discussed:

ICT Tools

  • There is no single solution for managing a virtual project.
  • To encourage adoption, tools must be tightly integrated into the project workflow and processes
  • Information must be updated frequently and maintained to remain relevant
  • Adoption of new tools can be slow, but gets easier with practice (as the team gains experience)

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Project team

  • Composed of dispersed contributors: experts, consultants, freelancers, outsourced or 3rd party vendors, etc.
  • Research suggests that virtual or telecommuting members may be more productive than co-located counterparts.
  • Project-related and interpersonal conflicts will arise, often as a result of miscommunication. Virtual teams must find alternative strategies to overcome these challenges.

Project manager

  • PM should become a project leader & advocate
  • Virtual PM has two key roles: to manage team performance and team cohesion


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