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Working with virtual project teams

Neveen Moussa
April 4, 2011

It has become almost impossible to pick up a newspaper or business magazine and not see a reference to the so-called skills shortage. The war for talent, the void to be created by the retirement of baby boomers, and the falling quality of university graduates have occupied both academics and politicians alike.

High on the list of occupations in shortage are engineers, IT professionals, planners, cost controllers, estimators, programmers and business analysts among other team member roles required to deliver projects.

To combat this shortage, there has been an increase in the usage of ‘virtual’ (geographically dispersed) teams. Used to satisfy organisational need to leverage diverse expertise spread over geographic areas, and to lower costs and extract efficiencies by tapping into foreign labour pools, the use of virtual teams has risen with the development of collaborative information technology. Many organisations have ventured into offshoring, outsourcing and the use of value centres, particularly prevalent in the technology and engineering sectors.

The growth in virtual teaming in Australia has not been documented, however, its use in the US, which has the largest percentage of mobile workers in the world, has exploded; the International Data Corporation predicts it will become 73 percent of the US workforce this year. Researchers predict that virtual teams will grow by more than 20 percent annually.

Project management of virtual teams requires a new model. In teams not well managed, innovation falls by over 90 percent, trust and job satisfaction suffers by over 80 percent, and goal and role clarity decrease by over 60 percent. This ultimately results in on-time/on-budget performance decline by more than 50 percent, potentially translating into millions of dollars.

Current project management theory assumes project teams are co-located, so falls short when applied to virtual teams that span time, distance and organisational boundaries. Things that go wrong on a traditional project go wrong faster and less gracefully in a virtual team environment.

Project managers venturing into the virtual world face three paradoxes:

  1. An increase in structure and flexibility: Flexibility in the sense of the work environment and structure as it relates to the pattern of interaction.
  2. Greater individuality and more teamwork: Individual effort is needed due to the distance, but there needs to be unity and commitment by the team members on objectives.
  3. Increase and decrease in control: There is less control over the workers, but project managers must maintain strong control over the structure of the team and the results and outcomes.

Managing a virtual team requires commitment to traditional project management methodologies but also letting go of direct control and a greater emphasis on high-level issues such as team design, driving results through the team and creating a virtual community focused on the project goals.

The emphasis is more on the technology, human and social aspects rather than the control of time, cost and quality. The virtual project manager is a leader, results catalyst, facilitator, barrier buster, business analyser, coach and living example.

Organisations that do not begin to use virtual teams effectively will have difficulty competing in the increasingly global, competitive, and resource-constrained markets of the future.

Stop thinking of virtual teams as a special case and start developing project management strategies, methodologies and competencies to deal with the new challenges they create. A perspective on how to apply project management in the fast moving, increasingly dispersed global information age of the future is well overdue.

Author avatar
Neveen Moussa
Dr Moussa is a principal at global consulting firm Sinclair Knight Merz and an Adjunct Professor of Project Management at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and Queensland University of Technology. She is a past National President, and current Fellow of the Australian Institute of Project Management.
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