By Bruce Beer, PMP:

Working with virtual teams and PMOs has enough challenges when they are all contained in the USA; however when these teams are global with different time zones and languages, it has a certain dimension that adds “interest” to life!

My first experience with a virtual team was when I based in the UK and was asked to manage a Pan-European project to implement a support service for Hewlett Packard throughout Europe. The application was developed in the US and was being implemented throughout eight European Countries as well as Asia-Pacific and the Americas.

OK so you get the idea – it was certainly a large virtual project. The things that made it interesting to manage were the different cultures, time zones, and languages. Take for example the European cultures – they ranged from those who conducted projects with total precision and accuracy, to those who agreed a course of action then went off and did “their own thing”, to those that tried hard, were great fun to work with, but didn’t always take life too seriously.

In Europe there are only two time zones – UK and European, so this was not a great problem, but we also had regular communications with HQ in Palo Alto on the West Coast – an 8 hour time shift. As for the language issue, I did not adopt the general English approach to languages, “Shout louder in English and they will understand”. I made an attempt to at least show willingness by using my schoolboy French and German which often caused much merriment from my colleagues, leading to everyone resorting to English as the common language – thank goodness.

What were the important lessons I learnt from this experience?

The first one was that for a virtual team, in my opinion it is imperative that the team meets face to face at least once, preferably on a regular basis. I held a kick-off meeting in the UK, then in addition to regular phone conferences we had status meetings every month rotating around the other Countries. When I say “we” I mean just the Project Manager from each Country, not all of the team members. This did of course add to the expense, but in my view the cost was easily justified by the smoother communication and running of the project. There was quite a lot of interdependence between the various Country teams, and trying to negotiate and get another Country to cooperate was so much easier when you had met the person concerned, had a meal and a drink together, and knew something about their family, hobbies, etc.

This leads to communication on a virtual team. This is even more important than with a local team where you can just go and visit a colleague to ask a question and catch up on progress. Communication has to be well thought out and planned taking into account time differences, language issues, project complexities, and cultural differences.

As for the different cultures, I just had to embrace that – I wasn’t going to change their culture, I just had to incorporate it into the plan. Some Countries needed more management or direction, others – once we had agreed a course of action, just went away and did it.

Languages did cause me a problem initially, but it seemed I was the only one who had a problem  – everyone seemed to speak English at least as well as I did, some were even better! There was one Swiss guy who could carry on multiple conversations at dinner in multiple languages, at the same time – I was impressed! In this project I was lucky we all spoke English – had I been dealing with non-European language speakers who could not speak English, it would have been very difficult if not impossible to manage.

I did meet and liaise with the US central developers and the PMs from Asia Pacific and the Americas to discuss any issues and cry on each other shoulders as necessary.

So the key lessons from this and subsequent large virtual teams were to:

  1. Meet face to face at least once not just to discuss work but also to socialize and get to know the other team members a little, even though it added cost
  2. Allow for and even embrace the different cultures
  3. Consider and plan communications very carefully
  4. Hope everyone speaks English!! Seriously, this could be a major issue on a global project and it can’t be ignored – a solution to communication and language must be found