Online project management software is the silver bullet for companies with remote workers. Or is it? The logic is clear: a company saves on overhead and can hire the most talented and (potentially) lowest cost employees or contractors wherever they may be. The reality is a little more complex. In the right environment, online collaboration can spur innovation while saving money. Without appropriate supervision and control, allowing your employees the freedom to collaborate virtually can lead to operational or even financial disaster.
Let’s start with a definition. “Online collaboration” is the use of technology as the primary mechanism for communication and engagement between distributed project team members. The technologies include Skype, online chat, interactive whiteboards, document collaboration and online project management software. I’m probably missing a few from the list.
The model works best when there is good chemistry between team members that are highly disciplined and committed. Your development team in Bangalore collaborates with product development in Seattle and marketing in Columbus. Everyone is working out of a home office and responds to team requests almost instantaneously. Documents are stored centrally and shared between members. Project progress is tracked on a real time basis and each person updates their task list as it is completed.
The problem with this ideal scenario is that we live in an imperfect world. Team members may be working from a home office; they may be cyberloafing or they may not be working at all. Just as technology can be an enabler for productivity, it can also be used to hide bad habits. Simply because your marketing manager working from her home office answers requests at all hours of the day does not mean that she is devoting her energies to her job. Expecting a product manager to collaborate closely on design with a team member that he has never met may not yield the innovation that your management expects to see.
An over-reliance on tools at the expense of management oversight and structure can result in lower productivity and hurt the business in the long run. So how do we strike a balance between flexibility and discipline? The answer is that it is not easy to do and many teams fail.
There are three things that can go wrong. One, hiring the team that does not understand collaboration. Two, failing to manage them. Three, not aligning compensation with results. Let’s look at each of these in detail:
Relying on technology when you should be focusing on people
Even the most skilled and talented employee may not be cut out to work virtually no matter how good the toolkit we provide. If the expectation is that the team will be working via remote, make sure that you hire the people who have experience doing this (well). Access to a virtual whiteboard cannot make someone collaborate with their team. Here are some practical suggestions for dealing with this people and team issues:
* When you hire someone new to the company or recruit an internal employee to the team, make sure that they have experience working in online collaborative environment. This requires careful vetting of candidates and checking references thoroughly. Be sensitive to culture differences and identify potential problems at the start of the project.
* Secure budget upfront to schedule important brainstorming and milestone meetings. At the very least, an offsite kick off meeting for the whole team will help set expectations and create a positive dynamic that can carry over for the duration of the project.
Forgetting that your job is to manage
Many project managers accidentally find themselves in the role and do not have formal training. The fact that the team is basing its communication and collaboration on online tools should not be an excuse to abrogate management responsibility! Here are some suggestions for managing in an online collaboration scenario:
* During the project planning phase secure clear timelines and commitments (in writing) from each team member. Identify risks upfront and agree upon ways to address these risks if they should occur.
* Just because online project management software allows individual team members to update their project or task progress does not mean that the project manager is not responsible for managing the team and monitoring results.
* If online collaboration software frees up your time as a project manager, use this as an opportunity to be more strategic and to play a mentorship role with the team.
Failing to set expectations, rewards and consequences with team members
A sure way for a project to fail is not setting expectations upfront with the team. Team members should be rewarded for their level of collaboration and the overall results from the project. At the same time, if team members are uncooperative and if results are not achieved, it is important for the team to understand that there are consequences as well. Based on my years of experience managing projects, here is some guidance for expectation and reward setting.
* Rewards and consequences do not have to be financially based. Research shows that project team members value other forms of reward such as recognition from their peers and management for a job well done.
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