Improving communication with remote team members

Project management communicationWhen you’re working as a project manager for a global company, you will likely be speaking with a great number of different project stakeholders… clients, project teams, your Project Management Office (PMO), your project’s executive sponsors… the list goes on. And if you’re anything like me, you might be living and working in one part of the world while some of your team members are located in others.

For one particular project, I managed a team of people who were working in one country for a project that was located in a different country on another continent. Meanwhile, I was living and working in a completely different country on a third continent! In all, including client stakeholders and peripheral Support and Services project team members from my company, this team had members located in six countries on three different continents. It took a lot of effort to manage communication among the members of this team, and through the process of doing so I came up with a few tips on how to improve communication with your team members when team members are working remotely.

1. Schedule meetings to maximize member involvement

Team meetings are important. But when you’re working with an international team, team meetings can be a challenge to schedule and facilitate.

It is quite common for project team members to work from a variety of different locations… you might have team members in the United States, Canada, Germany, and India all working on the same project. Of course, the people living in these countries work different hours from the people living in others, so getting everybody together to hold a discussion can be a challenge. Most meetings you hold will take place over an international conference line; I previously covered some of the tips you can use to improve your international conference calls in this post.

When scheduling project meetings, make sure that you either pick a time that works well for everyone, or alternate meeting times so that it is not always the same person or group of people having to attend meetings very late in the evenings or early in the mornings. One week, you might hold a meeting very early in the day in the United States, but at a reasonable hour in the afternoon for your partners in India; the next week you might schedule your meeting later in the morning in the United States, but during the evening in India. Make sure that all project team members understand the reasons for attending the meetings you are holding. This will maximize member involvement and keep team members feeling valued.

2. Ensure team meetings are timely and efficient

Whether you are conducting meetings over the phone, over a video conferencing system, or using Voice Over IP (VOIP), make sure that your meetings are timely and effective. There are several ways to achieve this:

  • Start your meetings on time and end your meetings on time, and make sure that members are committed to joining the meeting at the appropriate time. In some countries, it is completely acceptable to arrive at meetings ten to fifteen minutes late… but in other countries, this behavior is seen as showing a lack of commitment and respect. Remote team members should understand the rules of your meetings and how they will be followed.
  • Distribute a meeting agenda so that all invited attendees know what the topics the meeting will comprise. A strong agenda will help to keep the meeting moving along, and will also help busy people prioritize their daily schedules.
  • Stay focused during the meeting. Don’t let individual issues or conflicts take over the meeting, swing it off track, and prolong things for everyone. If there are any important issues that should not be discussed during a team meeting, table those issues and schedule follow-up calls for the appropriate parties afterward.
  • Send meeting minutes to team members after the meeting so that everyone understands what was said during the meeting and why, and so that absentees can catch up on the material that was discussed during the meeting. Keep minutes to the summary level unless more detail is appropriate; bullet point lists are often most effective for meeting minutes.
  • Realize that daily project team meetings may not be possible. Agile Development using Scrum emphasizes daily scrum team stand-up meetings. However, if you have team members in, say, India, the Netherlands, Canada, and Australia, daily stand-up meetings among scrum team members may not be feasible. In this case, make sure that you meet as often as is required; alternatively, think about spinning off smaller teams with different product backlogs in different locations or continents, or holding daily stand-up meetings at different times in different locations for team members who are living and working in those places.

3. Communicate with team members individually when possible

While project team meetings are an important focus for project communication, constant dialogue among individual team members is also critical. Make sure that you schedule one-on-one meetings with your team members periodically to understand their progress with project tasks and to make sure that they are enabled, comfortable, and receiving whatever information they need from you, the client, and the rest of the project team in order to get their work completed on time. Also ensure that project team members are comfortable contacting each other to communicate, and that you don’t end up playing the middleman for all team discussions.

4. Use instant messaging services

Tools like AIM, Google Talk, XMPP, and in-house communication systems make it easy to share messages, files, and other project information with team members throughout the globe. Take advantage of these services to chat with team members without having to pick up a phone or initiate a video conference… these services are easy to use and very effective. Most instant messaging software includes the ability to start impromptu group chats with other team members, so one-on-one chats can grow to become larger project discussions if necessary. Don’t be afraid to turn off your instant messaging service if you need to get work done… sometimes, all those little windows popping up on your screen can be distracting!

5. Remember that you have a life

When you’re working with team members from across the globe, you’ll find that people will be looking for chunks of your time at all hours of the day and night. While it’s important to be there for your team and to work hard to ensure that project tasks are completed on time and on budget, it’s also crucial to remember that you’re just one project manager, and that your personal life, family, and health are key to your productivity and job satisfaction. If you’re stressed out and sick, you won’t be a very effective project manager! Take time to exercise, eat right, and stay healthy, and dedicate your free time to your family, your friends, your community, and yourself.

I hope you found these tips helpful. If you are working with team members from all over the world, I hope you are enjoying your experiences and learning new things about different people and places every day! If you have any tips or stories of your own to share about working with international teams, I would appreciate hearing about them in the comments.

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About the Author

Website: Brian Crawford
I'm a Canadian and British dual citizen with an internationally-focused American MBA and an MS in International Project Management from a French business school. I am PMP, ScrumMaster, and ITIL Foundation certified. I'm particularly into travel, writing, and learning about different languages and cultures.