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An Introduction to Virtual Project Management

Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.

What is Virtual Project Management?

A virtual project has at least half of the project team members are in different locations who then have to be managed "virtually". This means that the project manager must manage these individuals virtually, instead of being able to monitor their activities in person. These virtual team members do not have to be on the other side of the world; they may be working from home full time or work in another corporate office a hundred miles away.

Virtual project management can also be called distributed project management or remote project management. Virtual projects can also be called remote projects, distributed projects or telecommuting projects.

Crowd-sourcing means that many small businesses are already practicing virtual project management.

Crowd-sourcing means that many small businesses are already practicing virtual project management.

How is Virtual Project Management Similar to Conventional Project Management?

Virtual projects and conventional projects share a number of requirements. The project must use standard terminology to describe the project, the product and components. Project metrics need to be monitored and reported to the group so that everyone stays on schedule. The same processes and documentation should be used by everyone on the project.

All of this is done by a project manager in charge of the project, whether it is in a conventional office or for a virtual project. Virtual project teams may exist to handle routine activities or solve unusual problems. Virtual projects require baseline budgets, WBS elements, charge numbers and scheduling just like conventional projects.

How is Virtual Project Management Different from Conventional Project Management?

Virtual project management introduces the need for networking technology. Instant messaging, teleconferencing, video conferencing and other communication technology become essential. Collaboration tools that allow everyone in the team to work on the same documents or code are critical, since you do not want your virtual team to rely on email to send and review documents.

Virtual project managers have the responsibility to provide the technology such as the collaborative environment and software the virtual team will use. Information security becomes more difficult when virtual team members are not all on the same corporate network. Communication must be deliberate and continuous, so that information that is shared over the lunch table or in a cubicle discussion gets to those who are located at other sites.

Virtual project management runs into hurdles conventional projects rarely do. For example, scheduling meetings across time zones, language barriers and cultural barriers are more likely to occur on virtual projects with team members around the world.

Virtual project management relies on self-motivated telecommuting employees, highly qualified subcontractors, managers who can delegate decision making to subject matter experts and trust their virtual team members.

The chain of command may not be as clear in a virtual project as it is in the office, with virtual employees and contractors splitting their time across multiple projects or reporting to a local manager in addition to the virtual project manager. This creates the possibility of conflict when the local team lead or the virtual worker’s site manager demands time or assigns higher priority work than the virtual project work.

Management by walking around is not an option on virtual projects. Managers need to reach out to virtual employees to get real time status reports and feedback.

Conflict identification needs to become a priority, since conflicts interfere with communication, and communication is what holds virtual teams together.

Virtual projects need clearer scope and boundaries than conventional project teams. For example, a virtual team working on a database migration should not have members pulled off to resolve technical support issues; this takes time and resources away from the virtual
project. The members of a virtual team should have a specific job, such as creating a new software interface or writing the user manual.

When the project is done or the team member reassigned, the manager of the virtual project should not continue assigning them tasks or asking for input.

While product design can be done by virtual teams, product is one task that often necessitates in person supervision by all of the experts and engineers involved.

While product design can be done by virtual teams, product is one task that often necessitates in person supervision by all of the experts and engineers involved.

Virtual Project Management Best Practices

Use the same technology platform throughout the project. If you use Documentum eRoom for document storage and management, don't switch to Sharepoint while working on the shared documents. All team members should us the same project management software and CAD software.

The virtual project manager should provide the technological platform and communication technology used by the virtual project. The virtual project manager should create or manage the collaborative software environment, provide laptops to remote employees who need them, set up teleconference numbers for the team to use, grant access to virtual servers or virtual desktops for remote staff and issue cell phones to those working off site. If the project manager needs to visit virtual sites to check on the status of a new product or integration testing, travel costs can add up quickly.

Use a shared workspace to track action items, identified bugs, bug fixes, open issues and problem reports. This reduces the need to bring up newly discovered problems in team meetings while giving managers a current view of the issues the team members are working on.

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Keep the project simple. Set a scope and stay within it. Simpler projects with a set scope are easier to manage than complex projects with competing objectives. Virtual employees should know what the are working on, the tasks to be done that week and the 60 day plan to finish their current phase of the project.

Break work down into small increments to show definite progress and make it easier to delegate tasks if one person is out sick, overwhelmed or assigned to another project.

Part of the virtual project management description is trust in the employees and contractors that work remotely. If you do not trust an employee to work long and hard without close supervision, they are not suited to virtual work. Tools that take screen shots of someone’s computer on a regular basis allow virtual managers to check whether or not a contractor is working on your project when he or she is billing you.

However, if you do not trust the contractor to work on your tasks when billing you, perhaps they are not the right person for the assignment. Furthermore, introverts may prefer virtual team work, but they must still communicate regularly and in detail with everyone else on the team for the virtual project to run smoothly. Subject matter experts cannot sit in a corner and code, cut off from everyone else until they deliver a final product.

Risk management becomes prominent in virtual projects. Backups of data repositories must be done nightly to prevent data loss, while virtual team members must make a habit of saving files in the shared workspace every day so that the only version does not rest on a laptop that could become infected or crash. Highly reliable collaborative software should be used, while secondary methods of communication should be identified at the project onset in case the network is down.

Project specifications must be highly detailed and spelled out in advance of software testing, unit testing or integration testing. After all, the engineer on a virtual team who designed the component is less likely to be in the test facility to point out missing steps in the procedure than if the designer and the test lab are in the same building.

Virtual project teams with matrix leadership require a delicate balancing act. Employees and contractors assigned a set amount of time per week to support a project may become conflicted when demands of the virtual project exceed that time allotment.

Meeting management grows in importance, since time in the meeting may consume time the remote staff have allocated to your project.

Virtual project management may save money over the long run, but it is not free. Collaborative software and equipment may need to be purchased at the start. Savings on labor costs may be offset by the cost to transport prototypes to various sites for testing or sending a subject matter expert overseas to troubleshoot a problem in person.

Document, document, document. Document every work around for a software bug, a full account of the system conditions when a problem was discovered and reports of potential security problems. Detailed information that was obvious to the person reporting the matter is not obvious to other team members who were not there when it happened.

Which Projects Are Ideal for Virtual Project Management, and Which Are Not?

Not all projects are suited to virtual project management. Creative collaboration such as the writing, editing, illustration, printing and promotions of books are ideal for the virtual model because the primary product is information. The writer types up the book on a computer and sends it to the publisher.

The publisher finds an illustrator and artist to create the cover. Someone else is hired to promote the book online and through varies social media channels. The finished file for the book, including text and graphics, is sent digitally to a printer to print and Amazon as an eBook for sale. None of these people may actually meet, but the final product reaches its audience and ideally the customers as well.

IT projects such as software development and web design are well suited to virtual project management. The primary product, software code or remote management of hardware and software applications, are easily shared or managed online.

However, product development and test is more difficult to do virtually. Circuit card designers, chip designers, code writers and test engineers may write their scripts and create designs online. However, the final product must still be built in the real world and tested. The design may be done virtually, but a team of experts needs to physically test and verify the design before it can be approved.

Shipping prototype microchips around the world for testing is cheap, but prototyped manufacturing equipment and aircraft components are far more difficult to build and then ship for testing. Maintain configuration management and have strict change control procedures. No one changes server configuration settings without clear permission to do so and without having saved the prior configuration changes. Every software build is saved to the code library, receives approval and formally distributed before it is placed on the sandbox for team members to review and test.

Design changes for the top level assembly and child components must be reviewed and approved before being promulgated through the product design chain. After all, the designers of the top level part need to know that the dimensions of a child assembly have changed, and the modelers need to update their virtual design of the part when running simulations of how the assembled product will handle high heat or different stresses.

References for This Article

The following books were referenced for this article.
1. "The Virtual Project Management Office: Best Practices, Proven Methods" by Robert L. Gordon and Wanda Curlee
2. "Achieving Project Management Success Using Virtual Teams" by Parviz F. Rad and Ginger Levin
3. "Implementing the Virtual Project Management Office: Proven Strategies for Success" by Marcus Goncalves
4. "Lean Performance ERP Project Management: Implementing the Virtual Supply Chain" by Brian J. Carroll


Tamara Wilhite (author) from Fort Worth, Texas on March 01, 2013:

Thank you

Tricia Keen-Diaz on March 01, 2013:

Great article - covered all the bases of virtual project management.

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