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5 Tips for Working Together at a Distance

Over the years I’ve worked on many projects at a distance—in one organization or across many, in the same country, or across oceans. In some cases, we started and finished whole projects without ever meeting in person.

04-11 John Wayne Airport

Sometimes you have to go to the airport, but not so much as before.

In organizations where people don’t usually work together over long distances, it can be tough to get started. Usually, the problem isn’t a lack of tools. There are so many today, and many of them are free. Instead, it’s because people are not comfortable, the culture doesn’t support working virtually, or people don’t have permission or are not encouraged to work together.

Those people at HQ just don’t understand our challenges.

Those people out in the field, they don’t have a global perspective.

But let’s say it’s time to get over that. Communication helps. Ordinary project management helps. And here are five tips that can make working together at a distance go easier:

  1. Advisory Committee. If your project impacts people from different organizations, consider creating an Advisory Committee with a member from each one. The AC’s job is to make initial suggestions, review plans, and provide feedback. Often, they work mostly with the project manager. Their input gives the Project Team relevant information to help them succeed with the project. The AC’s participation also helps with buy-in across the organization.
  2. Kick-Off. Conduct a kick-off meeting with the Project Team. If you can meet in person for that first meeting, great. If not, meet virtually. Review goals, roles, and how you’ll work together. If the sponsor can start things off, even better. Pay special attention to helping people get to know each other, especially in terms of what they can bring to the project.
  3. Collaboration Tools. Early in the project, choose tools. Get agreement from everyone to use them. Show how, if necessary. Discuss norms the team will follow for email, instant messaging, conference calls, calendars, and meeting minutes. Tools to consider include (among many others): Google Docs, SharePoint, Skype, Google Hangouts, WebEx, or project management tools like KanbanFlow, Asana, Remember the Milk, or Nozbe.
  4. Who Are You? People often sound alike. Until everyone can for sure recognize everyone else via video or audio, ask people to identify themselves each time they start speaking.
  5. Time Zones. Make them work for you, for example:
    1. In the U.S., the further west you are, the less time you have in a normal workday to reach someone to the east of you. Absent urgent messages, return calls or respond to email from east to west.
    2. Let’s say that a team member on the west coast finishes a draft document late in the day. A team member on the east coast can come in the next morning, read it, and have comments back by the time the west coast office opens the next day.

These are just a few tips to help work in teams across distances. With an Advisory Committee to surface particular needs of different parts of the organization, good project management techniques, tools that people agree to use, simple speaking norms, and taking advantage of time zones, you can go a long way to streamlining work with virtual teams.

There are many more possible tips for working with virtual teams. You may have favorites that are not listed here. Please consider sharing one that you particularly like.


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