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Leadership & Team Management
How To Create Virtual Co-location: A Guide To Managing Remote Teams

There’s no doubt that co-locating a team is one of the best ways to improve communication and productivity. However, with many agencies using teams that span multiple locations, the benefits of physical co-location are not always possible.  So how do you mix the trend for remote working and distributed teams with a collaborative, more agile approach, that really hinges on effective real-time teamwork and how can you achieve that feel-good, co-located feeling in a distributed team environment?

There is an abundance of tools that make the world smaller, but getting the right mix of tools and technology isn’t enough. It needs to be managed properly, and the team needs to be engaged. Here are a few tips to bridge the gap and achieve “virtual co-location” in a distributed team before, during and after a project.

Before you get started

Allow additional time

Work takes longer when people are in different time zones. The reality is that it will take your team longer to respond to each other when they’re not collaborating in real time. Even if your team is flexible with their communication and work, everyone needs to catch a few winks every now and again. With your team starting and ending their work days at different times, you need to be realistic and plan the project carefully around the crossover time that the team will have.

Brief properly

Managing remote teams has to start with briefing the team properly. The requirements of the team and what they need to produce, by when is critical. When a team is distributed, it’s sometimes harder to see progress and how things are tying together so it can take longer to catch when things are going awry. It’s critical that as the project manager you ensure everyone knows exactly what they’re doing.

Collaborate on a collaboration plan

You need to make it easy for the team to communicate with everyone else. Get the team working together right from the start to align on how they want to work together and agree on what tools they want to use on the project for communication, file-sharing and task management, the schedule and frequency for communication, meetings and core hours. As much as the brief is important to define what you’re doing, the collaboration plan should define how you’re going to work together. You’ll need to  on how you’re going to work together and set expectations with the team on how you’re going to need to work together.

Physically co-locate the team members you can

This might be obvious, but just because not everyone can work from the same physical location, doesn’t mean you should drop co-location altogether. As long as there is more than one team member working at the same physical location, you can still cordon off a portion of the office and setup a cluster of desks so that those project team members can sit together and bounce ideas around openly throughout the day. Where possible, don’t use an enclosed room as this can have an isolating and claustrophobic effect with those team members and the rest of the office.

When your project is up and running

Talk often and keep it visual

On an active project, have a daily stand-up / scrum. Keep it simple: what I did, what I’m doing today, risks, blockers. Keep it visual with virtual stand-ups and sprint planning using Google Hangouts. Stand-ups aren’t just about checking in on existing tasks and doling out new work. They are an opportunity for teams to get to know one another.

A tool like Google Hangouts provides group video conferencing, screensharing, and a host of entertaining effects that can lighten the mood of any scrum. Another benefit of keeping webcams on is that it can help everyone to stay focussed on the meeting, not just listening into the conversation while watching Netflix. Some other great tools for virtual co-location are:

Be friends

Start a group Skype chat with your team and leave it open for the duration of the project. Let someone set the conversation topic to something humorous (but tasteful) each day. Have the team to setup alerts so that the notification sounds only play when their name is in the message to avoid spammy annoyances, but encourage everyone to check the thread often when working on the project. Make sure it’s known that chit-chat is okay. Used correctly, this will simulate the in-person conversation that is one of the major benefits of physical co-location. Being able to talk to someone’s face is essential to building camaraderie and read non-verbal communication.

Co-locate virtually

Set up a spare laptop in each location and leave Google Hangouts or Skype running. If your team involves significant portions of each office, project the feed on the wall and treat it as an extension of your physical space.

Show, don’t just tell

When you’re all sitting in a room together, sharing what’s on your screen is a common way of communicating to team members. When working remotely, we are tempted to wait until we have something final to deliver, but there’s really no reason why you can’t fire up a tool like just to say “Hey, here’s how things are coming along”.

Use the phone. Yep, the phone.

Even with all the newest technology, many issues are more quickly resolved by picking up the phone. By the time you have setup your headset and made sure you don’t have anything in your teeth, you probably could have reached a resolution to a quick problem using the good old telephone. Remote workers tend to write a lot of emails, and this takes time. If you want to speed up the process, opt for voice communications and video calls over emailing or instant messaging. 

Check in

As you’d manage a team member if they were in the office, make sure you’re checking in with your resources at least twice a day to ensure there are no new blockers and everything is on track (and saved on the server). It can be helpful if you schedule these check-ins with your team so you don’t forget and so they can schedule their work around it. It’s important for your team to block out time to work uninterrupted and have blackout time so they don’t spend their entire day on Slack talking about work rather than actually doing it.

Keep everyone looking at the big picture

Scrums and check-ins are great but combine them with larger meetings to re-align everyone on the project and do some proper planning. This could be at the start of every week to envision the team for the week ahead. What’s important is that everyone takes some time to consider how their work intersects with the work that everyone else is doing; break out of the silos!

Make the face-to-face real

The truth is, as much as technology is great, nothing can replace in-person interaction. So find a way to meet regularly. Being able to work side-by-side in the same office environment for 3 to 5 days at a time can provide a better understanding of your teammates’ habits and personalities. 

Find a reason to laugh every day

It might sound cheesy, but when working under pressure, laughter is amongst the most effective stress relievers. It’s also free, can be triggered by anyone, and can be shared across email, chat, phone, and video conference. When working with remote teams, be sure to keep the tone light and the work in perspective with a healthy dose of humour in your day-to-day.

When your project is done

Celebrate remotely

After meeting a big milestone, nothing says a job well done like bringing in a box of doughnuts or a six-pack. But when working remotely, this can prove logistically difficult but hey, we’re PM’s so this should be right up our street! Luckily there are a few ways to achieve the same result electronically. Why not send out gift cards from Starbucks  via email or order pizza online and coordinate the delivery countdown to line up with your scrum so that everyone can enjoy it together?

Setup a meeting that works well for all time zones (and resource accordingly) and share highlights and non-project related goodies.

Debrief together

Separate from your celebrations, sit down with the team to learn from the experience. Analyse how the budget and timeline estimated compared to the actuals. If things were late or delayed, why was it? Discuss what went well, what didn’t go so well, and what you’d do differently next time. Think about the collaboration plan; how could it be made better next time?  Then share the learnings with your other teams.

What do you think?

How can you ensure the success of your remote workforce? What do you think we’re missing? What else should PMs be thinking about when managing remote teams? Have you created a virtual etiquette that you and your team abide by? We’d love to hear if you’ve got any tips too – why not share them using the comments below?

By Galen Low

I am a digital project management nerd, a cultivator of highly collaborative teams, and an impulsive sharer of knowledge. For the past decade, I've been shaping and delivering human-centered digital transformation initiatives in government, healthcare, transit, and retail. I'm also the co-founder of The Digital Project Manager and host of The DPM Podcast.

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1 Comment

  • Great article! Really enjoyed it. I have also sent fun care packages to remote team members to say "thank you".