What does the future hold for virtual project management teams? Does it reduce overhead costs or offer a higher employee retention rate? The jury is still out, but these are questions well worth considering.
I have studied virtual project management teams for the past 25 years. So much has changed that it surprised me how many predictions about virtual teams and virtual project management became a reality during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When I started researching virtual project management for remote teams, it was considered a small market within the field of project management.
Little did I know that the COVID-19 pandemic would accelerate the adoption of so many things to the point that remote teams who work in different U.S. time zones – or even different countries – are very much mainstream now.
The Acceleration in the Adoption of Digital Technology Has Greatly Aided Virtual Project Management
In the past few years, the world has seen an unprecedented acceleration in the adoption of digital technology due to the proliferation of high-speed internet, advanced communication tools, and the shifting nature of work.
The concept of virtual project management teams has gained widespread recognition as organizations strive to leverage the benefits of geographically distributed expertise, cost-effectiveness, and flexible schedules for all the team members.
The future of virtual project management teams looks even more promising and multifaceted. It is characterized by groundbreaking technological advancements, a more comprehensive understanding of remote work dynamics, and redefined practices for virtual collaboration.
Understanding the Dynamics of Project Management Remote Teams
Virtual team management demands a reorientation of traditional management practices and an understanding of virtual teams’ unique challenges and opportunities.
Managing projects for remote teams, for instance, has challenges that include:
- Dealing with the different time zones of virtual team members, which involves adapting to scheduling difficulties and alternate work hours
- Fostering effective communication among other team members
- Building trust among team members who may have never met in person but who meet in a "virtual office" instead
- Managing cultural diversity
Innovation in Management Practices For Project Management Virtual Teams
While these challenges seem daunting, they also open doors for innovation in management practices, giving rise to new project management software tools and techniques that leverage the digital medium.
Leading virtual teams of remote workers requires different leadership skills rather than the skills used in leading the employees working in a face-to-face team.
Effective virtual team management requires leveraging technology such as video conferencing to maximize productivity, manage projects, and facilitate seamless communication.
Team management involves using project management software that allows for:
- Real-time tracking of assigned tasks and a project's progress to ensure all employees are on the same page
- Face-to-face interactions through video conferencing platforms
- Team collaboration through cloud-based tools and workflow automation
Using effective technologies for remote working reduces the geographical distance between virtual team members. It creates a “virtual proximity” for virtual team members, helping to replicate the immediacy of traditional face-to-face teams.
Why It’s Necessary to Effectively Manage Virtual Teams in Project Management
The digital era’s onset has brought seismic shifts in organizations’ operations, particularly in the areas of project management and communication channels.
Regardless of what happens in the next few years, organizations will be required to become more digital, adopt new communication methods, use the best tools, and employ remote workers to accomplish their business objectives.
Globalization and Technology
Through increased globalization and the rapid advancement of technology, virtual teams have emerged as a mainstay in the modern workplace. This shift has happened in the past 20 years, and the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this change.
In 2003, my dissertation for my doctorate was about virtual teams, which was considered a niche area at the time.
Fast forward to 2023, and a geographically dispersed team connected by digital platforms and working remotely is no longer the exception, but an integral part of today’s global organizational structure.
To remain competitive, a project manager must learn to manage geographically distributed teams, make use of collaboration tools and project management tools, and track productivity as effectively as face-to-face teams, especially for complex projects.
Redefining Practices for Virtual Collaboration
Virtual team collaboration practices are evolving with the increasing understanding of the complexities of remote working.
Future business practices will emphasize using asynchronous communication tools and well-thought-out strategies to allow remote worker flexibility and respect for individual productivity cycles.
The increase in technological tools to help virtual teams has made distance working and adhering to a project timeline much more accessible and efficient than ever before.
Synchronous Communication in Virtual Project Management
Simultaneously, business practices conducted in a virtual environment will also focus on enhancing synchronous communication to ensure real-time collaboration and to maintain the human element in virtual interactions.
These practices will aim to:
- Balance the work and personal lives of remote team members
- Avoid digital exhaustion
- Promote digital well-being
Moreover, the emphasis will shift towards outcome-based performance evaluation instead of time-based evaluation.
That shift will promote a culture of personal accountability and empowering team members working remotely and scattered across different locations.
Remote Work Dynamics
An improved understanding of remote work dynamics will also shape the future of virtual project management teams.
Now, organizations increasingly appreciate the importance of work-life balance, emotional intelligence, and effective communication in enhancing the productivity and satisfaction of remote team members.
As a result, future virtual project managers will focus more on creating a culture of trust, inclusivity, and mutual respect. They will also strive to build a sense of belonging and commitment among team members.
Some Companies Enforce "Return To In-Person Work"
Unfortunately, some companies have decided that remote workers are not the future. In fact, some major companies have required employees to return to in-person work or lose their jobs, according to CNBC.
It will be interesting to see how people react to this retreat from office space to virtual work over the next decades.
Will remote workers resist this pressure from their leaders and seek work elsewhere or will they return to the office to avoid unemployment?
Building Trust and Communication
Building trust within a virtual team is one of the biggest challenges for project managers.
Trust-building, often a spontaneous process in traditional face-to-face teams, requires more deliberate effort in a virtual organization.
Managers will need to create an environment of openness and transparency, and clear and consistent communication being key to success.
Moreover, virtual project managers must develop strategies to ensure regular interaction between team members, team bonding, and the recognition of individual achievements to create cohesion and a sense of collective identity within a remote team.
Embracing Cultural Diversity
Cultural diversity is often a characteristic feature of virtual teams. While it poses challenges in regard to cultural differences and communication styles, cultural diversity presents a unique opportunity for managers with a virtual team.
Harnessing the potential of employees’ cultural diversity can lead to a greater variety of ideas, promoting creativity and innovation within a remote team.
Best Talent Regardless of Location
From a hiring perspective, when a business is open to hiring the best talent regardless of where they are geographically, it can open up options that previously not available to a brick-and-mortar company.
For instance, an employee’s onboarding process can be completed online, freeing up more time for company employees. Similarly, satisfaction with virtual managers can also contribute to employee retention.
Effective managers should therefore embrace cultural diversity. Ideally, they should promote a culture of mutual respect, understanding, and inclusivity, especially among remote employees.
Adopting Outcome-Based Management
For virtual project managers, managing virtual teams necessitates a shift from traditional time-based performance evaluation to an outcome-based process management evaluation.
This approach emphasizes the results achieved by remote or virtual teams rather than the specific time spent on tasks. It also helps organizations to form a culture of accountability and ownership.
Outcome-based management also enables project managers to cater to the flexible schedules of team members, which in turn can enhance productivity and employee satisfaction levels.
By shifting to outcome-based management, it is much easier for a virtual project manager to more quickly identify the producers and non-producers within an organization and track project progress.
Using Artificial Intelligence for Virtual Project Management Teams
Developing and integrating advanced technology has always been a crucial aspect of project management. In the future, technological tools will likely evolve further to make virtual project management more efficient and effective and aid a virtual project manager and team.
Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning algorithms can play a pivotal role in managing projects virtually by automating routine tasks, tracking project progress, predicting risks, and providing insightful data analysis for virtual projects.
Decision-Making, Innovation and Problem-Solving
These technologies will allow a virtual team to focus on the strategic aspects of project management, such as decision-making, innovation and problem-solving.
Despite the media’s claims, AI will not sweep away human jobs for an in-person or virtual team. Instead, AI will help organizations better assess risks, make data-driven decisions, and solve problems. Perhaps, one day, AI might even help drive innovation.
I will not disagree that AI has some creativity; however, AI also is the master of making up information.
This new technology will need to be tempered by experts who understand AI’s advantages and limitations in regard to virtual project management.
Utilizing VR and AR in Virtual Project Management Teams
The major flop of the metaverse has given rise to the question of whether virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) will have any impact on project progress in the business world for the foreseeable future.
However, it’s necessary to examine what could happen in the future with virtual project management.
There is the potential that the integration of VR and AR into virtual project management tools will revolutionize how a project management team will interact, collaborate, share files, and visualize project-related data.
This advancement will foster a more immersive and interactive environment for a virtual project team, minimizing the gap between physical and virtual workplaces.
The failure of the metaverse, coupled with many companies mandating a return to the office by formerly remote employees, shows that business is not looking for VR or AR solutions.
Instead, many companies seek to ignore the possibilities of virtual project management tools and return to the way things were before the pandemic.
When I started my first full-time job in supply chain management, I was responsible for purchasing materials for a cruise ship traveling the world. Requests from the ship came in by fax, and the cost to call the ship was astronomical and prohibited.
I rose in the ranks because I was good with computers and understood how they operate. Growing up, I built my computers and became very familiar with many different programs.
However, at that time, anyone with supply chain skills who could also harness the power of computers was in great demand.
Face-to-Face Communication Is Also Important
The world has now come full circle with the rise of virtual project management. When I graduated from college, employers wanted individuals who were computer-literate. Working remotely with people at a distance was challenging but necessary.
Now, I see graduates who lack the skills to operate in face-to-face relationships. Currently employers are looking for people with good face-to-face communication skills who can also lead a team, assign tasks and successfully complete virtual projects.
The generation who wanted people with computer skills has gotten its wish, but the cost was now people with interpersonal skills for managing projects are harder to find.
Organizations Need to Keep Up to Fully Leverage the Benefits of Virtual Project Management
The future of virtual project management teams is exciting, with immense potential for evolution and growth beyond traditional project management.
The convergence of advanced virtual project management tools, an improved understanding of remote work dynamics, and redefined virtual collaboration practices will transform how projects are managed in a virtual environment.
While there are still challenges to virtual project management, the possibilities for flexibility, innovation, and productivity offered to virtual project management teams far outweigh them.
The Evolving Virtual Project Management Landscape
Organizations must keep pace with these evolving dynamics to fully leverage virtual project management’s benefits.
As the landscape of project management evolves with the rise of virtual teams, project managers must adapt their business practices and style of leadership accordingly.
Project managers must learn to manage virtual teams as effectively as face-to-face teams, which will require embracing new management techniques, leveraging technology tools for virtual meetings, and fostering a culture of trust and open communication.
With these skills, project managers can turn the challenges of managing virtual teams into opportunities, harnessing the potential of virtual teams to drive organizational success.
The age of virtual teams is here to stay, and those who can navigate this landscape effectively and harness the true power of remote employees will be at the forefront of project management.
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The online Master’s Degree in BusinessAdministration (MBA) at American Public University (APU) boasts an enriching curriculum designed to develop the critical thinking and strategic decision-making skills of its students.
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Other American Public University masters programs include the University’s Online Master’s in Humanities.
About the Author
Dr. Robert Gordon, CPC, is a faculty member of the Reverse Logistics Management and Government Contracting and Acquisition programs at the University. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from the University of California, Los Angeles; a master's degree in business administration from the University of Phoenix; and a doctoral degree in management from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Gordon also holds graduate certificates in information technology project management, information technology security and logistics management from American Public University