The traditional office might be on its way toward extinction. According to a 2018 IWG study that surveyed over 18,000 professionals from 96 countries, more than two-thirds of the global workforce works remotely at least part of the week. A similar study released in 2019 found that the number of people who regularly work from home has increased by 173 percent since 2005 and that desks in the offices of Fortune 1000 companies are vacant 50 to 60 percent of the time.

What is a Virtual Project Manager

Many organizations are not quite ready to make the move to fully virtual teams, but they may have specific projects where leveraging geographically distributed talent makes sense. When these projects get underway, a virtual project manager is usually needed to help keep everything on track. This person may be a manager within the organization or a specialized consultant with extensive experience overseeing remote teams.

In any case, virtual leaders face a number of challenges that the average manager may not have much experience in dealing with. Fortunately, there are a number of strategies that remote leaders can bring into a project that can help them keep everything on schedule.

How to Be an Effective Virtual Project Manager

Have a System

The nature of virtual teams makes them a bit trickier to manage over a long period of time than a colocated team. Communication or scheduling difficulties can cause important information to get lost in the shuffle. More importantly, it may be difficult to know who is working on various tasks at any given time or when different team members are available. Too much ambiguity in a virtual team usually results in a diffusion of responsibility when it comes to getting things done. If a virtual project manager doesn’t have a well-defined system in place for tracking progress, workflow, and expectations, teams will struggle to be as efficient and effective as possible. Successful leaders are proactive and organized, which allows them to make sure everyone is on task and working toward clearly defined team goals.

Use Communication Tools Well

Communication is critical for geographically distributed teams. Fortunately, there are plenty of technologies available that make it much easier to share information and work collaboratively on projects over time. For most virtual teams, email is almost as outdated as sending a physical letter. Collaborative tools like video conferencing platforms, instant messaging programs, project management software, and cloud-based document storage/file sharing suites allow teams to access the information and materials they need at any time. Team members can use these tools to communicate instantly, helping them to clarify situations and provide support more effectively. When a virtual project manager launches a team, they need to make sure every member understands what tools are at their disposal and how to use them.

Build Trust and Relationships

Even if a virtual team has the best processes and tools in place, it will still fail to deliver positive results if team members don’t trust one another or their virtual project manager. A lack of trust can manifest in a variety of ways. In most cases, the root problem is a lack of strong, genuine relationships within the team. The whole purpose of organizing people into teams is to leverage the creative potential of collaboration, but in order to work together productively, team members need to understand one another and trust that other people will follow through on their commitments. When they lose trust in each other or in a virtual leader, team members can become disengaged and self-oriented, which makes any form of collaborative work difficult. Virtual project managers need to remember that these relationships matter and recognize the importance of promoting team-building exercises that help to build trust.

Get the Most Out of Virtual Meetings

Virtual meetings are one of the more effective ways for remote teams to share information, evaluate progress, and set priorities. They’re also a good opportunity for team members to become more familiar and comfortable with one another, especially when they conduct meetings over video conferencing platforms. Virtual project managers can use these meetings as a way of establishing a clear agenda for the team and help everyone feel involved. A virtual meeting should never be something that’s taken for granted. They need to be scheduled very carefully to ensure that every team member is able to attend and should always focus on very specific topics. Meetings should be routine enough that people know what to expect from them, but not so common that they start to interfere with anyone’s work.

Emphasize Accountability

One of the most important tasks for a virtual project manager is making sure that every member is holding themselves accountable for their work. Since team members are often highly dependent upon each other, having a few people who don’t follow through on their commitments can make it difficult for the rest of the team to follow through on theirs. Virtual leaders must not only set an example when it comes to modeling accountability, but must also establish what will be expected of everyone and how responsibilities are distributed among the team. Communication is critical here, as it’s impossible to hold someone accountable for an outcome when they don’t fully understand what’s expected of them. By communicating expectations early, defining what “done” looks like, setting clearly-defined timetables, and checking in with people along the way, virtual project managers can establish a strong foundation for holding the entire team accountable when it comes to delivering results.

As more organizations shift to using remote employees and relying less on traditional, physical office environments, the need for people who can manage these virtual work environments has become much greater. A good virtual project manager can mean the difference between an effective, product virtual team and one that fails to reach its goals consistently. These virtual leaders understand that remote teams have very different needs and characteristics than most people are accustomed to with colocated teams. This allows them to implement the solutions and practices that make it easier for team members to excel in a remote workplace role.