Saturday, October 15, 2011

Managing Global and Virtual Project Teams

My company is working to expand its market position around the globe. Through the creation of new, carefully selected office locations and actively pursuing targeted acquisitions, my company is expanding its footprint in the United States and abroad. As a result of its expansion, some project managers at my company are struggling to make the transition from a “traditional” project environment where project teams meet face-to-face in conference and war room, to a global and virtual environment. This paper will introduce project managers to the skills and techniques that will assist them in effectively managing and leading global and virtual project teams.

Leading Global Project Teams

As my company expands its reach to locations outside the United States, its project managers will experience new challenges that are different from what they are used to in a more traditional project environment. The primary challenges fall into three areas: language barriers, cultural differences and time zone challenges.

Language Barriers

English is still the “business language” of choice around the world. However, as project managers begin to work on projects outside the United Stated, they will experience varying degrees of English fluency.

Project managers will first notice different accents from project team members. Depending on the individual, accents can range from slight to extreme. The project manager will develop the ability to hear and understand accents over time, but initially, understanding requires additional concentration. The project manager might be accustomed to working from his desk in a noisy environment. However, when working with people with strong accents, the project manager should relocate to a quite environment so that he can concentrate and listen carefully to the discussion. In addition, the project manager should feel comfortable asking team members to repeat themselves as they are learning to understand accents. Without this clarification, the team might misunderstand a statement or create an uncomfortable situation if a question or comment is not addressed.

The project team should avoid clichés, slang, and humor. In the United States, clichés like “Elvis has left the building” or “Houston, we have a problem” are fully understood. However, that might not be the case for project team members located in other countries. The use of clichés and slang can cause confusion or even offend project team members. The same principle applies to using humor during discussions. Team members with lower fluency levels in English might not understand the subtleties involved with English humor and might interpret the information incorrectly causing additional confusion. Stick to the business at hand and conduct project communications as clearly as possible.

Learn some of the basic language of the team members. Project teams will experience names that are unusual for those in the United States. Project managers should ask team members the proper pronunciation of names and practice with the team. A team member can take offence to improper pronunciation of his name. In addition, learn how to say hello and goodbye in the team member’s native tongue. The team member will appreciate the effort to learn something unique about them. Even if the person’s native tongue is English, they might use different terminology for hello and goodbye. For example, “Cheers” is the common way to end a conversation in England. Complete a conversation or email with “cheers” during calls with counterparts from England helps to build the relationship.

In some instances, the English of a team member or a vendor might be so poor that it makes communication impossible. In these cases, use a third party interpreter to bridge the gap. Organizations like Language Learning Enterprises provide on-demand interpretation services for 150 languages across the globe. However, the use of an interpreter can still complicate the discussion. First, the use of an interpreter will take more time than a standard conversation. The interpreter must interpret the initial information and the response. This adds time to each question and comment. In addition, although the interpreter is fluent in both languages, the interpreter might not have a firm grasp of technical or engineering terminology. Work with companies like LLE to try to find an interpreter with the language and technical skills needed for effective project communications.

Finally, follow up all discussions in writing. Microsoft Word attachments and e-mail are effective tool for documenting project discussions. Some team members are more comfortable reading and writing in English than they might be speaking. By following up in writing the project manager is able to provide team members with the opportunity to review key information from discussions and clarify areas they might have interpreted differently.

Cultural Differences

While working with global team members, project managers will learn that what is normal or acceptable in a traditional project environment might not be the same for global team members. For example, in some parts of the country vacation time is considered sacred personal time away from the office. In the United States, most project team members find it acceptable to receive calls with critical questions during a vacation break. However, in other areas, the UK for example, project team members are offended when someone interrupts their personal time for business-related issues. Learn from project team members the behavior that is expected during vacation breaks.

Holiday breaks differ throughout the world. As a project manager works with people from other countries, they must identify the holidays for the local culture and understand the impact of local holidays on the project schedule and team members. Team members might casually observe some holidays that do not impact the project, while in some situations holidays might shut down all business activities for an extended duration. The project manager must understand the impact to the project and factor holiday breaks into the project plan.

Mannerisms can vary depending on the culture or location of your team members. The project manager must learn and understand local mannerisms to ensure the team is communicating appropriately. For example, in India locals consider it impolite to say “no.” As a result, a team member from India might say “yes” to a request that he is unable to complete. Project team members in China are usually very reserved in their body movements and facial gestures. As a result, if the project manager uses his hands while speaking he could distract team members and cause them to lose focus.

Ultimately, the project manager should research the culture of team members and understand the differences that will impact project communications. When in doubt, ask the team member what cultural difference he should be aware of and take time in the early part of the project to teach project team members about the nuances. Set expectations early in the project that some information might get misinterpreted and that everyone on the team should see clarification when needed.

Time Zones

What time is the meeting? The answer to that question can be difficult to determine. Establishing a meeting time with someone in another state is challenging enough. Add to the challenge project team members from London, Bangalore and Dubai and the project manager has a potentially significant task on his hands.

Daylight saving time complicates coordinating meeting times. A couple of years ago, the United States changed when it observes daylight savings time. Some states within the United States observe DST while others do not. In addition, some countries overseas observe DST while others do not. As with the United States, some areas within countries overseas observe DST while others do not. The lack of consistency across the world can make it difficult for project managers to schedule a meeting and for team members to determine when the meeting is intended to begin. In addition, in a global team environment, participants can be located around the world. Trying to find a time that works for all is problematic at best.

To address time zone challenges, use a global meeting planner to identify the local time for each participant. The Meeting Planner at is an excellent tool for this purpose. By adding the location of each participant, the meeting scheduler is able to see the current time differences for each of the participantes, adjusted to address local DST for the participants city location.

By scrolling down the scheduler is able to see potential business day meetings times (represented in green) that might work for all participants.

Once the scheduler finds a range of times that might work for the team, the scheduler should contact the team members to gain agreement. In the example, the participant from Dubai might be willing to participate at 7 pm, or the participate from Los Angeles might be open to an early morning meeting.

Once the team has agreed to a meeting time the scheduler should include the local meeting time for each participant. If the schedule just includes the local time for the project manager or one of the participants, each of the team members must convert the time specified to their local time. As discussed earlier, DST can complicate this conversion. If the schedule includes the local time, he will eliminate any potential confusion and increase the likelihood that all participants will attend the meeting at the intended time.

In general, when working with global project teams, remember that people tend to view the world from their own vantage point. The project manager and team members should seek to put themselves in the other person’s shoes, to realize that others on the team are also struggling with language barriers, cultural issues and time zone challenges. Helping the team bridge these global gaps will improve communications across the team.

Virtual Teams

As projects become more global and team members are geographically disbursed, project managers will need to become effective at managing virtual project teams. A virtual team is a project team that has one or more member that participates in project meetings or project work from another location. The virtual team typically uses some form of collaboration technology to connect the team during discussions. Even with technology, virtual teams can struggle to communicate effectively. The following suggestions will help project managers more effectively lead virtual project teams.

Level The Playing Field

Project managers should level the virtual playing field. In a traditional project environment, a project manager will schedule a conference room or establish a war room for project team members to meet face-to-face. However, in a virtual environment, not all members can participate in the same room. If the project manager schedules part of the team in a conference room and the rest of the team participate through telephone or web conferencing tools, those outside the room are excluded from side conversations or body language that might occur within the conference room. As a result, those participating remotely will feel disconnected from the core team within the room. Instead, project managers should have all team members use the same tools to participate in meetings. If using web conferencing tools, all team members should call in or connect to the conference through their computers. By leveling the playing field, all team members will feel equal and have the same opportunity to contribute to project discussions.

Get Comfortable Using Technology

In addition, the project manager and team members will need to get comfortable using technology to communicate during virtual team meetings. Telephone and email remain key tools for virtual communication. With the proliferation of web conferencing tools like Webex or LiveMeeting, project teams are also able to share documents and show presentations through a web browser. The project manager should set expectations with the team about what technology he will use during meetings and ensure each team member has the tools and training necessary to participate effectively.


As organizations continue to change and expand beyond their traditional boarders, project managers will be expected to develop the skills necessary to manage effectively global and virtual project teams. By learning the nuances of language barriers, cultural differences and time zone challenges, project managers will position the team to more effectively communicate. In addition, through the effective use of technology to bring geographically disbursed virtual teams together, project managers are able to reach out and lead team members all over the world.


  1. Hi,

    This is a very interesting topic. Clarity of expression and effective articulation is definitely a challenge in the face of cultural diversity.

    Even a different communication style like being blunt or indirect communication can cause gaps/misinterpretation. In U.S the communication is very much direct and they cannot read between the lines.

    To manage the project efficiently we definitely need to master the art of cross-cultural communication.

    "The intersection of Technology and Leadership"

  2. An online project management tool is something a virtual team may benefit from. The Schizophrenia Society of Canada used our HyperOffice to close its head office and make its operations virtual.


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