We're All Virtually There!

by Carl Pritchard, PMP, EVP

The virtual workplace. It's all around us. In fact, virtual teaming, virtual projects and virtual environments are virtually invading our everyday lives virtually every day! But what does it mean to be truly "virtual?" And are we really managing the virtual workplace?

The challenge is not virtual, it's real. With our team members (and ourselves) at a host of remote locations, it's difficult to manage work. Indeed, more and more highly competent, qualified and respected professionals (present company included), spend many of their days garbed in t-shirts and Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars®, sitting back on the porch with a laptop resting across their legs trying to get work done with a cat crying out for attention or the timer buzzing away on the dryer. Ahhhh... the joys of the virtual workplace.

In days of yore, the primary distractions in the workplace were the "Wallys" in the next cube, glancing over the divider and asking for a piece of tape or a spare pushpin. Now, the distractions are the UPS man at the door, the phone call from the Friends of Things We Don't Care About Society (FTWDCAS), or the darned spot on the carpet that we've been meaning to scrub out since last April. The blessings of the virtual workplace of solitude and isolation are also its curses. They afford us the ability to truly perform. They also afford us the ability to be truly distracted.

So how can we best manage virtual work? The painfully obvious answer is one that merits a spot on the Project Management Professional's (PMP®) exam—it's "Project Management!" When you think about the basic practices of good, effective project management, they are born for inclusion in the day-to-day of the virtual workplace. Specifically, there are a few project management best practices that are very best practices in the virtual workplace. They include:

  • Management by Objective
  • Decomposition
  • Thresholds/Tolerances
  • Team Rules and Guidelines

Management by Objective (MBO)

In the virtual environment, it's very easy to drift from one mission to another without a clear sense of accomplishment or a sense of mission. Clear objectives afford both. In dealing with virtual teams, however, crafting objective upon objective can be a time-consuming prospect. As an alternative, consider having virtual team members define their own objectives, bringing them to you for validation and acceptance or approval. Ensure that such objectives meet the SMART criteria of being specific, measurable, agreed-upon, realistic, and time-constrained. If they do, we can then allow for a measure of self-management and independence in an environment that requires those behaviors.


A close cousin to MBO is the work breakdown structure practice of decomposition of work. Breaking work down into logical, manageable components makes sense in any project. It makes twice the sense when you're trying to ensure that those in the remote environment have a clear sense that they're making headway and that they feel upbeat and positive about their role in projects.

By identifying discrete pieces of work and doling them out to the appropriate individuals, there's a chance for team participants in those remote locations to mark work as "complete," without necessarily completing massive chunks of the project. In the remote environment, small, discrete components of work open the doors for accomplishment. Because the work in the virtual team often means a lack of communication or understanding, the only communication that sometimes happens is the handoff of deliverables. If those deliverables can be rendered more discrete, then it becomes possible to increase the levels of both accomplishment and communication.

For the individual members of the team, smaller pieces of work mean that they can offer more regular contributions to the project. It allows them to participate more frequently and to provide management a sense that they are regularly and significantly contributing to the project.

For management, smaller pieces of work mean that we have the ability to manage specific deliverables without the appearance that we are micromanaging the individuals. By simply getting status updates on the individual work elements, we get a clearer sense of remote activity and regular indicators that those in remote locations are engaged in work that contributes to the project as a whole.

Thresholds and Tolerances

Setting down thresholds and tolerances is one way of making life in the virtual world just a little more real. By sharing insights on what is an acceptable behavior and what's not, we establish the norms that are common in non-virtual work. In most traditional workplaces, we readily have a sense of when we're stretching the boundaries of acceptable behavior. In the virtual workplace, those boundaries have to be spelled out more explicitly. If we provide information to team members about when, how, and why to escalate concerns and when to deal with them on their own, they are truly empowered to act as effective virtual employees. Failure to do so encourages the situation where team members are saddled with the burden of establishing their own norms and then discovering whether or not their assessments were accurate.

Simply telling virtual employees, "If you get more than one call from the customer in a given day, let me know..." will go a long way toward clarifying what's a normal behavior, and what's not!

Team Rules and Guidance

Did you ever play the board game Monopoly in an unfamiliar household? It's interesting. Despite the fact that the rules of the game are carefully detailed in the standard rule book, every family seems to play the game differently. Land on "Go" and you might...

  • collect nothing
  • collect $200
  • collect $400
  • collect $500

Different players, different rules. Normally, you don't discover these differences until a player hits the magic spot. "Free Parking" is a potential social nightmare! The project environment is all the more volatile and all the more real when compared to a board game. The CEO calls in. What are the rules? A team member asks for help in doing his/her work. What are the rules? A customer asks for a modest change in how meetings are done. What do we do? If we can build the moral equivalent of a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) document for our team members on how the team will function and what the rules of the road are, we go a long way toward accommodating the wants, needs and understanding of our organization, and we take significant first steps toward establishing the project culture for our team, even though they are functioning remotely.


Any time spent in isolation can lead to fantasy. We can have positive fantasies that we'll be able to complete the impossible tasks. We can have negative fantasies that the project will disintegrate on our watch. We can start to believe that everyone loves us, or hates us. The isolation of the virtual work environment can afford some of the highest levels of potential productivity, or it can dissolve in a sea of Solitaire games or independent frustration.

As managers, it's up to us to ensure that we have a clear vision of which direction(s) our virtual teams are taking. It's up to us to provide support and direction in ways that are meaningful. This type of team support requires no mystic capabilities or extensive leadership training. It requires simple, clear support in ways that enable team members to function more effectively when they're remotely located. That doesn't mean we have to invest huge amounts of time and energy visiting them on-site or nurturing their every action. We do, however, have to provide a framework for success and ensure that framework works.

©2007 Carl Pritchard. All Rights Reserved. Published on ProjectConnections by permission of the author.

Carl Pritchard, PMP, EVP lives in Frederick, Maryland with his wife, two sons, and two rain barrels. He is the author of Risk Management: Concepts & Guidance (3rd Edition) and is the lead chapter author for the risk management chapter of the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (4th Edition). He welcomes insight and comments via e-mail at carl@carlpritchard.com.

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