The top 10 challenges of global virtual projects

by Greg Digneo
challenges of global virtual projects1

When managing a global virtual project, your virtual team is going to face unique challenges that interoffice counterparts do not have to deal with.

In this article, we are going to discuss 10 challenges of managing a global virtual project and offer some solutions on how to solve them.

Let’s dig in.

1. Tracking project performance of virtual teams

When a project manager is in the same office as the team she is leading, it is relatively easy to see how far along each person is in completing their task.

Sometimes it’s as simple as walking around to each person’s workstation and asking how they’re making out.

Or the project manager can have daily/weekly check-in meetings to make sure everything is on schedule.

But when it comes to a virtual team, this can’t always be done and the project manager can be flying blind for days or weeks on end.

This is one of the biggest reasons that global virtual projects can go over time and budget.

Potential solution

Installing a time tracking tool like Time Doctor can give project managers X-ray vision into the project status of their remote global projects.

You’ll be able to see things like:

  • How long a particular task is taking to complete
  • Who is stuck on a particular task
  • And get an overall sense of how close the project is to completion.

2. Synchronous communication

Synchronous communication, or having the ability to talk in real time or face to face meetings with other team members can be quite difficult when trying to manage a global project.

This is especially true for finding a regular meeting time for the team to meet.  For example, if it is noon in 11 AM in New Jersey, it is 8:30 PM in India, and 11 PM in the Philippines.  

There’s never going to be a time that is convenient for everyone to meet due to time zones.

Unfortunately, synchronous communication is the most effective communication and a critical factor in the success of any global project.

So, what should you do?

Potential solution

I don’t know if there is a truly great answer to this challenge, but I can tell you what we’ve done.

We set aside a day and time that is mutually agreed upon by all individuals of the team for video conferencing.   That way each team member knows to keep his/her calendar clear for the meeting each week.

At Time Doctor, we have a weekly meeting at 9PM every Monday night.  While not my favorite time to have a meeting, I have learned to navigate my schedule around that meeting each week.

Yes, the time zone differences do make this inconvenient.  But there are no surprises.

3. Document management

With documents getting shared with the click of a button between team members, it’s hard to keep track of everything that’s been created.

Who is sharing documents in Google Drive?  Who’s using Dropbox?  Who’s sharing in slack?  

And it’s not that people are trying to be different. 

But what happens is something like this:

Two people are having a conversation in Slack.

Person A asks to see a document.

Person B uploads the document to slack to share it… but doesn’t share it with the rest of the team.  

After a bit of collaboration, the document is changed.  And depending on what that document is, it can have major ramifications on the scope of the project.

Potential solution

Pick one place to store all documents and be vigilant with how you share them.  

It doesn’t matter if you’re talking with someone in Slack, Skype, over email, etc.  All documents are stored and shared under one roof.

4. Language barriers

Language Barriers

I’m coming from an English speaking bias with this one.  Everyone at Time Doctor speaks English.  However, for a lot of us, English is a second, or even 3rd language.

And this might be true for your company as well.  When this happens, there are going to be some language barriers.

Local colloquialisms that you use every day might not translate the same way in another part of the world.

Another thing I’ve found is that there simply might not be a word in another language for what you’re trying to describe. 

Potential solution

This is a tough challenge where patience is going to be the only true remedy.  Do not be afraid to over-communicate your message to the members of your team.

The other thing is this:  you’re going to be more compatible with some members of the team than you are with others.

Do not be afraid to ask for help communicating your ideas through an intermediary.

5. Project management

When a virtual project team is remote, it can be hard to determine who actually owns the project and who is in charge of decision making.  It’s easy to find yourself getting direction from several different people.  

A global virtual project is much like a puzzle with each task being a puzzle piece.  Every team member will want your piece to fit nicely into theirs.  

This can change the scope of your task and overall project.  

Potential solution

Identify the project team manager before the project starts.  You’d be surprised at how many projects “kickoff” and no one takes ownership of it.

The project manager must be looped in at all times whenever the project scope changes.

6. Project organization chart

One of the most difficult things to keep track of when you’re participating in a remote project is the project organization chart.  

If the project has a long life cycle, you can be sure that people will come and go.  

Who was just hired?  Who got promoted and is no longer working on the project?  And who has left the company?

It’s very possible that one day you’re going to send an email to someone that says “hey, can you complete this task?”

Only to have the response be:

“I am no longer working on that project.”

Potential solution

Make sure that you have a team meeting at least once a month so that you’re familiar with who is on the project and what role everyone is playing.

This once a month meeting may very likely be the only time you interact with certain members of the project. 

7. Isolation

A guy using a laptop in a corner an of alley

This isn’t exclusive to working on projects.  Working remotely can be lonely.  There are weeks that go by where the only other person I saw was my spouse.

And when I go 5 or 6 days without leaving the house, eventually she kicks me out and tells me to go “Someplace.  Any place.”

The other thing is when you’re isolated from the team, it’s easy to lose motivation and work as hard to complete your tasks.

There’s an energy that you feel when 4 or 5 people are in the same room all trying to complete the same mission.  You feed off of it.

When you’re isolated, you have to manufacture that energy.

Potential solution

Remote work is an exercise in fitness.  Your brain feeds your body which then feeds your brain again.

When you’re isolated, it’s easy for this system to break down.  To manufacture the energy of working next to your coworkers, make sure to get good sleep, exercise, and eat healthy.

The other thing that works for me is regular happy hours with friends. That will break up your week and give you something to look forward to. 

8. Serendipity

The late Steve Jobs told his biographer, Walter Isaacson, that when he commissioned the headquarters for the animated film studio Pixar, in East Bay, Jobs made sure it was an open structure, where everything converged on an atrium. 

Jobs believed, as Isaacson described it, that creativity is a result of serendipity. (source)

When it comes to global virtual teams, this type of serendipity is almost impossible to recreate.  Just by its nature, you’re never going to casually run into random colleagues at work.  

An engineer and a designer will never just convert unless a meeting is scheduled.  

Potential solution

I’m not sure there is a great solution to this challenge.  But one thing that we have done at Time Doctor that has worked really well is team retreats.

(Note, I’m writing this during the Covid Pandemic, so team retreats aren’t really a possibility right now.)

Basically, the entire company gets together in one location and we get to meet each other, have meals together and talk and enjoy each other’s company.

And Steve Jobs is right.  There is some magic in that.

9. Cultural differences

One of the best parts of managing a global team is the cultural diversity.  

Those of us managing virtual teams know how important this is to the success of any project.

However, when you work with colleagues from around the globe, you need to schedule around different culture obligations and activities.

Both religious and national celebrations will affect the output of your virtual team at various times of the year.

Potential solution

I’ve never found this challenge to be a huge deal, but I am fully aware of when team members can’t make meetings or won’t be available to complete tasks.

For instance, I would never schedule a task to be completed during Christmas week and I would limit the amount of workload during Ramadan.

Again, nothing major.  It’s just something I’m cognizant of at all times.

10. Life gets in the way 

The truth of the matter is this.  Your global team is made up of people who have lives, struggles, and challenges outside of your project.

Who’s taking care of an elderly parent?

Who’s dealing with a sick kid?

Who’s going through a messy divorce?

As much as we try to be professional and compartmentalize our work life from our home life, it’s hard not to let it affect your productivity.

It is hard to know what is going on in someone’s life in an office setting.  It’s almost impossible to know when that person is remote.

Potential solution

If you’re leading a virtual team on a project.  You have to have empathy.

The best virtual team leaders I’ve ever worked with have gotten to their team members on a personal level.  Meetings aren’t about “work” all of the time.

These project team managers talk about life, ask how team members are doing, eliminate all miscommunication and are consistently building trust with those who work for them.

This type of social interaction ensures managers always have a finger on the pulse of what is going on and can adjust their expectations accordingly.

Over to you…

There are many challenges to running a successful global virtual project.  By acknowledging the challenges and implementing the potential solutions outlined on this list, you’ll have a better chance of completing your projects on time and on budget.

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