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Managing Virtual Teams and Enabling Remote Collaboration

Thushara Wijewardena is the Chief Project Officer at Exilesoft. Thushara has been working in the project management arena for over ten years, using a variety of traditional and Agile methods and she works across many different countries. She currently works with a team of technical specialists and clients in Sri Lanka, Norway, Australia and Sweden. Thushara will be with us at Nordic Project Zone talking about enabling remote customer and team collaboration in Agile project organizations. As a sponsor of the summit “Nordic Project Zone” Can Do is happy to present the interview with her.  

Virtual teams: trust is the basis of successNordic Project Zone (NPZ): Thushara, what are the specific challenges that are associated with managing virtual teams?
Thushara Wijewardena: Actually, the challenges can be varied, depending on the complexity of the problem you are going to solve with your virtual teams. If the problem is very small and easy to understand, it really doesn’t matter where the team is located. The development of software is not that simple, so you face difficult challenges, such as not having enough overlapping business hours to collaborate with each other, lack of face-to-face discussion, lack of trust and lack of location transparency. In most locations, not having the chance to use your native language for communication can be challenging too, and it may affect the creativity of people who are involved in the project.

Can Do sponsort Nordic Project ZoneNPZ: All of those things sound pretty challenging when you’re trying to manage a virtual team! So what techniques do you use to improve communication between virtual teams?
Thushara Wijewardena: : I think that the first thing we need to realise is that working with virtual teams is not a new thing anymore. We have been working with virtual teams for over a decade now, so we have been virtual with these situations over and over. Remote communication, such as video conferencing facilities, have really improved today so we can use them and there are best practices you can follow to improve the situation in such context.
As an example, at Exilesoft, we have teams working from Norway, Sweden, Australia and Sri Lanka, so we used many engineering best practices such as remote pair programming across locations, daily code checking sent to a central place and there is also video conferencing, shared demos and prospectives across teams and so on. We also use many collaboration tools, such as wikis, virtual Kanban boards and Scrum boards. Much more than anything, we focus a lot on our location abilities of remote teams because we expect them to co-locate at least two times a year.

More Project Management InterviewsNPZ: That’s interesting, a lot different tools and techniques there to improve the communication between the teams. Why is it important to consider different collaboration models for remote teams?
Thushara Wijewardena: It’s important because unless you find the right collaboration model for the right project context you will see many extra challenges at the time of project execution. You need to look at how dependent and independent your team members in various locations are when it comes to technical skills, domain knowledge and various other aspects. So then, if they need to build some software in a consistent manner, the level of integration needed across locations and the team members can be varied from one location to another.

NPZ: : What are the key factors that need to be considered then when you are selecting a collaboration model for a specific project that has its own unique needs and requirements?
Thushara Wijewardena: We’ve got to consider various factors here. The main factors I would look at in such project initiations are the overlapping business hours, communication barriers, complexity of the business problem that you are going to solve, expected technical complexity within the project, access to end user knowledge, retention requirements in a specific location, especially if you have to do first level support from that location to the customer, and technical skills required in every location. So these are the typical factors that I look at during such a project initiation.

virtual teams: "It's the communication, stupid"NPZ: Thanks for sharing those with us. Could you tell us the circumstances where you’ve seen the best remote team collaborations and what the ingredients for success were?
Thushara Wijewardena: Every time I see the best collaboration or teams collaborating best, I’ve found that they have lots of trust with each other. I would say that trust is the key. Most virtual teams work based on cognitive based trust. It’s very easy to lose that kind of trust based on deliveries they do, even over the simplest mistake. So you’ve got to make sure that these remote teams have enough knowledge and information to deal with the fast delivery requirements.

NPZ: Sure, you’ve mentioned a number of challenges now at the team level. What about the challenges that you can face in a PMO when you have many virtual teams working for projects?
Thushara Wijewardena: Challenges are in place in this context because teams are remote and you don’t get to see them often. But I do believe that being more vigilant and applying best practises to improve location transparency, as well as having good people who respect differences, can help to ease many of these challenges. When it comes to the Exilesoft PMO that I’m heading, we deal with many different business cultures because we work with Nordic companies as well as in Australia – it’s very different! So handling various contracts, applying Agile practices and helping to improve the processes continuously to our customers is very challenging. It involves lots of travelling too, by our project operatives and the technical coaching staff. I think we can talk a lot more about that at the conference, as I would expect to share my last five years experience of working with Nordic teams and teams in South Asia, one set of practices we use, and how to model these various teams to collaborate better.

CanDo-Webinar-NPZ