Insight | 16 September 2020

Becoming a remote project team: a story of challenges and opportunities


Becoming a remote project team hero

With the global pandemic forcing project management to be delivered remotely, With the global pandemic forcing projects to be delivered remotely, we look at the challenges faced and the opportunities seized to overcome them by project managers in these unprecedented times..

The Covid-19 situation has caused a huge amount of upheaval in both our personal and professional lives, forcing us to challenge our perceptions in the way we work and communicate with others. For some this has presented a raft of benefits, for others a raft of challenges. But there have also been opportunities and the digital and tech sectors have probably experienced a mixture of both; I know that we have as a business.

As Head of Delivery it’s certainly forced my team and I to question the ways in which we work to make sure we continue to deliver well for our clients. And at the same time offer a supportive, flexible environment for our team to continue to do their best work whilst working around a lot of the personal challenges that Covid-19 has brought to us all. Being a digital and technology business, we were better placed than many to adapt our ways of working, but it certainly brought its fair share of challenges, some of which we are still grappling with six months down the road.

Wait, you work in digital, spend most of your time on the web and already have the option to work from home, this must have been an easy switch for you?”

It’s true that the tools we use to communicate daily, i.e. Microsoft Teams and Zoom, have largely enabled us to pick up and continue to work as we were, but just because you organise a call and get everyone on it, it doesn’t mean that they're actually collaborating and working towards the same goal. A key concern for the delivery of any project.

Whereas previously we might arrange a meeting and jump into a room, huddle around a white board and re-decorate the room in post-it notes, we’ve had to look for new tools and mechanisms to bring people together virtually and still be just as creative and innovative.

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A typical planning meeting complete with Post-its

Using tools such as Miro, Trello and Figma, we’ve been able to collaborate around the same idea without needing to be present in the same room, something that I think we’ll continue to rely on long after this crisis has averted and we can collaborate face-to-face again.

It’s worth saying though that tools and technology alone can’t be relied upon to be the key driver behind getting people to engage openly. I wrote recently about the need for individuals to be mindful of and consider how they communicate with others. Ensuring that your camera is on, distractions are minimised and that you actively participate is a key part of any meeting. But this is particularly relevant to projects, as often problems need to be raised, discussed and resolved quickly.

“Communication and getting people to engage in a remote setting was obviously a key challenge you faced, but what else did you have to overcome?”

Holding meetings is a crucial contributor to the successful running of any project. However, just as critical (although it could be argued even more important) are the stand ups that happen on a more informal basis day-to-day. So this was a vital area of focus early on in our switch to remote working. Again, using technology as an enabler, we booked in daily stand ups for all projects but this couldn’t replace those ad hoc “shall we grab a few minutes and talk about these issues?” catch ups that are critical to quickly identifying and resolving issues as they arise. It’s therefore essential to add flexibility to schedules so that those catch ups can take place but still in an as informal way as possible. It’s not a case of just booking in resource back-to-back and assume that all conversation on a project will happen within scheduled meetings. It is, however, the responsibility of those having the ad hoc discussions to make sure that they organise a convenient time to have them and to also come prepared so that time isn’t wasted.

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Daily stand-ups are vital when remote working

It’s also critical that you set expectations of all employees to assist others that may be returning from furlough, as they may not be aware of some of these new ways of working and the expectations that their colleagues may have of them to ‘adapt’. Managers too need to put in processes to support these individuals, as they’ll have a range of conflicting emotions – from potential worry about their role in the business and the team, to projects having moved on in their absence and their role in both being different than before furlough. As a project manager you must recognise all of these things and it’s imperative that time is put aside to not over-burden these members of the team upon their return and that support is given to help them adjust to their role on the project again. They may have been away from it for a number of months and a lot can happen on live projects during that time.

It also needs to be recognised that those within the business who are new to working remotely may experience emotional distress too and therefore when catch ups are held with any member of the team, colleagues should be encouraged to start the conversation with “how are you doing today?”. Supporting each other is crucial through any change within a business, but none more so than a global pandemic which has fundamentally changed how we work and live. I can’t stress how important it is for anyone leading a project to recognise that performance (good or bad) will be affected dramatically by how someone is coping (or not) with the change to working remotely. As project managers we deal with change on a daily basis and must adapt ourselves to those we work with, to know which tools to utilise on any given day and also when it’s right to push or not.

“Have you identified any benefits to working remotely either as individuals or as a business?”

Collaboration and communication has been a running theme throughout this article along with the number of the challenges it’s brought to getting it right. But one benefit that we have seen on projects we’ve run over the last six months is that our daily collaboration has actually improved – it’s very easy to confuse true collaboration and proximity. Although the teams haven’t been sat together, when they do come together, albeit virtually, we’ve found that they come prepared to discuss problems and blockers more readily. This is possibly as they can no longer rely on popping over to someone’s desk to ask them as they would have done previously. Instead they’ve had to own their role in the project and use their initiative as there isn’t a person in close proximity to ask.

Remote working has also forced us to challenge how we see our office space. If we do move to a position after the restrictions ease where remote working accounts for a bigger percentage of our working week, do we need long banks of desks and computers sat on them? And is the modern open plan layout the best way of mitigating the risk of future waves of the virus? There’s been a lot of talk recently in the media about offices becoming expendable and city centres becoming like ‘ghost towns’ due to the move to remote working, but will this necessarily be the case? There are potential opportunities to look at how companies use their office space and rather than treating them as places that people come to work at their desks, that they come together and use them as places to collaborate instead. Open plan layouts and large boardrooms could be turned into collaborative spaces instead with the tools to encourage open discussion and ideation. Just imagine the traditional scenario of workshops being held around conference tables in the boardroom being turned on its head and instead held in your recently reconfigured office space where you are free to collaborate, ideate and innovate together. And those times where you have to get your head down and sit with your headphones on in the vain hope you’re indicating you don’t want to be disturbed? Well, those are your work from home days. To me, this seems to give businesses, their employees and their clients the best of both worlds.

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Workflow mapping

“Where do we go from here?”

Businesses and the teams within them have been forced to become more flexible in their approach to the way in which they work and the way that projects are delivered. The way we collaborate with each other and clients has likely changed forever. Now is the time for us to question what we want the future of work to look like. To be bold in our thinking, to challenge ourselves so that when the next change comes along to re-shape our industry we’re ready to adapt and embrace whatever is thrown our way.

I don’t think that we will return to how things were pre-Covid 19, as expectations that employees have of their employer have changed and we’ve shown as an industry that we can adapt to working remotely. The next step will be to consider how we resource ourselves both in terms of physical space and talent – do we restrict ourselves to only local talent pools when we have a limitless international remote workforce at our fingertips?

In some ways, the challenges that Covid-19 has presented us with have also become the opportunities as we’ve had to take decisive action to remain dynamic and continue to deliver effectively regardless of the external environmental factors we face.

If you have a project to discuss then drop us a line, we’d love to hear from you.