As the world grapples with lockdown measures, Richard Young asks project professionals how their projects have been affected – and what their path back to ‘normality’ might be
It’s not just employees who’ve been put on furlough. Many projects that rely on in-person activities are also on ice. But how exactly have project managers been suspending their work? What are they doing while things have slowed to a crawl? And how do they plan to spin things back up once the severest measures of lockdown are eased?
Different types of project will face different hurdles. The software development project professionals we heard from, for example, were largely getting on with business-as-usual.
“I’m as busy as ever,” one told us. “For the most part nothing has really changed. It's harder to keep people on track, but none of the projects I oversee have been delayed or suspended.
“We did encounter some delays receiving hardware that we ordered in January – it's manufactured in China. That had a bit of a domino effect, and management elected to crunch to avoid impact to customers. We ultimately delivered on time, but not without ruffling some feathers on the team.”
Even within programmes, project managers have been reporting a tailored approach to individual projects. “Before lockdown, I was working on four projects,” said one. “The sponsor decided to put one project completely on hold indefinitely and eliminate some voluntary scope from a second project. Project three was completed and released, and project four is ongoing and unaffected.”
Clearly a lot comes down to interdependencies – within the programme, the business and into the supply chain. The more pressing issue for some is the disease itself.
“My company decided to pull my teams out because the contractor was reporting COVID-19 sufferers had been working on the site,” said one project manager. “They still want the project completed on time! I have escalated the issue to get some senior management support to fight back – it’s just not going to happen.”
Sensible distancing is one example of how a decision to pause projects can be made. We heard others, too. This project professional’s experience is not untypical – but their approach to team communications is instructive: “It was ultimately up to the sponsors to make the final decision to go forward, pause temporarily or cancel the project completely,” he explained. “As the project manager, I made sure they understood the impact of pausing – including resource availability, contracting and regulatory impacts. My recommendation was to pause.
“But a key thing was keeping the project team working and out of the loop. I try to be as transparent as possible, but I knew it’d be hard for my team to keep going pending a decision. As soon as it was made, I let them know what was happening and why. And I gave them an opportunity to speak up if they thought we’d missed anything in our reasoning.”
Life under lockdown
Three different statuses, then: business-as-usual (albeit without face-to-face contact); project completely suspended or even cancelled; and a half-way house, where project professionals are keeping the engine ticking over, ready for a restart.
“I’m an assistant project manager working a contract supplying surveying vessels to the Royal Australian Navy,” said one project professional who falls into the third category. “The project remains on schedule, and luckily restrictions are starting to be lifted here in Australia. Any longer and I believe we would have begun falling behind due to a large amount of staff working from home and not being able to perform their full responsibilities.”
That ability to reschedule project work – prioritising the non-site or face-to-face activities – can be a godsend. “These past few weeks have given us the chance to tie up loose ends, manage paperwork and get ahead in all other aspects of the project,” this project manager confirmed.
Where project work is progressing, the biggest challenge has been managing stakeholders – particularly team members and sponsors. Obviously the ubiquity of videoconferencing apps has made a big difference here, too, and has ‘kept the lights on’ for many projects that require office-based work.
“The only negative is I cannot get face time or resolve misunderstandings by saying, ‘let me come to you and we can talk it out’,” said one healthcare project manager. “But with Zoom, Teams, Skype and so on, we can have instant dialogue via chat; and regular, weekly team report-outs. We've had these tools for years, but it took COVID-19 to break some businesses’ old-school mindset that people need to be seen in the office space to be productive.”
Some are not so lucky
It’s not all good news, though. “No office work has stopped,” one project manager told us. “But actually it’s got worse for me: contractors seem to have more time on their hands working from home and assume I’m always available.”
And many sponsors have felt compelled to completely suspend or cancel projects, not just because they’re impractical during lockdown, but because the economic and commercial environment has taken a broadside, too.
We did hear from a corporate project professional who’s been on the right side of the equation.
“A lot of the project work has changed. Previously I was working on more capital projects; now it’s more cost savings projects,” they explained. “And we've had many redundancies. With my boss laid off, I'm picking up a lot of their responsibilities, too. I went from managing three heavyweight projects, to seven. Two are for directors, so it's an opportunity for me – but it's still a bit daunting. And with furloughs and redundancies, I'm working with a handful of people less competent than my usual teams, which has increased stress.”
(Note that this individual is already planning for the aftermath, updating their CV with the fact that they played a part in keeping the company afloat; and is now seasoned at project management remotely when necessary. In tough times, we all develop new skills…)
Coming out the other side
Governments all over the world are planning how to get their economies out of lockdown – and project managers are doing the same. So what’s their take in spinning up projects to full power – and when?
The first step is knowing it’s safe. “Once the peak has passed, we can re-focus on previously in-flight projects or look to start kick-off on new projects,” said one project manager in the healthcare sector. “The other test will be how well each organisation’s ‘continuity of operations plan’ was executed. Will they be able to phase staffing back in? Will stakeholders be available soon? Can we operate at, say, 75 per cent?”
At the programme or corporate level, there are also going to be discussions about which projects still make sense in a COVID-19 world – and how they should be run now. “I know our executive teams are considering more robust remote work policies, and there will be some more focus on the non-affected business streams,” explained one project manager.
How this fundamentally reshapes our thinking is an important consideration for all of us. “This will make stakeholders look long and hard at who really needs to be on-site,” said one project manager. “Sometimes, the project manager does, sometimes they don't. Remote work will be easier to find.
“I would also argue that it will make project managers more necessary than ever,” he concludes. “I noticed multiple large tasks would have been completely missed if not for me, delaying business critical items for weeks. Without a project manager, ‘virtual’ or remotely conducted projects will progress even slower than physically implemented counterparts.”
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