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Coronavirus diaries: Two tales of tech project managers adapting to the crisis

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Technology has offered a life raft in the last few weeks. With the world introducing extreme social measures to help contain the spread of COVID-19, remote services have enabled us to stay connected – to work colleagues and family members, food supplies and other key facets of life. Yet many of the tech organisations behind these platforms are facing a major project management challenge – on two fronts.

A war on two fronts

Take the technology team at London Business School. It’s been charged with moving the school’s entire education provision to remote learning, while migrating its entire team to work from home too. The latter task was “incredibly challenging,” according to technology manager and APM member Gennadii Miroshnikov, who works in the school’s executive education team. He’s now suggesting “over-Zoomed” as a candidate for word of the year.

“Everything is like Alice in Wonderland,” he says. “It’s completely opposite to what we had before. So for me to deliver a project in this extreme situation, the lessons learned, the feedback, and the next cycle, need to come very, very quickly.”

The team has adopted a few key measures. First, a more fluid structure, where people step in to support others, regardless of job title. The technology team has worked with the change management team to support leaders across the school, offering advice on how to work best in different virtual environments. And the school’s senior managers have got stuck in too, making their support very visible. “They were absolutely brilliant in driving walk-in sessions several times a week, where people could learn about new tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, says Gennadii. “And they did a great job finding and coordinating resources, to ensure we could deliver.”

Through adversity comes innovation

It turns out this was no mere firefighting exercise. The School has a world-class reputation that attracts students and corporate clients from around the world. Before committing to virtual lessons, its executive education clients around the world demanded to see the same top quality that they signed up for when the campus was still open. So the school has negotiated contracts with providers such as Zoom to deliver pioneering functionality not yet available to the public – such as instant translation of remote lectures into multiple languages.

“Just yesterday I spoke with a few professors who said the classes are now even better than face-to-face delivery in some ways,” says Gennadii. “It’s more interactive than a traditional lecture, for example, with people asking questions in the chat function, or giving non-verbal feedback to say they agree.”

The lesson here: it’s important to try these technologies for yourself, rather than just read about them or watch tutorials. “Once you uncover all the potential of the tool, you gain confidence and can start experimenting,” says Gennadii. “And that really unleashes people's potential too.”

Pivoting to provide critical help

Other tech services are being adapted to help keep people healthy during the pandemic. Part of the project management team that won APM’s Overall Project of the Year, Clevermed is the start-up behind BadgerNet, a suite of maternity and neonatal products which drags traditional paper-based maternity records into the mobile era. A few weeks ago, this was a handy option for mothers-to-be. But the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recently published new guidance that said digital records are now paramount in midwifery and maternity, as safety concerns bring remote triage to the fore. “Our customers are front-line,” says Carol McGovern, project manager at Clevermed (on the phone from a living room that “looks like a bomb site”, courtesy of Carol’s own two-year-old).

Carol’s team has worked hard to release a raft of COVID-critical updates. Last week a national upgrade added new questions to its triage service – asking the user about recent foreign travel, and whether she has a dry cough or a temperature, for example. The team also added push notifications that share the latest COVID guidance, while medical boards and trusts can use data gathered by the app to build a picture of how many new mothers in their area are at risk from the virus.

Adapting to the new normal

Carol concedes that these updates have been relatively straightforward. The bigger challenge lies in project managing the people behind the technology. Previously almost entirely office-based, the company has moved to Microsoft Teams, and faces a surge in urgent, fast-turnaround work. “Our engineers are doing an outstanding job,” she says. “But many are finding the rigour of getting out of bed, going to the kitchen, getting switched on and being motivated quite difficult.”

Carol’s biggest learning has been to “cut people a lot of slack”. “Some of our staff have been on the front line and seen the impact first-hand,” she says. “It’s a frightening time. There's a definite sense of heightened anxiety. So while we all want to see projects go live, there are other priorities. Six weeks ago I’d have faced a deadline and said: ‘Right, ok, great, next.’ Or: ‘That's failed. What's the block? How do we fix it?’ Now it’s a case of just asking what I can do to help.”


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