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COVID-19 and managing the transition to virtual working

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Remote working brings its own challenges around both communication and technology. But with a flexible approach there’s no reason why your project shouldn’t stay on track

The coronavirus (or COVID-19) pandemic has been raging for several months now, but for most UK project teams, the last fortnight has been a milestone. Many are now experiencing the first knock-on effects of the coronavirus on business as usual. Teams are suddenly geographically dispersed. Memes are circulating about whether it’s acceptable to only dress from the waist up. And the phrase ‘unprecedented times’ is never far from our lips.

So how should project professionals dealing with the uncertain and ambiguous environment they now find themselves in?

Time for some good news…

The good news is that  project managers should be well placed to deal with the fallout. At least in theory…

“We’ve always made use of collaborative work tools in the P3M community and we’ve been preaching their importance for a very long time,” says Sarah Coleman, director of Business Evolution and author of the Association for Project Management research Project Leadership: Skills, behaviours, knowledge and values.

“We’ve always worked with matrix virtual teams, international teams, cross-geography teams, so we don’t always see people we work with. But those businesses that typically all congregate in a single place, and which have less of a delivery focus, are facing a big change.”

Remote working may represent a new, uncertain challenge for these organisations. “With remote working, you have to be in control but not necessarily directly manage what’s going on. This strongly underlines the need for agility, flexibility and change-readiness in organisations,” says Coleman.

Now might also be a good time to dust off that business continuity plan. The introduction of mobile working will be a rocky process if people are being dumped into the situation at the last minute without any forethought. It can’t be reactive.

“Hopefully a lot of this will have been thought through in business continuity plans, regardless of whether it’s projects or business as usual,” says Coleman. “Often, volatile and uncertain environments have been looked at in terms of the whole organisational business continuity, so from that point of view one would hope that change-readiness has been introduced over a period of time.”

This may be truer for certain kinds of organisations than others, the recruitment director cautions: “Big consultancies invest heavily in infrastructure, making sure they have sustainable and modern practices. Some of the smaller independent consultancies have not got the infrastructure in place, however. Around 10 to 15 per cent of our clients were not enabled or proactive enough in ensuring that the infrastructure, policies and procedures were in place in advance of this kind of thing happening.”

So how can I minimise disruption?

Some more good news – project managers don’t have to reinvent the wheel in these ‘unprecedented times’. Much of the time, they just need to revisit the basics and make sure they do them (really) well. For example, delegating and trusting team members to get on with the job at hand, especially as they disappear to remote offices.

“As managers we have lots of experience of being in charge, but not necessarily always being in control. I think being able to trust people to do what they say they’re going to do is key. Again, it’s about setting outcomes and deliverables and letting the team get on with it, rather than micromanaging.”

‘OK, but I’ve just fallen down a YouTube rabbit hole – help!’

If you’re a project professional struggling with the transition to virtual working, you’re not alone. Now might be a time to put together some best practice documentation for you and your team to follow with some key tips on how to stay focused and keep the boundary between work and your home life mostly intact.

From Coleman’s point of view, one of the key things is “being able to give and receive support at arm’s length. When you’re face-to-face it’s easy to build relationships; it is more difficult when you’re at distance and feeling a bit isolated. It’s important to ensure people stay in touch and are constantly feeding back on what is going on, rather than just sitting there and grappling with it alone.”

WhatsApp groups are also not to be overlooked as a more informal forum for staying in touch and keeping that human contact. However, it is important to realise that all tools “are only enablers” advises Coleman.

“At the end of the day it’s important for the individual to show resilience and to learn how to self-motivate when they don’t have a team around them. You need to realise you are not on your own; you can still rely on each other and have those conversations remotely.”

Finally, there is the gamut of distractions that can plague the home worker. Being able to switch off the tech and knuckle down and focus is important. Remote workers with other family members in the house will also need to manage potentially tricky family dynamics. Here it’s about setting boundaries so family members aren’t coming to you every five minutes to carry out odd jobs.  

Building in structure is absolutely vital too, Coleman advises. That may mean planning out the day in the same way as you would in the office, she suggests. For others, it’s about realising what you can do to keep your brain active and engaged when you don’t have the buzz of your colleagues around you. Cooking lunch or taking the dog for a quick walk might be all it takes to get the creative juices flowing.  

How have your projects been affected by the pandemic? And what are your best-practice tips for dealing with disruption and uncertainty? Leave a comment below or email

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Image: Andrii Vodolazhskyi/


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