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Fatigue, disruption, working at pace: project lessons from lockdown

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Early in 2020, few of us envisaged how significant an impact COVID-19 would have. Project professionals have had to change at a pace and scale we would not have previously anticipated or even considered workable. Our professional lives have been rapidly reassessed in terms of when, how and where we work. Some of us have been furloughed, while others face unemployment.

So, what skills, competencies and behaviours do we need for the future? And what do we want to leave behind? Collectively, there has been a significant shift away from ‘It has to be this way’ to a more flexible, agile way of working. We’ve gone from simply admiring and poking the problem to being invited to actively contribute to the solution – all thanks to clear priorities and a heightened sense of urgency. 

Stark new realities

Conversations within the project community have made comparisons with pre-pandemic life, including former instances of wasted time and effort and inefficient processes. In 2020, the challenge of bringing our whole selves to work has become more complex. Our personal lives and caring responsibilities have been transformed within a short space of time. We continue to work from home, possibly in a makeshift space. Interruptions, home-schooling and shielding may need to be factored in. We wonder about our previous ideas of a work/life balance.

While the ‘new normal’ will look different for everyone, organisations need to think carefully about how they move forward. Feedback within the project community has highlighted:

  • more collaborative organisations united in finding solutions that meet everyone’s needs;
  • adult-to-adult conversations increasingly outstripping parent-to-child conversations;
  • contractor-client engagement becoming more pragmatic;
  • making more time for conversations rather than issuing instructions;
  • a shift in management style away from needing to see people at work to be confident they are working; and
  • a loosening of control and an increase in trust, meaning a move away from micro-management towards outcome management.

Creativity and innovation have also been marked. Hardware, software and cybersecurity have played a huge role in making remote working a success. Teams have had to learn how to work together remotely, where previously they sat in the same office. The overwhelming feedback is that videoconferencing has led to more effective and efficient meetings that are less likely to be derailed – only one person can talk at a time to ‘claim the space’ and everyone is equal in the small thumbnail video. This has brought about a form of equality for participants.

Data-driven, speedy decision-making

Organisations typically focus on data-driven decision-making – and look for guarantees and dependable data on which to base their decisions. The pandemic has forced them to take faster decisions by accelerating the decision-making process or, in a few cases, circumventing it altogether. Notwithstanding the current debate as to whether government should have been better prepared for what some are calling an entirely foreseeable event, most organisations had no playbook for this scenario.

Many in the project community are used to working remotely and relying on online collaborative tools, but even they are now feeling ‘Zoom fatigue’, with days consisting of back-to-back video meetings. 

They worry that this fatigue results in less bandwidth to make a ‘good’ decision and that their judgement has been impaired by time pressures. Some feel that they have been forced by circumstances to take more risk and that decisions taken now will be revisited in the ‘new normal’. The attitude appears to be that there is an increased risk appetite from organisations, although this is not a comfortable position.

No longer a short-term blip

Line-of-sight events and planning horizons are now shorter than ever. Some organisations initially viewed COVID-19 as a ‘short-term blip’, so the focus became ‘keeping the show on the road’. This short-term blip is now regarded as a more fundamental change. Sense-making and decision-making need to be more strategic in nature, but it is unclear whether the data gained historically is fit to be used for forward planning, and the scenarios used for forward-planning options may not be robust enough.

There is a general feeling that decision-making at pace in a context of deep disruption is uncomfortable and often lacks the timely, relevant data needed. Nevertheless, we are still required to make those decisions.

As a project community, we work to bring about change. We are well positioned to change at the individual level and to keep up with this changing backdrop, as well as to support our teams and organisations to keep changing.

Stay safe and well, and take care of your physical and mental health.

This blog is an edited extract from an article that appeared in the winter 2020 edition of Project journal, an exclusive benefit for APM members.

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