How to work flexibly as a project manager

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Sam Monck and Penelope Rees work part-time at Transport for London (TfL) ­– in the same role. They job share as head of network sponsorship, allowing Monck to spend time on his sculpture work and Rees to spend time with her children. They manage a £170m project portfolio between them.

“It is quite unusual to job-share at this level in TfL,” says Rees. “Our managers have been very supportive and can definitely see the benefits. By working together we add more than working individually – that little bit of overlap of two days a week means that we have been able to deliver special projects for TfL that may have gone out to external consultants in the past.” 

Despite not working on the same days, they work very closely on the role, informing each other of their decisions and communicating over email and text message constantly. “Sometimes in a project environment, if someone is away, things can stop. Nothing stops with us, because there is always one of us here,” says Monck.

More and more people are taking to flexible working as a way to bring some work-life balance back into their lives. But it can be tricky for project managers – the need to engage regularly with stakeholders, for example, means that they must keep an open channel of communication within at least some conventional working hours. But as Monck and Rees demonstrate, it’s not impossible to make it work.

Here are some things you need to consider if you want to work flexibly as a project manager and maintain your effectiveness.

1. Accountability

As project manager, flexible working won’t work unless there is a clear ladder of accountability. When you’re not in the office, the team and stakeholders need to know who to turn to if a decision needs to be made.

Being flexible as a project manager requires 100 per cent trust in your team to be able to deliver without you. You must back their decisions – the whole thing may fall apart if you reverse or backtrack on a decision made by your subordinates on a day you weren’t working.

2. Communication

More specifically, you need to be very clear when you are not available for work, and where people should go for answers at those times. Pamela Dyson worked as head of finance skills development for the NHS before becoming a mentor through several organisations. She encourages her mentees to create “a project plan for life, updated and evolved as an important and regular routine. They set personal parameters about how they wish to operate and being public about that. For example: ‘I will not be available for meetings early in the morning/every Tuesday.’”

3. The benefits for others

Flexibility is a two-way street, says Emma Stewart, CEO of Timewise. “Flexibility that’s all for the individual and causes problems for the employer will never work. It’s about finding the flexibility sweet spot. Get the balance wrong, and you could end up losing your skilled staff, struggling to recruit or with a large gender imbalance, whether in terms of people or pay.”

Dyson argues that part of the problem is that organisations don’t understand the benefits of flexible working for them: “Organisations will benefit if they embrace the idea that a balanced and equal workplace can lead to optimisation of the objectives of the whole workforce as well as the organisation itself.”

You must sell the company on the business benefits of flexible working and accommodating a diverse pool of talent. It’s not easy to do, but if you look to find a solution that works for both parties, you’re on the way there. Which brings us to the next point...

4. Try non-conventional models

“There are some roles where flexibility is more challenging,” says Pauline Yau, host of The Flexible Movement podcast. “You have to rethink what flexibility means. Could working part-time instead of four days a week mean you work 80 per cent of a whole year? That would suit certain types of roles and challenges better than thinking of it on a weekly basis, which is a trap people fall into. If there is a really busy period or a deadline, you are still in the pattern that you work in all year, but it allows you and your employer to deal with the peaks and troughs.”

5. Embrace tech

If you’re going to be working part-time or unusual hours, you’re going to need good stores of information to keep track of your projects. So, you want to start looking at shared, cloud-hosted platforms to help you and your team store and share documents and data. You at least need some kind of cloud storage/documents platform such as OneDrive or Google Drive, and ideally, you’d have a cloud-based project management platform in place too.

“Embrace the positive benefits that technology can offer,” says Dyson. “Then eventually opportunities will create themselves and we can stop putting people into categories, the labels for which may immediately put bias into the situation.”

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Brought to you by Project journal.
Mark Rowland

Posted by Mark Rowland on 21st Oct 2019

About the Author

Mark Rowland is a senior writer on the Project editorial team. He has worked as a business journalist and editor for 15 years, and has won awards for his writing and editing. He has also worked in project and product management, overseeing the launch and continuous development of new websites and publications. Project is the official journal of the Association for Project Management (APM).

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