Why you need to rethink people management for a changed world

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It’s no good waiting around for things to go back to normal – it’s time to review how you hire and embed staff, and review performance. By Alexander Garrett

If there’s a second spike of coronavirus this winter, many of us won’t see the inside of an office that doesn’t double as a kitchen or a dining room until sometime next year. By then, remote working will no longer be a short-term emergency measure, it will be part of a new paradigm, in which we’ll be working alongside colleagues we may not have seen in person for months, or may have never met.

What does this mean for how project managers manage people?

In the early stages of the pandemic, much of the focus was on supporting people unfamiliar with the challenges of working from home. But as we move into a more permanent or semi-permanent state of distance, project managers need to consider how to deal with some of the more proactive elements of people management: hiring people, managing performance and motivating individuals.

People management is often the first thing to go in a crisis, says Emma-Ruth Arnaz-Pemberton, director of consulting services at Wellingtone. And that’s all the more reason to deliberately make it a higher priority.

First, she says, we need to learn to trust people more and treat them like adults. “In the past we’ve tended to treat them like children: you must do this by this time, you must log on at this time. But we have to trust them to manage their own working lives even if that’s difficult in terms of the control that leaders have.”

For example, PMOs need to be more pragmatic about governance and assurance and focus on ensuring things get done, rather than the process. “We need to be less prescriptive. Everyone has things going on in their lives – I was without electricity for four hours last week.”

Hiring might require some extra thought

“It often takes companies longer, on average, to complete a remote hiring process than it does to find office-based staff,” according to the Newcastle-based recruiter Nigel Wright Group. “Distance and virtual communication are obstacles in themselves, but it’s the difficulty in getting to know someone from afar that frustrates the project.”

Try pulling in more team members to assess the candidate’s soft skills; and offer a trial day or ‘home tasks’ to assess compatibility. You’ll also need to hone your video interviewing skills and think hard about how you induct people.

Outputs and performance – time for a shift in focus?

Managing performance presents a challenge when so much of the day-to-day interaction with people is missing. For many organisations it will have been tempting to put off appraisals until normality returns, but you can’t do that forever.

Measuring outputs is the easier part; it’s how well an individual interacts with colleagues and other stakeholders that’s more difficult to gauge. And what if you need to have difficult conversations about under-performance?

Giving and seeking constant feedback can help to ensure that perception gaps don’t develop between team members, and so can 360-degree appraisals: the more individuals you get involved, the more of those small interactions between them you’ll pick up.

Susanne Madsen, whose company provides leadership development for project managers, suggests that working remotely could actually help when delivering unfavourable reviews: “It can be more direct when you do it online or over a video call,” she says, “because it’s not so easy to be jovial or crack a joke. But that means we’re talking about what needs to be talked about.”

Finding different ways to engage

For project managers, people management is not so much about line management, but specific skills such as communication, negotiation and conflict resolution, and that means adapting to the changed environment.

“If someone has a particular ability to ‘read the room’ then that won’t help much in virtual meetings,” says Arnaz-Pemberton. “They will need to find different ways to understand what the stakeholders on their project are thinking. I urge people to really get to grips with the technology that’s available – tools like chats, surveys and whiteboards can really help.”

For Madsen, the extended period of working outside the office presents a real opportunity to carry out many aspects of people management in a much more “conscious” way: “We need to be conscious about how we want to work together, how we create personal contacts and how we onboard new team members, because it isn’t just going to happen automatically.”

This is what leadership should be about, she says: asking questions and listening. 

“If we ever go back to working ‘normally’, perhaps we’ll have learned from some of the good habits we built up during this period.”

Find out how you can leverage the benefits of remote working in Succeeding with a dispersed team from APM Learning, available exclusively to APM members.


Image: Jirsak/Shutterstock

Alexander Garrett

Posted by Alexander Garrett on 3rd Aug 2020

About the Author

Alexander Garrett is a freelance journalist and editor whose specialist topics include business, management and property. Alex began his career at management consultancy Coopers & Lybrand Associates, spent seven years working for The Observer's Business section, and wrote a monthly column for Management Today for almost two decades. Today he is a regular contributor to magazines including BA's Business Life and BL Global, and edits the Atticus Journal for WPP. 

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