When the COVID-19 pandemic slammed the US in full force in early 2020, the world of work as we knew it was transformed, and with it, project management.
“Givens” that we would have assumed just months earlier had vanished, like project team members sitting one desk apart, or being able to casually go over a data schema with the DBA in their office before lunch.
Reconfiguring businesses for remote work was the first step. Understanding the implications of projects that suddenly had uncertain futures when budgets needed be tightened was the second step. On top of that, were worries about project members and their families. Who was going to stay healthy and who wasn’t, and what would the impact be on projects?
This took me back to the days of Hurricane Katrina.
At the time of Katrina, I was working with a company in New Orleans where employees in IT were especially hard hit. Several IT staff members had lost their homes in the floods. Others were separated from family members and couldn’t get in touch with them. In one case, a key IT employee died in the storm. Not only were there suddenly large shoes to fill, but an entire staff was devastated from the death, and found it difficult to focus on their work.
The Katrina catastrophe showed CIOs and IT project leaders that emotional wellbeing was just as critical on projects as the technical capabilities of team members.
It has been no different during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Project team members, now working remotely, have had to readjust their lives for children that must suddenly be home-schooled, for everyday tasks that now must be done without venturing out, and for loss of social exchange with neighbors, friends and yes, fellow project members.
There has been an emotional cost.
53% of Americans now say that their mental health and wellbeing have been negatively affected “due to worry and stress over coronavirus.” And if you're an IT project manager, you are worrying about the impact of this emotional malaise on the productivity and the results of your project.
However, there is also a beneficial side to the COVID-19 crisis for IT projects.
More project management tools have surfaced that make working remotely more effective. The advances in teleconferencing and collaboration technologies have unlocked possibilities for recruiting and using IT talent that can contribute positively to projects, but that might not be able to be physically present in an office.
Remote work also enables employees to better balance life priorities with work.
These workplace changes have altered the discipline of project management, and how IT project managers will operate going forward.
What changes can we expect, and how should companies and their project managers prepare?
1. More project work will be done remotely
The COVID-19 crisis accelerated the move to remote work, and for most companies, working remotely will not go away after the crisis abates. But working remotely demands remote project management tools that can continually assess the progress of projects that are being executed off premises.
Key to this will be cloud-based project management software that enables employees to update the progress of their own project tasks; and collaboration software in the cloud that enables employees to communicate and exchange documentation in real time, especially during project trouble-shooting and problem resolution.
2. Evaluating and setting security levels will become a requisite project setup task
Many IT projects that contain sensitive information and intellectual property, and it’s relatively easy to protect these project assets when project team members are working on premises and over an internal corporate network.
Unfortunately, risks of security breaches and even employee theft of vital project information exponentially grow when the boundaries of your projects theoretically extend to the outer limits of the outside world.
Dual-factor authentication for sign-ons to networks that enable home access may no longer be enough, so IT project managers might need to consider additional layers of security for team members. Encryption of vital project data and communications might be necessary. Finally, the increased use of cloud services such as commercial project management, collaboration and video conferencing services may need to be vetted.
3. Project managers must find ways to “make up” for missing project content
Several years ago I was managing an IT project, and was assured by a team leader that all tasks in his area were complete, but I still had an uncomfortable feeling about it. I requested that the completed work be moved to QA, and discovered that the tasks really were not complete.
Fortunately, this type of situation doesn't happen every day, but it delivers an important lesson: Project managers are most effective when they manage by walking around. When you do this you can understand from visual body language how confident team members are with their work, and also how they are feeling emotionally.
You can't “manage by walking around” well in a remote project environment, because the body language content you are looking for is missing.
One approach for IT project managers is to spend more time in face-to-face video conferencing with individual project team members. Talk to the members about the project and how they are feeling, but ask them about their families, too.
You will get a clearer understanding of your project.
4. Missing user content is an issue, too
The other vital project content that project managers miss with remote work is real-time feedback and communications with the end users that the projects are for. There are users who are hesitant to make suggestions, but who have them -- and can be encouraged to present them when you visually observe that they really want to.
Maintaining an open dialogue with end users on projects is critical for IT project success, because if users ultimately reject a project, the project fails. This is a major risk point for IT project managers.
The solution is to spend more face-to-face time video conferencing with your end users, in the same way that you are doing with your IT staff. These one-to-one exchanges are not the same as visiting with an individual in person, but they help.
5. Plan for project contingencies
If COVID-19 has taught us one thing, it’s that employees can get sick or emotionally stressed. This can impact projects. Contingency planning for project managers should begin with the project managers themselves, and should extend minimally to contingency-planning for key team members.
What do you do if you, or someone critical to the project, is unable to work? Contingency backup plans should be in place for all key project personnel.
To read more about the impact of the pandemic on the IT group check out these recent InformationWeek articles.
Mary E. Shacklett is an internationally recognized technology commentator and President of Transworld Data, a marketing and technology services firm. Prior to founding her own company, she was Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information ... View Full Bio