Regardless of your feelings about the SARS-COV2 (COVID-19) virus pandemic, project management communication was impacted in many ways.
The Project Management Institute (PMI) for years has maintained that virtual teams and video calls can be efficient, but physical co-located teams provide the best environment for project success.
But what has happened is that over time, technology has grown more immersive and engaging when it comes to video conferencing, remote system operation, application sharing, etc. This has allowed a slow and sure movement to more virtual teams and meetings for global projects. March 2020 brought an accelerated implementation of virtual communications throughout the project management industry.
Doing business virtually: Here to stay?
It’s fair to say the pandemic “fast-forwarded” technological and interpersonal developments in virtual video conferencing. While some projects were canceled or postponed, the ones that remained in progress had to adjust to the lack of physical co-location. Was this shift positive? How well did project managers/program managers navigate this change?
Now that COVID-19 has exited the pandemic phase and we understand the virus better than when companies and countries originally responded, should we slow the change? Perhaps we should even move back to more in-person meetings? These are all questions that must be addressed by a project manager in the modern workspace.
The first question deals with whether the shift to a more virtual communication and meeting environment was positive or negative. I believe that if this had occurred 10-15 years ago, the results would have been negative.
Timing and tech advances on our side
A few short years ago, video conferencing, especially from remote locations such as someone’s home office, was dicey at best. Broadband was still in its infancy in homes, with most people happy with getting 1-2mbps download speeds and only 500kps upstream. For quality video and audio to operate over that in a group conversation, the rates needed to be much higher.
A solution that spans continents and challenges
Thankfully, enterprises and government organizations are cooperating to support video conferencing as a viable solution to connect remote workers, customers, and employees safely, efficiently and effectively.
It’s been noted many times over that one thing that made social distancing possible during the pandemic was that technology was at a place that did assist project managers and teams to continue to maintain quality communication, performance reporting, and feedback. The situation prompted companies to adopt work-from-home policies and procedures that they might have otherwise taken years to transition into.
Virtual communication will continue to be a necessary tool for facilitating remote work. And as companies anticipate the future needs of employees, stakeholders and consumers, it remains a critical component of a resilient business model.
Moving forward, virtually
Now that the modern workspace has almost universally adopted video conferencing and remote work wherever it’s possible, how do we continue moving forward and leverage virtual communication tools? I believe there are several things important to include in any virtual workplace:
- Ensure flexibility and adaptability. One thing the pandemic did to our projects was to add quite a bit of risk. We had to shift from cubicle based co-location to fully remote team members. Conferences and event organizers (projects) had to recreate their large in-person gatherings as virtual events. By using virtual communication tools such as application and screen sharing, chats, breakout rooms, etc., project managers can emulate what they would do if they were hosting the same meeting in a conference room or in their offices.
- Make it simple and easy for transparent communication. One thing we promote actively in project management is a breakdown of siloed communication. By moving things virtually, it tends to close people off. They are sitting alone in home offices or perhaps even a kitchen table and trying to “read the room” on a Zoom or Teams call. Insist upon open chats and open the floor for questions and follow up clarification. Don’t assume everyone understands what was presented based purely on their expression on camera. Direct communication can make leadership more visible and the project team has the opportunity to engage more often using digital communications.
- Recognize how virtual teams add resilience. In a recent Forbes article, Lynn Kier, VP of Corporate Communications at Diebold Nixdorf, states that savvy and strategic business will continue to assess their priorities and goals in a way that makes their organizations more resilient. She says, “In a matter of months, businesses around the world quickly adjusted to, accepted and learned from working in a virtual environment. Companies of all sizes embraced virtual communication tools to facilitate remote work and reviewed their business continuity plans and long-term strategies through a new lens.” (Kier, 2022)
- Recognize the need to increase security and privacy. While transparent communication is important as stated above, when working on projects in highly secure environments or working with citizens of certain countries (European Union and GDPR), we must maintain a secure and confidential work environment. Zoom, the popular video-conferencing platform that is used by both businesses and schools, has been heavily associated with security flaws. (Smith, 2022) For example, Zoom’s privacy policies seemed to give the company the ability to do whatever it wanted to with users’ personal data and encryptions. Just like certain meetings on projects need to remain confidential and private, make sure to incorporate those features into your virtual project team environment.
- Understand and respect what virtual communication can do for your project team. While the original goal of remote work was to keep people safe from spread of a disease, companies also realized that virtual communication can support professional development. Lessons learned by quite a few project managers I know included the following observations after working a project in a pandemic: Teams were more efficient by increasing work flexibility, facilitating collaboration, empowering introverted employees through initiatives focused on inclusivity, and enhancing productivity using video conferencing tools. Just remember that feedback becomes even MORE important in a virtual environment. Encourage the use of memes, emoticons, and other tools to give off the non-verbal responses we tend to look for in a physical meeting.
Overall, there will always be a slight advantage for project teams that are physically co-located. However, I know as time goes by we can continue to improve our virtual teams and the communication involved in successful projects. Now, pardon me as I go do my virtual Sprint retrospective. Zoom is calling!
Kier, L., 2022. Council Post: Virtual Communication Is Vital To Business Resilience. [online] Forbes. Available at: <https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescommunicationscouncil/2020/09/16/virtual-communication-is-vital-to-business-resilience/?sh=3badb4a77d15> [Accessed 15 July 2022].
Smith, A., 2022. New Zoom update will make it more difficult for people to ‘Zoombomb’. [online] The Independent. Available at: <https://www.independent.co.uk/tech/zoom-update-new-features-latest-zoombomb-hacking-a9501136.html> [Accessed 15 July 2022].
Communication in the Time of Covid-19: Navigating the New Normal (https://brandequity.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/marketing/communication-in- the-time-of-covid-19-navigating-the-new-normal/7550115)