It would be an understatement to say that project managers have had to deal with a lot of change this year. Projects have had their budgets vastly reduced or been cancelled outright, and remote work has become the norm rather than the exception. We are still far from the end of the pandemic, but in those areas where they have successfully flattened their first waves, some companies are starting to encourage their staff to return to the office.
For PMs who now have to adjust to being in the office with their team members, things are not as simple as winding the clock back a half-year or so. They will face a number of challenges including:
- Planning for a combination of on site and remote team members
- Scheduling in person meetings with added complexities of safe physical distancing and people’s working arrangements
- Helping their team members (and themselves!) cope with the stress and natural fears of returning to the office
So how can a PM prepare for the transition and what should they do once they get back?
- Review the arrangements their employer has made to keep staff safe and raise any concerns they have before returning to the office. Don’t assume team members are doing the same, so take the time to do a mini-onboarding with them upon their return to the office in the event that their employer’s HR or health and safety departments are not already doing this. If team members are hesitant to communicate their concerns to those who can do something about it, advocate for your team members with these decision makers.
- Review working agreements with the team. Since some team members will now be working in person and others will continue to be remote, rules of engagement might need to evolve to ensure that remote workers don’t feel like second-class citizens.
- Plan for unforeseen absences. While the risk of some team members being unavailable was present even while they were working from home, the likelihood of risk realization is increased due to the increased complexity of coming back to the office. Even something as simple as getting to one’s cubicle could be delayed due to the lengthened time for commuting or for taking the elevator to one’s floor. Timing for regularly scheduled meetings may need to be adjusted to allow for this.
- Enhance co-location benefits. While the entire team might not be able to be in the office at once due to capacity restrictions, determine which combinations of team members might give the best bang-for-the-buck from a collaboration perspective and structure team rotation based on that.
- Keep your second (or third or fourth) wave plan up-to-date. Just because in person work has resumed, doesn’t mean things can’t revert to the way it has been very quickly. Develop and regularly review contingency plans which could be implemented if some or all of the team is required to go back to working remotely.
- Frequently take the pulse of the team. Now more than ever, PMs will need to cultivate psychological safety within their teams so that team members feel comfortable sharing their fears and doubts with one another.
When the pandemic hit, many project teams were caught off guard. Project managers should heed the adage “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me“.