From Chaos to Cohesion

Project Professionals Must Adapt to New Rules If They Want Distributed Teams to Stick Together

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Rathidevi Vijayaraghavan, PMP, Reliance, Mumbai, India

BY A. WILKINSON

PORTRAITS BY PARIKSHIT RAO

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WARCHI / E+ / GETTY IMAGES

IT’S BEEN MORE THAN YEAR since the global pandemic left many project teams packing up their laptops and vacating the traditional office for the lockdown-driven home office. At the same time, school closures and shuttered child care centers left many working parents also toggling roles as de facto teachers and caretakers. The typical daily grind became anything but, with staggered and fractured schedules and remote meetings suddenly the norm.

But even after the coronavirus gets purged, many project teams likely will remain distributed, carving out their own brand of cohesion rather than relying on co-location and synchronized schedules to gel teams in real time.

Nearly 6 in 10 people expect to be working from home at least eight days a month, according to a 2020 global survey by Cisco. Several companies, including Twitter and Zillow, have extended work-from-home policies indefinitely. And, wherever the work gets done, team members don’t plan to relinquish their workday autonomy anytime soon. Three in four employees want to maintain flexibility in work schedules even after the pandemic has passed, according to a 2020 survey by HR and recruitment firm Adecco. Nearly the same ratio of executives agree and think now is the time to revisit the length of the workweek.

“I’m not sure if the project work that has moved off-site will go back to the way it was,” says Kristopher Sprague, PMP, PgMP, PfMP, head of clinical project planning and scheduling, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Tarrytown, New York, USA. “Maybe team members only come in two or three days a week instead of five. There’s going to be more flexibility.”

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—Kristopher Sprague, PMP, PgMP, PfMP, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Tarrytown, New York, USA

How can project managers nurture team cohesion, even as team members remain scattered across different home offices, days in office and schedules? Project professionals share the hard-won habits they’ve cemented during the pandemic—that they plan to carry into the future.

RAMP UP COMMUNICATION—THE RIGHT WAY

Without a watercooler to huddle around or a conference room to congregate in, teams are missing out on a thousand conversations. By now, you may be feeling the cumulative weight of all those phantom interactions.

Plugging this communication deficit requires a strategic approach—simply bombarding your team with more emails could actually impede their productivity, says Rathidevi Vijayaraghavan, PMP, senior program manager at Reliance, Mumbai, India. Instead, a more immediate feedback loop can inform what critical information isn’t being properly disseminated and aid in devising practical solutions.

When leaders at Reliance began holding virtual town hall meetings during the pandemic to help their teams stay connected, for instance, juggling multiple schedules and time zones was an impediment, and the long meetings weren’t successful. But Vijayaraghavan found her project team thrived with twice-daily 15-minute catch-up calls, one around the start of the day and one near the end of the day. That way, the team could share their goals in the morning and update progress (or flag challenges) in the late afternoon.

“By the middle of the day, you will have had so much going on between work and home and kids. You tend to lose yourself. So that afternoon meeting has worked out well,” says Vijayaraghavan.

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—Rathidevi Vijayaraghavan, PMP, Reliance, Mumbai, India

Enhancing communication among stakeholders doesn’t always require new solutions, though— sometimes it comes down to smartly tweaking a preexisting communique. Such was the case for Sprague and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals. On the first of each month, Sprague sends out a message to about 150 stakeholders his department deals with, detailing the team’s accomplishments over the past month and looking ahead to goals for the coming month, while also reiterating that his team is available to answer questions or address concerns.

Since the pandemic started, “we’ve put forth more of an effort behind that communication and included more stakeholders on it, just to try to facilitate communication, because we’re not in the office and you can’t have those quick hallway conversations,” Sprague says.

Stakeholder feedback has been positive, with many saying the brief message provided information they didn’t already have.

STREAMLINE SYSTEMS

With the rise of the digital workplace has come a slew of solutions meant to keep us connected and informed. But as teams adopt these technologies (often piecemeal), it can become increasingly unclear where to find vital information. Is the risk register being maintained on the company server or on a cloud-based communication platform? At what point should team members skip messaging and use software to schedule a virtual call? Who on the team is responsible for archiving stakeholder communications—and where?

In a September Wakefield Research survey of 900 global executives, 60 percent reported their organizations still lacked a fully integrated system to manage digital workflows. But getting everyone on the same page and using the same systems can mean the difference between teams feeling scattershot and serene. If there are five different shared drives, databases or programs that store similar types of information, consider cleaning house, says Jerome Huet, PMP, project manager, Sandvik Rock Processing Plant Solutions, Paris.

“Before, I had a folder on my drive, a folder on the company network, and I was sharing some things on different software solutions,” says Huet. “But now we’re trying to use one integrated system.”

This streamlining could even be as simple as making sure teams have clear documentation. For instance, before the pandemic, Sprague compiled a robust onboarding slide deck for new team members. Now, unable to onboard new staff in person, he and his team have found this document especially handy.

“It’s made the transition pretty much seamless,” Sprague says. “In fact, the new team members who have joined the team have said that it’s probably the smoothest hiring process that they ever went through.”

MAKE TIME TO SOCIALIZE

Working toward a common goal is a powerful unifier—but it can’t be the only glue holding your team together. Collegial bonds are key, and project managers should create and facilitate opportunities to strengthen these ties.

“You can talk about things that are not work related—what’s going on in the world or the holidays,” says Sprague, whose team participates in 30-minute virtual meetings three times a week.

Many teams opt for an organized activity during their virtual time together—whether it be a trivia contest, murder mystery party or even a cooking class with ingredients sent directly to each employee’s home ahead of time. But these gatherings needn’t be heavy-lift (or heavy-expense) events—in fact, research by the University of California-Santa Cruz published in December found that just giving employees time and space for unstructured talk builds “reciprocity in conversation.” The idea is simple: When people who are working on a project—especially one in which the power dynamic isn’t equal—are able to engage in a balanced, two-way conversation with one another, task enjoyment levels increase.

As a project leader, creating reciprocity in conversation can be as simple as calling your team members occasionally to ask how they are and inquire about their life, while also sharing something about your own life (be it that dog you just adopted or a favorite new recipe).

Sprague has also found a quick call to a team member to be a good way to celebrate wins, by thanking them personally for their contribution and offering that recognition they deserve.

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TOP PHOTO: LISEGAGNE / E+ / GETTY IMAGES. BOTTOM: AGROBACTER / E+ / GETTY IMAGES

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PRACTICE EMPATHY

During the early months of the pandemic, team members’ homes were multipurpose spaces—office, classroom, gym. But interruptions and distractions won’t vanish overnight. With many offices opened at restricted capacity and most employees hoping to work from home at least some of the time, leaders need to be aware and accommodating of the moments in which the personal overlaps with the professional.

“With people working remotely, you have to be a little bit more empathetic,” says Sprague. “You may be on a call, and you hear dogs in the background or kids or perhaps service people coming to the door, and somebody’s got to jump off the call for a few minutes, then they’re back three minutes later. You may have to rehash that piece they missed.”

Increased responsibilities at home, coupled with the stress of a global pandemic, have taken a toll on many people’s mental health in a multitude of ways—whether anxiety, depression or loss of sleep. Some project managers are addressing this stressful time head-on by helping their team members develop coping strategies. Vijayaraghavan practices meditation in her own life and has taught her team some breathing exercises to help them deal with stress or feelings of being overwhelmed. It’s a simple technique, but it has proved helpful, she reports. PM

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

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