Project Management Institute

Remote Reality Check: What’s Next for Virtual Teams

Transcript

STEVE HENDERSHOT

We’ve all been forced to make adjustments in the COVID era. But the change has been especially extraordinary for people leading teams. They’ve not only had to figure out how to effectively work from home for themselves, but also how to modify their leadership styles and team cultures to fit the new virtual reality. But that effort could have a huge payoff as we all try to sketch out what the future of work might actually look like.

KUSH DHILLON

I think this is a time for leaders to actually lead in a sense of they’re saying to people: “We’re going to move everything forward, but we’re also going to think very carefully of what is going to work and not going to work.” And we’re not coming back with an instant, “This is it. This is the new normal.” We’re going to take you on the journey with us.

NARRATOR

The world is changing fast. And every day, project professionals are turning ideas into reality—delivering value to their organizations and society as a whole. On Projectified®, we’ll help you stay on top of the trends and see what’s ahead for The Project Economy—and your career.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

This is Projectified®. I’m Steve Hendershot.

It’s starting to feel like the world is turning the corner on COVID-19, with many people in the office and others making plans for their big return. But will the world of work go back to the way it was before?

No. Because we’ll return to a different world, a world in transition, a world where remote work could be business as usual for many teams. In 2021, a hybrid model—mixing on-site and remote workers—will likely be the new norm. And companies may be forced to make the shift if they want to keep younger workers. Deloitte found that more than 60 percent of millennials and Gen Z workers said when the COVID-19 crisis is over, they’d like the option to work remotely more frequently.

Lots of organizations already have the technology needed to connect teams and enable them to deliver. But the impacts from this shift go deeper. How should leaders change their styles and strategies to adapt to a world where work relationships and team dynamics are going to look so different? How do you build cohesion and a sense of shared vision among people who seldom have face-to-face contact? 

Our sponsor for this episode is PMTraining.com. From live virtual classes to online courses available on demand, PMTraining equips students to earn PMI certifications including the Project Management Professional, or PMP®. And Projectified® listeners are eligible for discounts of up to $400 per class; just enter the link PMTraining.com/podcast.

For insight into the future of virtual teams, we’ve turned to project leaders who are wrestling with these issues themselves. We’ll begin with Marco De Santis, project management office digital transformation manager at Telecom Italia Mobile in Rome.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT 

Describe your leadership style. And how did the transition to remote work force you to modify that style?

MARCO DE SANTIS

Before the pandemic, I used to be at the office, and I worked with, more or less, 25, 28 people. And I used to be very close to the people.

I think that a leader, modern leader, should be empathic, flexible, creative and has to be very close to the people, to the resources, because the team is very important. I think that the pandemic moment helped us to put in place what a modern leader should have: soft skills, empathy, relation based on the soul and the heart. Not only the brain, not only the mind. My vision, my concept of leadership, is human and empathy-based leadership. It’s not only, “I do because I’m smart, I’m clever.” No, because no man is an island. And I think only staying together we can reach the result, the goal and the objectives.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

When everything first moved remote, what were the challenges; what were the struggles? Things that you would have liked to do or were used to doing in person that you now had to adapt, and what were the adaptations?

MARCO DE SANTIS

I try to be creative. I try to be flexible. Since the beginning, I tried to better know my team. Someone I knew before; other was a new entry in my project. And so, I tried to observe. I leave the people to express [themselves] without limitation, even in virtual environment. And after that, I try to arrange a way to work together. For example, if I see someone brave and someone friendly, and I see one resource that is not so friendly, I’ll try to understand how I can put together the people. For example, it was very, very funny because I say, “Okay, we have to find out a little time to make team building. And let’s try to see each other half an hour to read a poem.” And the people say, “A poem? What’s up, man? Are you crazy?” “Why not?” I say. And I remember I feel that I succeeded, and I won.

The people want to be a part of something. In the past, you can do it easily because we can take coffee together; we can go to have lunch. Something like that. But the needs of people are to stay together and to be a part of something, even something virtual.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

You’re working with some people you’ve known for a long time, but others who are new during this remote era. I imagine that with the folks you know, you can kind of infer some things about how they’re doing and what they’re thinking through email and video, but that’s not true for the newbies. So how do you go about building the same kind of relationship with them?

MARCO DE SANTIS

But you know, every manager has in group some focal point, no? Some team leader, and I ask these people to help me to do it. If you never meet someone, it’s very difficult to share your vision and to say, “Okay, you should do this; you should do that.” I try to put the people all together and to see what’s happening. Even my old colleagues and the newbie, I put together and I was sure that something positive could happen. I have to be honest, I didn’t use any specific or very, I don’t know, clever tools or technique or competencies. I use my soft skill as before, as in previous period. It was so, so natural.

One of the most important messages that I shared was that always we have to respect the ground rules. Every group, every team has to be very clear that we should respect each other, and we have our workflow—not the perfect or the correct—our workflow. Maybe it’s the most important thing to start up a group—establish the ground rules and respecting each other. I think it’s quite enough to have the ground to build the palace.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

What do you expect the future of work to look like? Will things go back to the way they were, or will we all continue to work in the way that we are or some sort of hybrid? And if it’s a hybrid, what do you think that will look like?

MARCO DE SANTIS

But I think that it’s very, very, very important to understand that we can’t go back. We have in front a very hard and tough period because we weren’t prepared to face this kind of workflow. So up to me, in a very short time we should rethink ourselves as a person and as professional. And absolutely, a hybrid system, combination solution should be in place. Because, I mean me, I’m in my office two times a week. In the future, maybe we won’t change. Two or three times a week at the office, in presence, and two or three times a week in virtual. And it will be our future, absolutely.

We have to rethink ourself. We have to redesign the relation, and we have to rethink the business flow. Hybrid solution is the only solution. I don’t know the percentage; I mean, should it be 50/50, 60/40? I don’t know. I don’t know, but absolutely a hybrid solution.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

Something Marco touched on a few times was the added challenge of checking in on people remotely—those informal interactions that aren’t always strictly work-related but can help leaders get a sense of how their people are doing—whether they’re fired up, frustrated or somewhere in between.

That topic also comes up with our next guest, Kush Dhillon, a senior engagement manager at Capgemini in London. She told Projectified®’s Hannah Schmidt how she’s leaning on what PMI calls power skills—like empathy and innovative mindset—to fit a new work paradigm.

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HANNAH SCHMIDT

What role do power skills, like empathy, communication and collaboration, play when you’re leading teams virtually, and is there a particular skill that you’ve used most often?

KUSH DHILLON

Yeah, so it’s a real change, right? We have a very distributed company, so there’s a lot of people I work with offshore, onshore. A lot of us had practical skills around using video communications, being on calls a lot, which is a lot of our meetings. But, because all the face-to-face interactions and facilitated collaboration had gone, what I found myself leaning on and working with with the virtual teams I have now was everybody got on with setting up meetings and still getting their work done, but certain parts of our day became more important. Things like standups became much more important. Because we weren’t having a face-to-face interaction, we did things like have virtual tea meetings or virtual end-of-week catch ups where we would all have our videos on, and we would not talk about work at all. We would just chat to people, see how they’re doing.

Me, individually, I found that as a lead I had to switch gears, and I had to lead more empathetically around talking to people individually. Phoning people up to just say, “I’m just checking to see how you are.” Normally, I’d have one-to-ones anyway in the week, but they were very work orientated. But now, they were orientated to basically almost diffuse the work-life boundary with myself and the people that I worked with. So, it was asking how they were, were they getting the support they needed? How was the family? Talking to them about just how they are feeling about COVID and that, spending more time maybe talking about that mental health component than I normally would, or I normally would get that because I would be face to face with the person, and there’s so much you can understand from body language that you don’t gain that from a video call. So, it was really forming more interpersonal bonds and with the real intent that you want to make sure that people understand that you are asking about how they were doing. Not necessarily how they were doing in work or in the projects that they need to deliver.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

With COVID-19 disrupting how we work—now and in the future—how do you see leadership evolving?

KUSH DHILLON

I have more questions than I have answers at the moment. Leadership will definitely evolve. I know I worked in organizations who didn’t believe in working from home. They wanted to see their workers. They wanted to monitor people. Because productivity and quality has not reduced when people are working from home, I think leadership has already started to change in how they view people do not need to be shackled to an office or a desk.

From the sense of hybrid ways of working, there are so many things that we can improve on for people that aren’t just the ability to deliver. There are things like this could be the great leveler when it comes to in terms of gender equality or diversity. This could mean that you’re not shackled to where you live. So socially, kind of opens up the world. Many people can become a digital nomad. We can reexamine people’s skill sets to understand what we look for in leadership that will enhance a virtual environment. And at the same time, how can we build safety nets for people who maybe are used to being better on a face-to-face collaborative function? How can we increase their learning and make sure that everything we’ve learned in this time period will help us leverage what we do in the future?

However, at the same time, I think we need to balance that out with the fact that, yes, we can have more distributed teams. Yes, we can have more hybrid ways of working, but we also need to balance that out with the fact that there is nothing like working in a team face to face and working to solve a solution, talking to people. It’s not just about the words that come out of our mouth; it’s the physicality and what we read from people and how we empathize with them.

We’ve had to react because of COVID very fast, but now COVID is easing, or hopefully it’s easing. We now need to have a moment to think what worked, what didn’t work, and we need to put it back to the workers and the workforce and say, “This is what worked. Are you happy with this? Do you want to continue this?” Is there ways of working that you want to put your hand up and say, “I never want to come into the office again,” compared to somebody who says, “You know, I miss everybody and I want to go into the office.” From a leadership perspective, it's very exciting.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

What skills do you think project leaders should focus on as everyone is transitioning into what the future world of work looks like?

KUSH DHILLON

I think the kind of skills that we need to focus on are communication. It’s such a big word that covers so many different areas, but how people talk to each other on a one-to-one compared to how people talk on a video conference is very different, and different people communicate in different ways. Some people communicate visually, some people communicate verbally, some people communicate via the written word. We almost need to go back to basics and say, “If this is going to be a virtual environment, and we’re going to work through all these amazing tools, such as Skype and Teams and Zoom, do we have the right tools? How do these tools work? Are they intuitive? Can we train people to make sure that they use the best out of these tools and also at the same time, teach them new ways of how they can improve their communications?”

The other key skill that I think that we need to build on is how do we process information and give it back to people? We gather information, we gather requirements, and we gather things that we need to do. How do we then take that information and display it in a way visually through the medium of video calls and through different media that we have that makes sense and it’s really clear and interesting? How can we improve people’s written word? How can we improve visuals? How can we make navigating daily life easier through kind of work-life balance?

I think the final one for me is how do we improve innovation? How do we become entrepreneurial without having to problem-solve with each other face to face? How do we make innovation? How do we become innovative and are able to build and have discussions to bring out new ideas and constantly be looking to improve what we’re doing? I think that innovation should not be just an exclusive club for a few people who maybe work in certain roles where it requires innovation. I think innovation should become number one, if not number two, below communication in everybody’s job. Because if we’re not all looking for ways to improve, we might unshackle ourselves from work in the sense of a video call, but we’re not unshackling ourselves with the admin that comes with it.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

What do you think is going to be the biggest change coming from this time of working virtually to returning into the office? What do you think is the biggest difference that we will all experience?

KUSH DHILLON

We’re going to see digital workplaces be a norm. We’re going to see flexible environments, or flexible ways of living, be a norm. We are going to see that switching to this remote work model overnight has allowed us to advance so much in the way that we structure our lives and the things we do around ourselves that going into office, it’s going to be optional now. It will allow people to still build that trust and build relationships through the countless small gestures and ways that we talk to each other when we’re face to face. But at the same time, if you don’t want that, or you don’t need that, it will be people switching to a model where they can be close to their families and do things that they love while still working. We will get messages from people, and we will get feedback loops from people and from professionals that we work to see what works for them, what doesn’t, and it’s almost going to be tailored to each individual.

Leadership has built confidence that we can deliver in a remote environment, and they’ve had to be reactive. And I think now, it’s almost that they have to sit back and look and see what works and what doesn’t work and build the rules around how people individually are tailoring their lives around work.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

Our sponsor, PMTraining, has done its fair share of helping prepare organizations to navigate the new ways of working. One example is PFU America Inc., a Fujitsu company based out of Sunnyvale, California in the U.S. Darrian White is the vice president of IT at PFU America, and Projectified®’s Hannah Schmidt spoke with him about leading virtually and how his work with PMTraining prior to the pandemic helped set him—and his team—up for success.

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HANNAH SCHMIDT

Let’s go back to when you first started your current role. You saw there were some project management gaps at the company. How did you fill those?

DARRIAN WHITE

I had been at Fujitsu prior. I returned in 2017. The one thing that I had seen that had evolved over time is there was a lack of a project standard of how projects were submitted, how projects were approved, and even really more critical was how they were judged on effectiveness after they were completed. We really did not have a definition, or if ROI, return on investment, was defined at the beginning of the project—no one ever really went back to determine if that was actually accomplished in the output of the project. Change management didn’t exist; really, cost management didn’t exist other than a budgetary number that was a target. It was a little disorganized when I returned.

With the remainder of the executive team, we came to a consensus that we needed to standardize on project management. We really needed to get these items under control, really make sure we were having effective projects, especially along the IT front. So we went out to look for a partner or a vendor that could assist us with it. We were able to come up on PMTraining, who was very useful in coming in to help us with trying to decide a methodology, make sure that not only project managers were on the same page, but we did a particular seminar with all of our executive team so they understood their roles in project management and sponsorship. It was able to put the entire organization in alignment on how projects should be run.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

How has the pandemic affected leading projects and teams in your department?

DARRIAN WHITE

It’s quite the challenge. This is really the first time my organization has worked remote. Just our corporate culture was people in seats every day, seeing everyone on the team. I won’t say it was a 9-to-5-type organization, but definitely people came into the office. The challenges that we’ve learned is that based off of that proximity that we used to have, there’s no more of those quick walk-in conversations or as easily accomplished. There was not any overhearing conversations in the cubicle area or by the conference room where you could stop and poke your head in. And then, to be very candid, I had a team that was very used to going up and whiteboarding things on office walls or in conference rooms, and losing that functionality and the communication that goes along with that was a big challenge at the beginning as well.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

How did the setup that you worked out with PMTraining help you during this time of huge disruption in how you worked? 

DARRIAN WHITE

I would say it was mission critical. During COVID-19, we’ve done an acquisition of our Canadian business unit. To do that, we were working logistically with people in a different country versus another Fujitsu organization that had supported them in the past that was transitioning them over to us. Being able to have my overall project manager, IT project manager, accounting project manager that had all been through PMTraining, understanding the expectations of what we should deliver, the documentation we expected along the way, the milestone tracking, it was invaluable. 

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

Making remote work actually work requires a series of adjustments—not just hammering out the tech and home-office boundaries, but a broader reimagining of teamwork, culture and the must-have skills required to lead effectively. We now have a year of experience under our belts, and project leaders around the world are getting a handle on what it will take to lead successful teams in the emerging, hybrid world of work. 

Thanks again to our sponsor, PMTraining.com. From live virtual classes to online courses available on demand, PMTraining equips students to earn PMI certifications including the Project Management Professional, or PMP. And Projectified® listeners are eligible for discounts of up to $400 per class; just enter the link PMTraining.com/podcast.

NARRATOR

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