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The powerful impact of COVID-19 on the Transformation and Projects space

​Our Divisional lead for Business Transformation, Paul McCann, sat down with long-time friend and client Ben Irons – a Senior Program Manager at the University of Sydney.

Some insights into the impact of COVID-19 on the Transformation and Projects world – and what to do about it

Ben and I started with a question: Do we agree that post-COVID there has been a general shift to a more flexible hybrid working model across businesses and organisations?

We agreed that from both of our perspectives, this happened in the post-COVID years...

Ben started by observing what we can see happening at Twitter recently - they are trying to get all workers back on site. Elon Musk has said it’s not fair that some workers must work onsite and others don’t have to – so it should be uniform across all of their teams.

Ben wondered if this should be the case – should it instead be much more flexible and tailored to the different requirements of different types of jobs? For example, considering white collar vs. blue collar workers in a mining company – the former workers don’t need to be on a physical site, whereas the latter does.

It begs an important question for the environments within which transformation & project professionals operate – we really need to consider the nature of people’s work and where this work happens.

Opportunities and risk

We concluded there are both opportunities and risks to working from home.

The worker really benefits; no suit and tie/having to dress up formally every day and no commute to the office.

There are benefits to the organisation also. Happy employees would be more productive employees and there is obviously a lower cost of real estate: you don't have to house people on site so much.

With the rise of hybrid working – people have busy lives and working from home is different to working in the office. It is possible to more effective in one as opposed to the other.

Ben thinks there are really two fundamental characteristics of people who can work from home, they are:

  1. Motivated

  2. Capable.

This however does put a lot of pressure on leadership and hiring the right people into the right roles.

Ultimately the key as a leader or organisation is being able to find people who can operate in the two – it is all about balance.

Hot tip for leaders and line managers

Ben observes that people often want 3 crucial things from their role – which are rooted in human psychology and behavioural traits:

  1. Some autonomy on how they do things

  2. To feel their work is meaningful & worthwhile

  3. To be recognised for doing good work

If leaders can successfully ensure their staff connect with these three things then no matter how teams are working (hybrid, onsite or offsite), people will be happy.

And if a business is also set up in a successfully co-located way, they will be productive.

There is also risk involved. We heard about the silent resignation – people who were clearly not motivated or giving their all.

Ben observed that some of the hardest to avoid risks are for new or quite young staff i.e. graduates. In fully remote organisations it can be hard to get a sense of that workplace culture for graduates. When people are learning a job for example – how do they talk to each other, who do they ask questions, how do they pick up the right kind of behaviours– these are harder things to learn remotely. The learning curve would be more difficult.

Whereas with a successfully co-located business, the physical presence of other people who are good at the job can help newer/younger staff pick up how to do things quickly.

Hybrid working in the project management space

Ben explained there are really important parts of working in the office that are fundamental to delivering projects and programs, specifically activities around problem solving, whiteboarding and ideation – things like this.

These are a lot more fun when you are working with people in the same room – you can bounce ideas off each other more quickly and effectively.

Working in the office is also handy for having tough conversations with staff, or when negotiating with suppliers. When there is nuanced non-verbal communication, being face to face co-located is a lot more effective:

  • People are less inclined to behave badly

  • More flowing, more productive conversations

  • Better more engaged interactions

This is fundamentally important in the project/transformation world – for engaging with stakeholders on change is probably the most important part of the job.

The rise of the generalist and the project resourcing model

The project world is moving towards a different resourcing model, along with shifting the skill set required to operate successfully within it.

Resourcing model shift

Ben confirmed that he has seen businesses moving away from clearly defined project teams with “project SMES”, to a more matrix or functional resourcing model.

This functional resourcing model has seen the world of “BAU” or operations increasingly merging with the project world. For example, you may have a project SME or two – such as a Program Manager like Ben – leading and guiding a team of operational BAU staff to deliver projects.

Ben doesn’t view this as going particularly successfully in terms of organisations seeing the results that they expect. Operational staff are busy – for example, they can typically be difficult to get in the room for a one hour meeting: “Something came up, I'd have to cancel that one, please. We'll do it next week. You need to address this, this urgent thing here”.

From a BAU perspective cancelling the meeting due to an urgent operations issue is the right prioritisation call.

But the net result from a projects perspective is that meetings will more often get cancelled than if you had a more dedicated project team and the progress of the actual change/program is slower and less effective.

Rise of the generalist/hybrid

In my role as a recruiter, I have seen a lot of clients asking for candidates who are effective at combining skillsets within a specific part of the Projects/Transformation world.

For example, my clients look to hire Senior Change Managers who can combine the skillset of a senior Change role with a more junior Change role – for example, a Change Analyst.

They actively look to hire candidates who are happy to and can demonstrate doing both roles – the strategy, plans and interactions of a SCM, with the change impact assessments, communications artefacts etc. of a Change Analyst.

This differs potentially from the world “pre covid” – where the size of project/change teams were bigger. Things operate in a more lean way now.

Advice for people/candidates navigating this shifting world

Building on the idea of balance, Ben urged people to find something that's a good fit for them.

People are different. They have different working preferences and not everyone wants to work on projects – they come with a lot of ambiguity and can be highly pressurised.

Other people love it! Ben loves it and can't imagine doing anything different. It suits his preferences and ultimately his personality type.

There are a few things for people to consider when they are thinking about the environment and role that you will get the best out of them:

  • Try to learn more about yourself and align the work you do accordingly

  • Think about the characteristics of the workplace which you will thrive in – what’s the organisational culture like, what is the nature of the work itself

  • BAU is probably the way to go if you like stability and predictability

  • If you want something a bit more exciting, to be challenged, to be pushed out of your comfort zone – then project work might be a good option.

​And if you decide that the project world is your path, we agree this needs people who are versatile and adaptable, as it can help bridge skillset gaps across different disciplines.

For example, operational people who transition into a broader business technology & strategy context are becoming very valuable in the market – due to the very agnostic project & change world.

Over and above this, being able to communicate in all situations and areas is of critical importance. Ben shares a story around 'Wendy’s Lovely List', which effectively summarises some simple tips that people can utilise no matter where they are working

Wendy’s Lovely List

  1. Set the tone – Start with a compliment. It’s easy and it’s free! “Hi Jill, thanks so much for the thing you did, it was really amazing and I appreciate it”.

  2. Rephrase statements as questions – “Right team, let’s do this for everyone. Do you think it would be a good idea if we do X…” Let the team feel like they’re included in the conversation

  3. Manage your own expectations! – Remind yourself to not expect too much from others. It should help you not be frustrated when such and such isn’t delivered in the way I would have expected and will help you communicate from there in a more reasonable & collaborative tone.

Finally, Ben suggests that people keep an open mind, and do their own research around the issue of remote working vs. hybrid working etc.

Try to think more critically, be more curious, ask more questions and really unpack what is true and what's just an opinion. For example, around the nature of work. When is it true that it's better, demonstrably better to be co-located, working face to face than when not, as an example?

​Alternatively, if you are a leader and thinking about how you set up your teams – just because you as a leader may have a certain preferred way of working – you potentially need to overcome your own inadequacies to think about the preferences of others

If you are able to step back, think critically, and make an informed decision having considered a variety of options – in the long term it will deliver better long term results. 100%.

To summarise

  • Flexible and adaptive communication – Think about your audience, use positive language, and

  • Critical thinking and curiosity – Don’t assume what you read is always true or make assumptions about what other people like/want. Make sure to use your grey matter and do your own research!

  • Versatility and adaptability – Understand what skillsets and experience you have, and how it fits into other areas. What are the different arenas you have worked in and how can you adapt your skills to other roles

  • Motivation and preferences – Learn what it is that motivates you, what are you passionate about and what gets you out of bed in the morning

  • Hybrid working adaptation – Learn to identify different skill sets combined into one!

Watch our video series discussing these points, in our video library.

Thank you for reading, and please reach out to me here if you need or want any further advice on this subject – delighted to continue the conversation.

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