How To Keep Your Pandemic Project Productive


  1. Set realistic priorities — be pragmatic about what’s achievable
  2. Build a team — use virtual workshops to build belonging
  3. Build a plan — use collaboration tools to flesh out what needs to be done
  4. Set expectations clearly — focus on outputs and drive for results
  5. Manage poor performance — be empathetic but emphatic

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, many organisations are now beginning to think that everyone working at home all of the time isn’t such a good thing after all and one of the reasons for that is that project deadlines are starting to be missed.

I wrote recently that flexibility wasn’t about everyone working from home, but providing the option for all staff to work from anywhere, based on the work that they’re doing. Work requires a mix of alone time, team time and opportunities for spontaneous interactions. These interactions can — and should — involve a mix of in-person and remote work.

As humans we are hardwired to work together and every achievement in our history has involved some form of collaboration. Edison had a team of skilled people behind him at Menlo Park in order to create the light bulb. And even though Marie Curie is credited with the discovery of radium and polonium, it was very much a family affair.

Remote work may be the default at the moment, however, organisations still need to ensure that opportunities for team time and spontaneous interactions are still provided. Not only from a mental health perspective, but also to ensure that team belonging remains strong, ideas continue to flow and, crucially, accountability for delivery remains a priority.

What was surprising to me about the Wall Street Journal article was the inference that organisations were good at hitting project deadlines pre-pandemic. That they were good at justifying the need for a product, then building a team, a plan and ensuring that there was discipline to deliver.

Had that been the case then the Project Management Institute would not have said this in the Pulse of the Profession report last year, ‘Despite all the talk, project performance isn’t getting any better.’ And the bar was low to begin with. They found that almost 12% of project investment was wasted and when you consider that the world will spend over $6tn worldwide on projects every year, that number will be fairly significant.

But it needn’t be that way, with a few tweaks, some investment and performance management of people it could all be so much different. Here are some suggestions to keep your pandemic project productive. Oh and these suggestions will also work post-pandemic too.

1. Set realistic priorities

If people have children at home then they simply don’t have the same amount of productive hours in their days that they used to at work. I know this myself. It’s not just about ensuring that they’re set up to do their school work from home, it’s also about helping to manage their mental health (as well as your own). If they don’t have children at home then the question is ‘what’s realistically possible with the people and skills you have?’. Most organisations were great at overpromising and underdelivering pre-pandemic, so I don’t expect this has changed much. If you want to hit deadlines and avoid wastage, then you need to rethink your priorities, ensure there is a good case for doing each one, then make them public.

2. Build a team

Still a chronically overlooked step of delivering a successful project is the fact that there has to be a sense of belonging between those people working on it, BEFORE they start work. This is something I’m helping clients with every week at the minute. (And yes, this can be done virtually, don’t wait or let your mindset get in the way.) Engagement in a project doesn’t just magically happen because a business case has been approved and a senior manager is excited about it. There needs to be a sense of togetherness, aspiration, collaborative understanding and urgency that exists between members in order to create a plan to deliver anything. A series of workshops should be run to build this connection and to define the culture required to be successful. You can only have accountability when people know what they’re accountable for.

3. Build a plan

I know, by this point you feel like I’m stating the obvious and trust me, I think that too. But I still can’t believe how many ‘Nike’ project sponsors there are out there. ‘Just Do It!’ they’ll cry in the hope that speeding through the most important part of a project won’t have a negative effect. It will. It’s crucially important that the sponsor provides time for the project manager to work with the team to build something that will deliver the products from which the organisation will get the benefits. Just because people aren’t in the office, doesn’t mean this work can’t happen. Post-its can still be used at home, or else tools like Trello or Basecamp can be used to capture tasks. Virtual whiteboards are also available to ensure that risks or other notes can be captured too. I use Miro with my clients.

4. Set expectations clearly

As part of the team-building process it should be agreed how everyone will work together and interact. How work will be monitored and progress maintained. A big part of that will be to ensure that expectations around behaviour and performance are set. If people don’t know what’s expected of them and by when, then hitting deadlines is going to be tough to do (as is performance management, see below). The outputs expected — and the behaviours to produce them — by the end of the week should be communicated unambiguously so that there’s a 99% chance of achieving them. If there’s any confusion at all the targets will be continually missed. These should always be face-to-face sessions (video or in-person) to ensure that there are no crossed-wires around expectations. You may want to use your collaboration tool to post what’s expected from the team so that accountability is shared.

5. Manage poor performance

During the pandemic, we’ve seen lots of empathy and vulnerability and organisations have worked hard to look after their people and have consequently built lots of emotional capital. This is fantastic news as people such as myself have been calling for this kind of cultural approach for years. However, performance still needs to be maintained. Everyone has to put a shift in, do their job well and not let other team members down. Where they do, then empathy should always be the first response. Understand what the root cause of the performance or behaviour issue is before proceeding. As I wrote about two weeks ago, vibrant cultures don’t carry passengers and projects are no exception. Again, these are face-to-face interactions and email should only be used to confirm the actions to be taken. You should involve your HR department from the start and ensure due process is followed to help the person lift their performance or else are removed from the team.

The key difference between projects that are productive and those that aren’t can be attributed to one of these five things — pandemic or otherwise. Not being in the same space offers an opportunity for innovation not cultural stagnation. The future success of your projects depends on which option you take.

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Best-selling Author of Culture Fix | Keynote Speaker | Facilitator | Devoted Dad | Evertonian | Whisky Lover | Likes to laugh, a lot