COVID-19 has pushed leaders in the design industry and beyond to develop new strategies to manage an increasingly untethered workforce.
Managing workloads across multiple offices has never been more challenging; especially with many staff also working remotely during the unexpected COVID-19 pandemic. The ever-changing technological advances have certainly helped, especially with collaborative platforms like Microsoft Teams or Zoom.
Everyone should develop their own style of managing workloads and project teams across multiple offices. What works for one does not necessarily work for all. But here are some strategies that will most likely cause you to fail. Don’t:
- Be hands-off
- Delegate all the responsibility and none of the authority
- Fail to communicate
- Let technology replace face-to-face communication
COVID-19 is pushing us to develop new strategies to manage our increasingly untethered workforce, and, from my experience, there are many best practices you should be utilizing for project success across multiple offices. But managing really begins and proliferates with a great first kickoff meeting.
Our teams are often assembled with staff of differing specializations – a challenge for sure, but also an excellent opportunity to develop synergy and relationships. The kickoff meeting ensures that everyone not only knows their own role, but each other’s roles as well. Getting everyone on the same page at the beginning is vital to having successful communication throughout the project’s lifecycle.
Some of the tools we use to develop staff, create team synergy, and bond as a company across our nine offices include:
- Building time into projects for face-to-face collaboration early on in a project. This improves collaboration during the project and leads to more efficiently executed, innovative, and profitable projects for the company.
- Having all team members work at the office closest to the project site for a day or two to get familiar with the project location and develop relationships with other team members.
- Encouraging managers to schedule time to work at remote offices and develop relationships with remote office staff.
- Planning out of office activities with other staff will not only benefit the development of younger staff, but it will also help them integrate into the culture of the company more thoroughly.
How do you strike a balance that will enhance staff growth and produce a successful project execution that maximizes productivity, efficiency, and greater profit? The costs of working remotely in person hours, office space, overnight lodging, and travel time are all real. It is important to establish a plan that is implemented early in the project to maximize initial team face-to-face communication and “set the stage” for communication throughout the rest of the project.
This initial step should be limited in its duration with a goal of establishing relationships and project knowledge that can build through the rest of the project as team members work from their home offices. It’s incumbent on project managers to maximize the benefits you get from working remote – team lunches, project site visits, and introductions to other non-team staff. Ultimately, you want to build long-lasting relationships.
These new relationships will provide the company with many additional benefits including employee retention in a market where good people are hard to find. This approach to initial project team development will also benefit staff with a deeper understanding of the diversity of work the company provides.
From the get-go, my approach is to be hands-on – knowing and understanding each team member’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s critical that those working in other offices, or remotely, be engaged and enjoy what they are doing.
You should provide staff with the task goal/objective, timeline, and budget, but empower them to lead and take ownership of their tasks.
Communicate, communicate, and communicate. There is no substitute for great communication in managing workloads and project teams no matter where they are located, especially if they are working remotely.
You also need to stay connected, and regular check-ins work best. Schedule and hold progress meetings via Zoom or similar video-conferencing tools. We are all learning quickly the value of this tool with the current COVID-19 crisis.
Project reporting is another form of communicating, but it’s also the project manager’s job to review reporting on a regular basis. Let your staff tell you what they have completed and then follow up – trust, but verify. Roll up your sleeves and see for yourself if the work is done.
Routine quality assurance checks are also important throughout the project. Finding issues early and communicating them before too much time and effort is spent going down the wrong track is critical for any project to be successful. Don’t wait until 80 or 90 percent completion. By then, it could be too late.
And finally, even though you should stay current on the latest technology, there is no substitute for face-to-face communication. We strive to be a “face-first firm,” even though we have multiple offices and project teams in two states. You should, too.
Reliance on email, text, instant messaging, and other forms of electronic communication has generally resulted in greater team communication, more project efficiencies and higher profit, but it does not paint a full picture of the best communication styles.
A reliance on electronic communication can negatively impact professional relationship building and integration into the company culture. It also limits staff to critical exposure needed for professional growth and career diversification.
David Bluhm, PE, is the West Michigan Group Manager and an Associate at Fleis & VandenBrink. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.