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Project management in times of pandemic

Business as usual, which means that projects stay unchanged

At the beginning of this year, we started preparations for the project of ERP system implementation at a client’s site in one of the Baltic countries. In February, we still had a few preliminary meetings on the spot, but then suddenly, we had to switch to fully remote working. And you know what? The project is implemented according to the assumed schedule. Could we imagine we’ll finalize the plan without another visit to the client? Yes, but when the epidemic is over, we’d probably prefer to go back to the traditional way of conducting projects. In many cases, it’s just easier, faster, and more enjoyable.

When successive European governments, including the Polish one, began to introduce restrictions on movement and closed borders, we were finalizing preparations for the project. It turned out that this is not a sufficient reason to stop us. As planned, at the end of April, we signed a contract, the operations started and are still going on – all remotely. Of course, a direct meeting with the client’s representatives at the beginning of the year was an advantage. We got to know each other a bit, but most of the activities were carried out remotely.

What is the biggest challenge?

We feel that in some situations, there is a lack of face-to-face contact. By being physically in one room, you can better assess the involvement of the participants. It is also much easier to feel if everything has been understood or if something has remained unclear to someone. Sure, you can also ask questions while working remotely. However, practice shows that not everyone is open enough to ask for something on their own initiative or to ask people to repeat themselves. If we are there, we observe someone’s behavior, not only the face but also body language, and make some assumptions then.

Long training sessions are also a challenge. Many people find it much easier to deal with a conference room than sitting in front of a computer screen in their own home or office. This situation is challenging, especially for the trainer, who has to speak almost all the time without seeing the participants. It slightly improves the situation if all the people taking part in the on-line training have the camera on. However, if the trainer does not see the participants and they do not ask any questions, he does not even know if they are on the other side and listen to him.

An additional difficulty with this project was that all communication with the client was in English. It should be added that it was not the mother tongue of any participant in the project. Moreover, some key users of the system did not speak English, and the project manager on the client side acted as an interpreter. This would be a hindrance even under traditional conditions, but remote working was a real challenge.

Someone might say that remote working and teleconferencing is not a novelty, as they were used as a standard in larger projects. That is true. When we were doing projects in Africa or Australia, it was clear that we could not be there all the time. On the other hand, when there was a need, we were there every two weeks. Specific activities in projects are usually carried out at the client’s premises. Processes are discussed on-site, configurations are developed. Due to the epidemic, it had to be remodeled. When there were problems in the project, you couldn’t just go and explain everything on the spot. You had to deal with it remotely.

And we’ve done it. The project is proceeding according to the plan. Difficulties can be solved, and so far, the issue of returning to the traditional way of working does not arise.

But we are still wondering: will it stay that way or will we go back to what was before? In projects that are carried out far from Poland, the business trips of consultants have always been a significant cost. Now that customers find out that remote working can be effective, they will be willing to reduce travel expenses.

However, for local projects, there will still be room for face-to-face meetings.

Analysis, requirements development, solution design, configuration – these activities are the easiest and quickest to perform at the customer’s premises. When we have a question, it’s easiest to go to someone’s desk and ask them. It takes much less time than making an on-line appointment or even making a phone call – if someone doesn’t answer, we don’t even know why, and you have to make more calls to find out; and if you don’t get someone at your desk, you can ask someone sitting next door right away. Everything can be done remotely, but it usually takes longer and is more complicated. You’re wasting a lot of time with this. A few lost minutes every day for such trivial reasons can translate into severe delays.

To sum up: can we imagine that we close the project without visiting the client? Yes, but still, during the final tests, we would prefer to be on the spot so that we can see if everyone is doing the planned tasks, and if a minor mistake occurs, it can be corrected immediately. After all, project management is all about working with people. So, see you at the project.