Why are remote workers missing project deadlines?

Why are remote workers missing project deadlines?

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Why are remote workers missing project deadlines?

by Matt Gall
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Why are remote workers missing project deadlines?

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Understanding the productivity paradox

The lives of most office workers have changed dramatically over the past year. Working from home has become the norm, with meetings held via various video collaboration platforms and physical meetings all but eradicated from the corporate calendar.

For many, the additional commute-free time at the beginning and end of the day, coupled with fewer interruptions from trips to the coffee shop or cross-campus conference room hikes has led many people to proclaim they have “never been more productive”. For some, such benefits have been offset by the pressures of home schooling, the nursery run, other family support or even voluntary work. But for most, it’s fair to say opportunities to work more flexibly and efficiently have increased.

Certainly, the opportunity to allocate blocks of time to tasks that benefit from a single, focused train of thought will benefit many. Getting a management report written, a technical design complete or a strategy paper drafted are now much more likely to be achieved in a contiguous span of time with fewer distractions. However, despite the newfound productivity, concerns are being raised that project deadlines are not being met on time. In fact, some are suggesting timely project delivery is actually harder to hit now than pre-pandemic – despite all the additional “productivity” being generated through the enforced remote working. This is happening across all flavors of project lifecycle, with traditional waterfall projects impacted as well as agile, so what’s causing this apparent contradiction?

It’s not (just) what you say

Although some organisations already had some level of remote working within their organisation, it was rare pre-COVID for entire project teams to never have any physical face to face interactions. There would typically be a core of project members who were based in a common location, holding meetings in conference rooms or in other face to face physical locations. Since it’s believed  that in more than 90% of cases an audience will give more weight to nonverbal communication, there’s every likelihood that teams’ ability to communicate effectively will be dramatically reduced by not having in-room meetings. Even where video or other collaboration technology exists, the amount of body language or even voice tone that can be effectively communicated is reduced when compared with in-room meetings.

Zoom Zombies

At some point on almost every conference call, a question will be asked or an opinion sought to which the response is, “can you repeat the question please?”. This might be due to a problem with the audio or some other technical glitch, but usually the person being asked the question just wasn’t paying attention. Remote meeting attendees often claim that joining a conference call allows them to work on other things at the same time. Certainly, the opportunity to carry out other tasks while not being an active participant in a meeting can make the individual feel more productive, but the question needs to be asked – how much meeting content are people missing if they are unable to answer questions or points raised to them during a meeting? It’s quite possible that remote meetings are merely providing the illusion of governance and active participation – a problem more likely when people are remote than when sitting around the room, where it’s much easier to notice when you’ve lost the audience’s attention.

Stuck in a silo

With limited access to non-verbal communication and without active participation in remote meetings, project teams can begin to work in siloes of activity, with smaller teams of delivery operating independently of their peers. Whilst at an individual or squad level it is possible to be extremely productive, the broader impact on a program or project can actually be counterproductive, with deliverables from one silo being incompatible with the required inputs to another group. Where a team may already have a tendency to work in a silo, this is often exacerbated in the post-COVID world.

Dependency Jenga

One of the key impacts of the reduced level of communication is a project’s inability to accurately map all of its dependencies and consistently maintain the status and therefore be able to identify early issues or concerns. This has always been one of the key challenges of complex programs and projects, but it now becomes an even more important aspect of good project management. This is also true of any assumptions made, since it is now more likely that an individual or team could be left working in isolation without an awareness of any changing dates or priorities. If you’re plagued by Zoom Zombies, you’re probably not going to catch all the project’s dependencies and be left with a collapsing tower of project deadlines.

No more water-cooler insights

People are finding themselves so much more “productive” that there is no longer time in the day for what would previously have been corridor chats, informal catch-ups and gossip. These are vital communication mechanisms in a high performing team; sitting at a screen for 10 hours completing a specific task is not beneficial if it leads to the absence of a more informal conversation with peers and other team members. Staying strictly to the script of a formal steering committee or governance board is only going to surface a subset of the required discussion topics and in addition will leave many project members feeling isolated and lacking much needed social interaction.

How can we adjust our behavior to address these issues?

The challenges highlighted above are certainly not just COVID related – any remote team will be less effective as a group in certain aspects of delivery. But certainly the acceleration of companies’ digital workplace strategy will require project teams to be prepared to address these issues, regardless of the future ways of working prescribed by the pandemic.

Possible areas of focus include:

Proactively schedule “informal meetings” to replicate some of the less structured communication vital for successful project delivery. This could take the form of coffee breaks with other teams, post-meeting catch-up sessions with key stakeholders or use of skip level meetings which have always been popular, but which can now be even more important. It may be helpful to color code these in calendars to distinguish them from the “formal” project meetings (which themselves might be shortened to provide additional time for the less formal discussions to take place).

Consider how to read (and provide) non-verbal communication whilst remote working. Encouraging attendees to use video functionality where available is important when looking to optimise the productive output from a meeting. It’s a lot harder as the chair or organiser of a meeting to work out how much attention the audience is paying if they are only joining via audio. Similarly, a presenter can provide a much more nuanced message if including expressions and other body language. Humor can be particularly difficult to express without additional visual cues to support the intended message. Consider the Context in which the communication is taken (different movements can mean different things as situations dictate, Cluster (look for a collection of related movements, not one in isolation) and Congruence (check there is a consistency between words, voice and body movements). Also bear in mind that cultural differences can influence the messaging.

During the current restrictions, many organisations are adopting a “no meeting” hour in the day, to encourage staff to step away from their keyboards and screens in order to exercise outside, sit down with family or at least to take a break from back-to-back meetings. This is especially beneficial during the winter months, when daylight hours are fewer and opportunities to take a break outside are limited.

It’s already commonplace for major programs spanning multiple business units to have a dedicated communications lead. This role often combines both the external comms to consumers of the service being developed as well as that required for the successful internal co-ordination of the program itself. Going forward, it’s possible that all programs could benefit from either a dedicated comms manager, or at least having the role formalised somewhere within the program. It’s then someone’s job to consider the interactions inside the program as well as to a wider community.

Likewise, the activity of dependency management is something that should already be commonplace in projects; however, it may be a role worth calling out for additional focus in a fully remote-working scenario. This may be a full or part time role, depending on the size of the program and the complexity of the dependencies. Having someone who’s job it is to not just track but continually challenge teams to uncover hidden dependencies and re-evaluate can catch expensive missed dependencies which will become painful to resolve  later in the project lifecycle. The same is also true of assumptions, where it’s vital to flush out the details of why we think a certain product, solution or approach will work.

What basic project hygiene do we also need to apply?

To optimise the additional time a remote worker sees as “productive”, we do still need to maintain good standard project hygiene to keep formal meetings concise, relevant and productive. Even in mature, established organisations some of the basic rules of running a successful meeting get overlooked, which can be even more detrimental in a remote-working situation. Some basic Do’s and Don’ts are worth bearing in mind; whilst hardly innovative, it’s surprising how many programs and projects fail to apply this standard discipline:

Do

  • Define the decisions to be made in the meeting; remind the audience at the beginning of the meeting what they are there to decide upon.
  • Pre-syndicate meeting materials; it’s impossible for an audience to digest a multi-page presentation whilst also listening to it being presented. Assume/insist that people will have read the materials – this can help focus on decisions and shorten the meeting length.
  • Capture minutes and actions from the meeting. These don’t have to be verbose and overly formal, but having a simple tracking tool to keep abreast of who’s agreed to do what is often overlooked and can delay projects.
  • Break meetings into sections, follow an agenda and ask people for input regularly (more often than you would in a physical meeting room). It’s easy for loud people to dominate on a remote conference and also easier for quieter people to disappear into the background.

Don’t

  • Schedule regular status meetings where people just provide updates; gathering large numbers of people for a weekly reporting session rarely adds value and blocks valuable calendar time for key stakeholders.
  • Attend a meeting where you don’t feel you’re needed – this can lead to the erroneous assumption that your silent attendance indicates agreement and understanding.
  • Invite people you don’t need on the off-chance it may of use; focus on key decision makers and impacted teams.

With remote working looking set to stay we should all be considering how we need to subtly adapt our behaviours to be not just productive, but effective project managers, sponsors and stakeholders during these difficult times and beyond.

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