In March 2020, the ways of working for many organisations dramatically changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There was a need to quickly adapt to avoid disruption to our own business, our employees, and our clients.
Two years on from the first lockdown, we surveyed staff at Issured who work in programmes and projects to reflect upon what they encountered, what changed, and what needs to continue in the future to support successful virtual working at Issured.
The period of mandated ‘work from home’ along with home schooling responsibilities caused huge strain for many and resulted in a change of the working day, as individuals tried to meet their professional objectives whilst balancing their personal responsibilities.
We encouraged our staff to take sufficient breaks and try to book focus time for emails and tasks, however this was easier said than done and is still a work in progress.
“It is good to take occasional breaks as sometimes you don’t realise that you’re sat and staring at a screen for a very long time.”
Quote from a Junior Practitioner at Issured
Diary management across multi-organisation programmes or projects was already challenging but was made harder when having to organise everything via email or messages. Virtual meetings were often back-to-back. Not having a dependency on meeting room availability was a positive though!
We advocated scheduling meetings which were slightly shorter, starting five minutes past the hour or ending them ten minutes to the hour to give people time between calls. It was easy to slip back into bad habits though!
Methods of Communication
It was clear that emails and telephone calls were not the most effective method to engage with our stakeholders, particularly in the early stages of building a rapport.Email was seen as less personal, more formal and took longer to get responses and it seemed that picking up the phone to make a call wasn’t the ‘done thing’ anymore.
Video calls become the new ‘face- to-face’ interaction and the preferred method of contact amongst the majority of our staff and clients.
With many of our staff working with external clients, it was key that they had the ability to utilise the client’s preferred communication methods, such as joining their online forums and instant messaging channels to help minimise email and meetings where possible, while remaining engaged.
“I was very proactive in my comms with senior programme stakeholders, instant messaging systems worked well for some, but it was important to quickly establish the favoured ways to interact.”
Quote from a Principal Practitioner at Issured
Meeting Approaches and Outcomes
Sometimes slower decision making, or loss of creativity was an outcome of virtual meetings or workshops, due to the lack of audience attention or having the tools to fully work through the issue(s) in hand.
Most of our staff felt that traditional ways of collaborating with a team of people in the same room, generating ideas or working through problems still appears to work best, as it creates and maintains a central focus point to talk around, such as the ability to utilise a whiteboard or post-it notes as a visual aid.
Attendees participating in a virtual call on a laptop with a small screen could have difficulties reading the content presented and, in some circumstances, did not have the necessary IT equipment/applications to join virtual calls.
To equip our staff, we made sure that the appropriate IT, hardware and software was available to maximise the virtual working experience.We supported the use of differing communication techniques to ensure inclusion, set clear agendas and share content ahead of the meeting to keep up momentum and encourage engagement.
“The occasional in-office day can allow for an increased benefit for design work and planning a project approach, as it can be difficult to share ideas over a call and/or use a whiteboard to discuss ideas online.”
Quote from a Junior Practitioner at Issured
Management of Resources
The change to the social element of work impacted relationship building and learning. The ability to shadow peers and other colleagues was dramatically reduced.
We encouraged regular virtual team ‘stand ups’ and ‘one-to-one’ meetings to keep teams aligned and maintain focus across activities. There was a greater emphasis on clear tasking so that the individual could deliver their tasks independently.
Recruitment and Interviews
Traditional recruiting and interviewing methods were not an option. Virtual interviews were surprisingly more convenient, reducing the burden of travel for candidates, along with a reduction in carbon footprint!
We tried to keep a similar interviewing experience to that of a more traditional face to face interview. We continued with well-structured interview templates based off competency frameworks and used our secure interview platform, Mea: Connexus, ensuring a secure record of all interviews and content. However, we changed our style and adopted a much more relaxed approach to try and bring through the candidates’ personality and cultural fit, which was challenging to gauge on a video call.
Management of Project Progress
Chasing project team members for updates is always tough but doing this virtually was a different ball game entirely! The techniques of tracking down your updates directly in the office was gone and radio silence to emails, calls and messages caused frustration. This resulted in a higher than usual number of items being escalated so the correct action and support could be put in place.
The importance of being proactive has been heightened during this prolonged period of working from home. We encouraged our staff to identify and escalate, when necessary, any risks, issues, and dependencies as early as possible. However, in some cases, due to the isolated working, risks and issues may not have been identified or raised as early as they might have been when working in a face-to-face environment.
“I find it a lot more difficult to hold people to account or encourage them to track their actions and deliverables when we are not working in the same location.”
Quote from a Senior Practitioner at Issured
The pandemic has changed traditional ways of working forever.
Expectations that effective project delivery could only take place in the office have vanished, time previously spent commuting has decreased, interviewing candidates is more efficient (and environmentally friendly) and several staff found they are more productive working from home due to less distractions.
However, this has come with the challenges of difficulties with collaborative working, bad habits in diary management, longer periods sat at our computers, often with fewer breaks, and a reliance on technology more than ever to enable effective working.
We are still navigating the challenges and trying to find innovative solutions to the changes that come up every day. It’s a work in progress to ensure we find the right balance for now and the future, but we’re pleased with how we’ve adjusted so far!