agile · Project Management · Virtual

Managing projects during this COVID denial phase

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic response, we wrote about 100% distributed working. Since then, we went through a phase of removing COVID restrictions, and now we are in the COVID denial phase. Each of these phases has a different effect on our projects.

Impacts of COVID in the different phases

During the COVID restrictions phase, most working was still remote. Some people started returning to the office, and some face-to-face meetings were held. The in-person meetings were for a day or so, included a few people, or both. The people returning to the office were mostly alone in a big office or with a few other colleagues.

In this COVID denial phase, many people start to move around without masks and return to the office, more or less full-time. Other people are still working from home. There are more in-person meetings. People travel for vacations (weeks away from the office in Europe). Individuals get COVID with different reaction levels, e.g., no symptoms to severe reactions.

During the height of COVID, project owners and project managers could plan for the risks and impacts of COVID. We knew it could bring a project to a halt. People being out sick was considered in the risk register. Delays were anticipated. Everyone worked remotely. The bottom line, we were all on the same page about the potential risks and issues.

In this COVID denial phase, project team members catch COVID with different reactions. Some can continue to work while others are out sick for days or weeks. Some meetings are hybrid with some people in a meeting room and others virtual, some in-person meetings miss key people that are not in the office, and other meetings have complete virtual participation. Schedules have to consider absences from people that absolutely need a vacation. Bottom line, there are more potential issues from COVID in individual projects than during the height of COVID.

We are not all on the same page about those risks and impacts.

  • People will suddenly become unavailable (e.g., illness, mourning the loss of a loved one)
  • There will be extended absences (e.g., longer than normal vacations, illness)
  • Some people may not return to office work or attend in-person meetings
  • There are more hybrid meetings (both in-person and virtual)
  • Not all services a project needs have returned to normal (e.g., some offices still do not allow people to visit, certain government services have to be scheduled or take longer than before COVID, and supply chain deliveries may take longer).

Some ideas

First, we can take some hints from agile practice given by extreme programming (XP), e.g., pair programming and code ownership. In other areas, we have to sharpen our existing practices.

Pair collaboration

With pair programming, two people work on the same topic simultaneously. The pairs can include two people of the same profile or different profiles (e.g., two programmers, a programmer and a tester, or a programmer and the product owner). One person types while the other person thinks (out loud) strategically about the right method to use, the overall approach, cases where the code might not work, and ways to simplify the system. Alternatively, both people can be focused on the same issue discussing tactical and strategic issues simultaneously.

This method works well using Microsoft Teams or another virtual tool. It works well for many types of work, e.g., conceptual work, documentation, and issue resolution. This pairing serves multiple purposes:

  • Both people would work from their own desks, so COVID-neutral.
  • It encourages communications, which is a project critical success factor
  • The second person can take over the work or support the transition to another person if one participant becomes available
  • It results in higher quality content production
  • Encourages or enforces the use of the standard practices and methods

Artifact ownership

Extreme programming (XP) suggests collective ownership of software code once created so that any team member can update the code after it’s created. This method could be adapted to any project artifact. This requires a mental shift from individual to team ownership, some standards, and a configuration management process.

Storing artifacts (even in draft mode) in central locations and having adequate security permissions would be required. Standards are rules that should be used to create artifacts consistently. The standards should be written to prevent duplicate work, require the least amount of work possible, and act as a communication tool among the team. The team must voluntarily adopt standards.

There should be a typical configuration management practice, including a naming convention for knowing the artifact’s state. The team should always know the last good or safe version to use.

Joint artifact ownership has similar advantages to the pair collaboration. It is COVID-neutral, and another person could pick up the work in an absence.

Meeting facilitation

Project communications must be established so remote and in-person team members can be part of the conversations and jump in when needed. This requires revisiting pre-COVID meeting practices and applying them in light of the current situation.

  • A person in the meeting room should perform a facilitation role.
  • Meeting rooms need live video conferencing and speakerphone to allow everyone to hear and participate in the conversation.
  • Videos may be needed to point at whiteboards or flip charts so virtual team members can participate. Alternatively, use virtual boards (e.g., Microsoft Teams Whiteboard or Notes) and share the screen in the meeting room.
  • The meeting facilitator should perform a roll-call or introduce people in the meeting room so virtual participants are informed.
  • The facilitator should watch the virtual participants’ hand signals and chat entries so they can join the conversation.
  • The facilitator should ask for last-minute questions or points from virtual and in-room participants. A spot light (asking each person) method works well here.

These are a few ideas on surviving in this COVID denial phase. So, we have to see how we go from here.