The new normal: Reflecting on best project management practices

November 26, 2021

Virtual meetings to the rescue? Not entirely. Successfully working from home? Not every day. Change is good, but it is not always welcome, especially when a global pandemic causes it.

The first case of COVID-19 was detected in Kenya just when the year 2020 started taking shape. Detection of the virus in the country meant disruption of our day-to-day lives: face-to-face meetings were banned, travel was restricted, learning institutions were closed, and businesses had to restructure. Everything needed to change to adapt to the new normal. 

For both corporate and not-for-profit organizations, the challenge has been two-fold: the first is the technical challenge of ensuring that the transition from office-based work to at-home operations is seamless, especially due to the difficulties associated with adapting to the new technologies. Secondly, working from home means reduced social interactions that usually happen in the office. A lot of good collaborative and productive activities occur this way, and it has undoubtedly been a missing element. 

For project planners, adapting to the new normal means learning new ways of doing things. Before the pandemic, most meetings happened face-to-face. Therefore, the almost instantaneous transition to 100% virtual engagement was not easy. For example, it is quite the uphill task to organize a face-to-face meeting of 200 participants and suddenly turn it into a virtual conference. A lot of effort would have to go into identifying suitable platforms with unique features that can contribute to achieving the meeting objectives. One needed to quickly learn how to use such platforms, some of which had not been used before. A meeting organizer also has to ensure that all participants could access the meeting without any technical hitches. To successfully organize and conduct virtual meetings, there was a need to learn and embrace new techniques for use on virtual platforms. For example, Zoom, one of the most popular platforms, consists of plug-ins with unique features like language interpretation tools, break-out rooms, meeting recording functions, and subtitle generation. Initially, there was not much technic needed to successfully conduct a physical meeting. Therefore, the adaptation of virtual meetings was accompanied by the opportunity to learn new skills. Meeting organizers have improved their skillset by learning new technologies, meeting moderation and facilitation, and creative skills in terms of designing posters, among others.

As is often the case with virtual meetings, the risk of participants feeling excluded or dropping off is very high, and therefore there was a need to adopt new ways of keeping the team engaged throughout the sessions. One way to keep a team active is through breakout rooms where participants get to work in groups and get a chance to contribute to the conversation. Ice breaking activities are also another way of keeping participants on toes and getting them to re-energize. It is the responsibility of the meeting organizer to guide moderators on the use of features such as breakout rooms, polls and quizzes, using the white board, screen- sharing and other elements that encourage engagement. In many instances, the host must stay through to ensure that the meeting runs smoothly and sort out any hitches along the way. 

To ensure continuity of communication while working remotely, there was a need to explore other communication channels. Phone calls, text messages, WhatsApp, and Google Hangouts are communication channels that have come in handy during this period. For example, it is easier to get quick feedback through WhatsApp or text because the messages are transmitted through mobile phones. Social media has also been an excellent channel for sharing information. Organizations are now using WhatsApp to share real time information with their staff members. In many instances, Twitter has been used to spread the word on upcoming webinars or conferences. Additionally, social media is one of the best ways to increase the visibility of an organization’s activities.

Some of the lessons from these experiences include discovering that one can plan a well-informed two-hour webinar to reach 100 plus participants better than a three-day face-to-face meeting. However, organizing such webinars does not come easy. Here are some of the lessons:

  • The use of presentations through video recordings helps to keep track of time, are straight to the point, and allow more time for Q&A sessions making it more interactive.
  • Allowing the targeted audience to choose available times and plan accordingly increases the attendance rate.
  • Remember to set up a test session with the presenters, panellists, and interpreters ahead of the meeting to ensure both the video and audio features are functioning properly.
  • Pre-meeting surveys help to identify and understand participants’ needs. 
  • Break-out rooms encourage active participation, especially during long meetings. It is easier for participants to contribute to the discussion in smaller working groups.
  • Ensure all presentations are combined into one presentation. There is a need to have the main presenter and a backup presenter to ensure a smooth flow of presentation sessions.
  • Record your meetings for future reference. For example, an organizer can share recordings with participants who missed the sessions. Remember to ask for consent.

There are important lessons to be learned from the pandemic about operating in different ways, becoming more adaptive and flexible, and enabling rapid innovation. What we have seen through this crisis is that we need to become better at dealing with turbulence and uncertainty”. – Professor Darren Dalcher. Project planning plays a significant role in ensuring that scheduled activities take place even amidst emergencies. Administrative skills, flexibility, adaptive learning, being on top of things, quick action, and being proactive are vital in the planning process and the more extensive operation of an organization.

By Doris Omao and Corretta Tira.