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Embracing Softness: Reframing Project Management Approaches During a Global Crisis

By Anna Shepherd |


I am a Project Manager. I’m not sure what I feel about the mental image my job title can conjure. To some, it may suggest being the sole point person on any given project, owning every failure and success, driving everything forward, and bringing clients and colleagues along for the ride. This idea couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, I work collaboratively with talented, cross-functional teams dotted around the globe. Hits and misses are as much the teams’ as they are mine. At the risk of sounding a bit High School Musical—we're all in this together.


While I still need to have a holistic overview of all my projects—and reliably and proactively respond to challenges to drive delivery forward—I’ve been thinking less about the mechanical aspects of project management and instead how crucial “soft skills” are in performing my role successfully. Curious about what is considered to be the inverse of soft skills, I searched “hard skills” on Google and found Project Management under a “Top 10 List of Hard Skills Employers Love”. My heart sank. Project management does not live and die on data alone. While it does thrive on spreadsheets, deadlines, GANTT charts, analytics, and tasks, project management, at least at Construct, also requires working with a vast array of people (from entry-level staff to high-level corporates), day in, day out. People are inherently unpredictable and variable, but they are at the core of everything I do. In no way does my role hinge solely on hard skills.



In the last few months, I have seen that what a project manager should be is an empathetic mediator and a skilled facilitator, a sounding board, and a triage point for internal and external pressures. I must listen to each team member's individual needs and become adept in conflict resolution and adaptability. These are crucial soft qualities that equip me to support our internal team and our clients—educators who are rapidly having to make the transition from face-to-face teaching to online. As we all know, this is a change happening rapidly now more than ever, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.


Back in March, I was working on a U.S. project when the university campus I was working at shut down due to the spread of COVID-19. Within days of my swift return home to the U.K., lockdowns were being enforced at home and abroad. Workplace conversations about the pandemic were initially referential and even light-hearted. We’d comment on the surrealness of it all like we were almost afraid to acknowledge genuine anxieties about what this would mean for us, our jobs, our personal lives, and our families in the many months to come. I also quickly became conscious that our delivery-based projects could hit some roadblocks. Colleagues and clients alike are taking on additional family responsibilities while working from home and could potentially become ill themselves, or need to spend time away with vulnerable relatives so they don’t feel so isolated.


With my “project manager” hat on, it could have been easy to focus on the agile implications of the crisis, the blockers that came our way, the potential delays … to be outcome-oriented only, and not process-oriented. But I soon saw that this would not be a sustainable way to get through imminent delivery milestones in one piece. Whether or not to embrace soft skills (empathy, communication, and compassion) would make or break our team spirit and, subsequently, the quality of our deliverables.


What, after all, is wrong with softness? With having a human conversation with a coworker that extends beyond everyday pleasantries? In high-intensity, delivery-based work, soft skills can seem like a distraction or a nice-to-have quality. Still, in times like this, I’d argue that:


"Soft skills are crucial to keeping up morale, increasing self-awareness, and putting effective contingency plans in place for time-critical projects."

I am incredibly proud of the efforts that my colleagues at Construct and I have made to carve out more space for soft skills in the last five months. We’ve worked toward constructing a more cohesive remote culture with virtual baby showers, recuperative retrospectives, and virtual coffees. I’ve been able to commiserate with a few coworkers over postponing weddings, with others suffering from insomnia, and with many others struggling with sameness and anxiety about the future.


The more I think about it, the more I feel that using the word “soft” to describe these behaviours and qualities is a misnomer. Through communication and compassion, we become better equipped as a global team to overcome blockers and continually deliver high-quality work, even during a crisis. The more we can focus on our softness, the more interconnected, united, and resilient our teams will be in the face of uncertainty and change in the short and long-term.


COVID-19 is a crisis experienced on a universal scale. The impact is devastating, but perhaps one of the small positives that can come of this is the unprecedented opportunity to grow the practise of soft skills in the workplace, especially empathy. I hope that these climatic shifts in workplace culture will move with us above and beyond 2020, and lead toward more soft-skills-based delivery models where teams connect more on human levels to make their work sing.

AUTHOR

Anna Shepherd

Project Manager at Construct

Cover Art Credit:

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