March 2020 changed the way we interact and work, possibly forever. The global coronavirus pandemic forced businesses of all shapes and sizes to adapt to remote working or close.
When this happened I was fortunate to be working as a contract Project Manager at a Russell Group University, in the division responsible for the various online systems that support teaching (virtual learning environments, virtual classrooms, online exams, recorded media repository etc). The University's bread and butter is traditional face to face, on-campus teaching. With five main campuses and many, many more buildings scattered across the city including multiple libraries, research centres, a teaching hospital and a teaching veterinary hospital, connectivity is something the University is very good at. They also have a mature online degree programme and recently launched the first fully online MicroMasters. From mid-March 2020 all staff were required to work from home, and teaching and assessment moved fully online immediately.
I've been a fan of remote working since the mid-2000s when I managed a dispersed team of 20 while working at NHS Education for Scotland. We had an office base but the team was scattered across the globe with people in the USA, Spain, India and Iceland at different times of year. Communication had to continue whether I was in the office, at home, in London, Birmingham, Aberdeen or Malta; every week was different. Whether someone was at home or in the office, they were included in communication and meetings through an online daily 15-minute stand-up and instant messaging. Following the advice of a superb development manager we tried to keep all meetings short, using instant messaging for most things. Working with developers and other techy-types helped... the old adage of developers sitting in dark rooms with only their pet mouse for company was pretty accurate. They embraced new technology and had no fear of online meetings, planning poker and instant messaging.
Back to the University...I had already used Microsoft Teams for a project in 2019 and liked the integrated meeting and file storage functionality; when you set up a new Team, you automatically get a SharePoint site in the background to store shared documents and you can add things like a Planner (Kanban board) for task management. Yes, there are issues but that's for another day. Version control is straightforward, meetings can be recorded and the meeting 'chat' is sticky. When the University moved fully online I already knew the Teams interface so the move wasn't difficult for me personally.
Online working...the difficult bits and how to avoid them
I've found communication within project teams has been even better while we have all been working at home. Ad hoc questions can be posted to a group and as long as everyone manages their own notifications they can contribute, view later or ignore. Once we begin to return to physical workplaces I hope remote working will no longer be seen as second best.
After more than a decade as a research psychologist, trainer and educator working with addictions & HIV I moved into the digital world by accident. After designing and launching a web application to solve a problem in the health service with the founder of www.sanddollarconsulting.co.uk to our surprise it grew into a national and then an international programme, revolutionising how health care staff were assessed across the UK and beyond.
As project then programme manager, over the years I found myself managing a team of highly skilled developers and testers, managing commercial arrangements and product development for over 30 customers supporting a user base of several hundred thousand doctors, pharmacists, dentists, nurses, midwives and undergraduate students who relied on our website 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. I embraced new concepts and practices such as cloud, agile, continuous deployment, single-sign on, account management, product backlogs, first line support, responsive web design and website downtime.
I saw first hand how digital services can impact day to day practice and how the adoption of new technologies can be beset by problems as a result of poor management. Conversely, adopting basic principles of good change management was shown time and time again to make the digital transition relatively painless.
Working on the Scottish Parliament's Digital Parliament Programme allowed me to bring my experience of large-scale change into a much smaller but equally high profile organisation, making the ambitious transition to digital for many of their services and activities. Converting traditional meeting rooms and offices into high-tech spaces for video-conferences or online meetings with standing desks, electronic whiteboards and flexible, open project meeting spaces was a fascinating project to be involved with. Designing mobile apps for politicians to use while on the move gave an insight into the practical constraints of trying to join together political life and app development to reach a common goal. The challenges of legacy data sources, architecture and rapidly changing technologies had to be overcome to allow the Scottish Parliament to publish Open Data, which they now do efficiently and effectively.
These are just some of the experiences that have shaped my passion for digital.
I recently managed a project with the University of Edinburgh to improve their provision of subtitles on their video and audio materials. They have many thousands of hours of recorded content and to comply with legislation, all 'public bodies' should now provide subtitles as standard on their websites. This poses a challenge; how to meet their obligations and provide the best experience for deaf and hard of hearing students or others who access their media, with a limited budget? Accuracy of automated subtitles is hugely variable.
An academic institution with a huge body of international students and staff, as well as a vast array of taught subjects can be a particular challenge for any 'robot' turning speech into subtitles.
We tested a new model to try to address the problem; we employed and trained a group of ten students as subtitling editors to work alongside machine technology to produce accurate subtitles. We subtitled over 53 hours of content in the three month pilot.
The pilot was a success, and a permanent service is now being planned as a result.
I loved working with this motivated and capable group - a mixture of academic, media and disability staff and professional, highly skilled and personable students.
You can find out more about what we did, including a downloadable report using the link below.
A bit like an insurance comparison website or an interrogative receptionist at the Doctors’ surgery; sometimes you can’t get something done without a Project Manager (PM), even if you’d rather not. For a whole host of reasons, some projects will be allocated a PM. Often these are complex, technical, or have a fixed time frame and are bound to stray over budget, time, scope or all the above.
Sometimes the organisation assumes a PM is needed on any project, bringing structure, organisation or a bridge between the deeply technical people and those who cling to their Filofax and desk calendar but who’s money or blessing are required to get the thing done. Sometimes just having a person with dedicated time to knit everything together in a way that allows everyone to see where they fit and why the work is being done without the distractions of a competing day job can be a good way to make sure the work gets done as easily as possible.
What about the octopus?
“When not in pursuit of prey the octopus hides itself in a hole between rocks and covers itself with stones and shells. Like its victims it seems to be active chiefly at night and to remain in its nest during the day.” (contributors, 1911)
Just like the Doctor’s receptionist or the comparison site, although they all do a similar job, PMs come in a host of different guises. Some will suit you and your organisation better than others. I think the good ones can be quite adaptable.
Over the years I have learned an important lesson about myself; I like change. And because I like change, I can adapt. I can adapt myself and I can adapt what I know to fit my circumstances. I think over time I’ve become quite adept at adapting. Enough alliteration.
Like the octopus, the PM spends much of their time making themselves invisible, getting others to do things without obvious coercion, finding out what has and hasn’t been done and smoothing the way if problems or barriers are identified. I’ve worked with PMs who like to be front and centre, making sure everyone knows about all the work they are doing and how difficult everyone is making their job. They tend to stick closely to processes and paperwork, using these to structure their time and justify why someone should stop what they are doing and finish the project task immediately. For some organisations and some projects that’s absolutely what’s needed. I’ve seen it in some of the large financial organisations I’ve worked alongside and noticed it’s a good fit for some. But I’ve noticed these people tend to move around companies a bit more than others, and they find it difficult to adapt to some organisational cultures.
Octopus employ a range of strategies to avoid predators including deimatic (bluffing) behaviour such as changing their appearance to distract or deter, and some even shedding limbs. The best PMs I’ve worked with are understated but they get things done by some secret recipe of stealth, tenacity and obsessive attention to detail wrapped up in a very personable, unflappable and confident exterior.