Program Management in the Post-COVID-19 World Needs Rethinking
Dharam Singh

CEO, vCare Project Management LLC

The COVID-19 pandemic has pulled organizations into uncertainty, thereby impacting their customer base and marketshare. Organizations around the world are facing enormous challenges, such as economic downturn fueled by a huge drop in demand, the need to follow new regulatory guidelines, supply-side collapse, and staffing nightmares. Organizations need to work on survival techniques and be prepared for the post-pandemic world.

The pandemic has made long-term thinking difficult but important. While inaction is risky during a crisis, an unsound, knee-jerk action may cause further damage. As the pandemic rages on, portfolio/program offices need to respond to the new reality of work from home. An organization falters mostly because of a lack of adaptability and ineffective strategies for scaling business. Agile ways of working are the need of the hour for both small and large organizations. They need to revisit their ways of working to adapt to the new environment.

Organizations also need to find the best fit between their changing goals and managing teams for success. It is important to revamp the standards followed, tools and techniques used, metrics analyzed, and managers’ decision-making processes. Organizations must place more emphasis on the 3Cs – collaboration, communication, and competencies.”People agility” should be given more importance than business agility.

Organizations need to start addressing the competencies of managers with continuous learning, and consistent encouragement and rewards. They must provide managers with a platform to help them grow from being a manager to a portfolio/program leader, and help in transitioning them from the role of a busy manager to a productive leader.

Robert K. Greenleaf defines servant-leadership as: “I serve because I am the leader,” and “I am the leader because I serve.” The second type of leadership harnesses an unselfish mentality, resilience, and a flexible mindset. Such leaders build on empathy, mindfulness, and self-awareness. They stand on the frontlines with greater psychological resilience for better crisis management. Resilient portfolio/program managers must emulate this concept and perform as servant leaders.

This will assist them in collaborating and empowering all those involved in the portfolio/program to achieve the intended benefits.

Resilient managers are the ones who adapt quickly, irrespective of the trauma surrounding them, to pursue calculated risks and secure wins for their organizations. They make difficult times less traumatic for the organization and scale new heights when the situation improves.

Remote Work: As the pandemic has shown, teams do not need to be physically present in one location to produce the desired results. Organizations can hence reevaluate their real estate investments and consider remote work as a long-term strategy. This move will help to reduce the overall cost on account of the workforce. Portfolio/program offices can group the activities based on the requirements, and split the workforce as fully remote, partially remote, and partially remote with some exceptions.

The portfolio/program office can also leverage automation tools to track tasks and thus bring more accuracy in reporting. This move will increase accountability and reduce resource costs.

Remotely educating teams on new tools and activities through mentors will be cost-effective rather than on-premises training.

Continuous Learning Organization: It is important to understand what has worked and what has not worked in COVID-19 times. Discussions with all layers of the organization will enable an understanding of the challenges related to the Business Continuity Plan (BCP) and its impact on the path to business recovery. Validate the timeline of the activities and take a relook at strategies and tactics to redefine the existing BCP policies and procedures.

This post-COVID-19 situation emphasizes the importance of a people-first strategy. Prioritize the risks based on that would be more appropriate in the project, programs, and portfolio. These learnings might need to be carried on for risk management and contingency budgeting for future projects.

COVID-19 has also helped us learn and better understand waste management. By eliminating non-essentials in the projects, programs, and portfolios, an organization can significantly focus on the most important things. Documenting the lessons learned from the risk mitigation actions taken can help in achieving the project goals.

Risk evaluation needs to go beyond the internal organization. Risk assessment strategies must include vendors, partners, and health care providers as stakeholders. Lessons learned from these times must be put into practice for future preparedness in terms of threat modelling. Resilient managers must also take stock of other possibilities such as trade barriers, protectionism or economic sanctions into account.

Decentralizing Governance: The global sourcing model has changed, and new technologies and demand patterns have helped in management of the situation by regionalizing the supply chain wherever feasible. As border closures impacted supply of goods, local vendors often came to the rescue. That could now be looked at as a long-term solution. By leveraging local partners, an organization can not only reduce the overall costs but also strengthen its operational resilience.

Using a local workforce closer to the project site needs to be considered, particularly where there is no remote work possibility. But there needs to be more rigorous practices to keep workers safe at the workplace.

Role of Futuristic Technologies: Project sites that require manual inventory management can be replaced with robots. Automation would help in accurate inventory controls and protect the workforce from potential virus exposures. Computer vision and drones can be used to identify objects and for inventory counting at large sites where there is a need for consistent monitoring.

The use of Internet of Things (IoT) will improve the monitoring of equipment and its utilization. Projects that use hardware components can be remotely operated through IoT devices.

As the volume of data we collect grows day by day, artificial intelligence can be leveraged to take timely decisions. The use of algorithms and machine learning tools can help in prediction of issues, risks, and outcomes. It can also help in modelling new threats.

In addition, leveraging as-a-service tools will help in reduction of portfolio/program budgets. Cloud-based tools will help projects get stateof- the-art tools to focus on project deliverables.

As people work from home, they need to stay motivated. Portfolio/ program offices need to regularly update employees on their priorities. There have been many instances of employee burnout due to extended work hours. Encourage frequent breaks for remote teams to avoid such situations. Conduct regular checks on work in progress queues and provide additional support if needed.

Evaluate the possibility of organizing refresher sessions with your teams online. Introduce telemedicine programs for mental health consultations.

If there are team members with chronic diseases or low immunity, restructure their work so that pressure is reduced. Ensure that project sites and facilities promote a healthy work environment, including UV lighting, air conditioning, humidification, air purification, and sanitizing ducts.

Redefine performance evaluation metrics for remote work and communicate them to all levels of the workforce. Portfolio/program offices need to create documents to facilitate remote work as part of new policy, and employment contracts with non-disclosure agreements for those handling data assets.

Global organizations with portfolio/program offices need to rework their human resource policies at a regional level and start restructuring their ways of working for the post-COVID-19 world. It’s important to reassess the hiring and onboarding of resources remotely and plan logistics to provide the necessary resources, thereby enabling the new workforce to work effectively. Such actions might call for simplified steps and automatic provisioning of enterprise applications related to projects.

Cyber security is a major challenge. Securing the internet, applications, and enterprise data infrastructure would be a great challenge as we are set to see a dramatic increase in the number of remote workers. This trend creates an increased risk of cyber attacks. Aspects like data loss prevention must be enforced for better endpoint security. Ensure sufficient bandwidth for the management of virtual private networks for secure access to the office network.

Teams need to be consistently informed about the new potential threats due to remote working. As they work on the client’s infrastructure, they need to ensure that the credentials are secure even in the home environment. Team members working from home must be educated on how to identify potential frauds, suspicious emails, and phishing attacks.

Rather than thinking about the losses incurred during this crisis, leaders must take forward the learnings from their experience.

Opportunities arising amidst a pandemic need to be pursued cautiously, after a detailed assessment of how the opportunities will contribute to long-term organizational goals. By ignoring opportunities that are worth pursuing, organizations risk losing out to competition.

Organizations must prepare an action plan well in advance for any such crisis in the future. The action plan must be led by resilient managers at the program and portfolio levels who have sufficient knowledge and skills to enable their organization’s success during these times. The cost of not preparing for such crises would be catastrophic for organizations. With a cohesive approach, we will be able to overcome such challenges in the future.

Dharam Singh is an accomplished management professional with over 27 years of experience in the IT, telecommunication, government, banking, and insurance sectors. He is a winner of Global Training & Development Leadership Award from CHRO Asia.