Leading During a Pandemic: Management From a Distance

Workers' increasing comfort with remote work and videoconferencing will outlast COVID-19, says PMI CEO Sunil Prashara. That's good news---and a warning sign.

These are disruptive times for associations, their staffs, and members. But a month of learning new ways to connect and communicate does have some benefits, according to Sunil Prashara, president and CEO of the Project Management Institute. We’re more attentive, and doing more: “What we’ve found is that productivity levels have gone through the roof,” he said on a video call last week, and he credits that productivity to the new everyday work culture of video calls.

But that newfound productivity only comes thanks to some particular actions at the leadership level. And in some ways, the new culture surfaces up new challenges for leaders. Here are a few of his thoughts on what leading teams looks like now, and what the people in charge should be alert to.

Gone are the days of doing a conference call for the sake of having a status update.

People are more focused now. Now that our colleagues are all floating heads on screens, the usual means of reading body language and other social cues aren’t as available to leaders. But it may not be as necessary for the moment, Prashara suggests. “There could be 30 people watching, but I’m just seeing your face and you’re just seeing my face—therefore, it’s a bit more intense,” he says. “There’s more of a likelihood that you’re going to be listening a little bit more attentively.”

A leader can put that newfound focus to use, Prashara says. “With that intimacy comes a sense of ownership. If you can convert that into a sense of ownership and a sense of purpose and a sense of mission, then you don’t have to manage as hard.”

But that focus only sustains itself if meetings have a clear purpose. Save the everyday check-ins for emails. “Gone are the days of doing a conference call for the sake of having a status update,” he says. “Most of the calls I’m on, they are ones where there’s something operational happening and we have to make a decision.”

The nature of videoconference discourse is different. Brainstorming and strategy sessions don’t work the same way now. (For more on that, see my post last month on virtual board meetings.) That means sidebars and discussions—and arguments—have to give way to a more patient kind of conversation. “It’s very difficult for people to talk on top of each other because the system can’t handle it,” he says. “People will give people the opportunity to finish a sentence before they talk and etiquette starts to get creative. You don’t even have to define it—it starts to happen.”

But that new discourse will press managers to receive input differently, and with more patience. “There is no parallel processing anymore. It’s all done in serial.”

We may be sticking with this—which may be a problem. Associations, which rely on conferences and events for much of their livelihood, are understandably eager for the moment when it’s safe to get together in person again. But Prashara warns that when that moment arrives, many people will be in no particular rush to convene.

“There’ll be some things we are doing now that we will take into the new work ecosystem,” he says. “We’ll ask ourselves, Do we really need to have offices everywhere, and do we need to travel as much? We’ll be doing a lot less travel, and we’ll be interacting differently. In the past, if we had a chapter that asked to attend, I would say, ‘I can’t because I’m on my way to Paraguay to visit a chapter there.’ Now, I can say to four chapters on the same day, ‘As long as the timing works, I can attend all your events.’”

Prashara recognizes that the benefits organizations gain in terms of connection can also put the bottom line at risk. That means leaders are charged now to think about what expansion will look like for your association.

“Project management is too small for what it is that we do now,” he says. “We are now addressing change makers. Companies are going to look for people who can convert an idea and make it a reality. There are 44 million project managers out there that we can influence and enable, but when you look at change makers, the market is actually 750 million. Our sphere of influence is just increased a hundredfold because of what’s happening.”

(Zephyr18/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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