We need to be working in Hybrid Work Environments. Not just because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, but because this is, increasingly, the nature of Project Management. And, of all the challenges this poses for us, Stakeholder Engagement is up there among the biggest. Not just because it is fiendishly difficult at the best of times. But, also because good stakeholder engagement is the key to project success… or failure.
This is something that Fred Obiero has been thinking about over the last couple of years. Fred is an IT professional and Technology futurist. He has thrived in implementing and leading Project Management Offices for companies such as Envision, Anthem, and HP. He is currently a VP of Product and Client Engagement at MyBasePay, a co-founder and Executive Host on The Ivy Podcast, and co-author of the book The PM Imperative, with Jahn Karsybaev.
So, I’d like to thank Fred for taking the time to contribute to this article. Over to him…
COVID-19 Has Triggered a Change
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a massive impact on companies worldwide. Stringent local laws forced many to adopt a fully remote workforce strategy to reduce the spread of the virus. This was a challenge for many companies especially those that had never had any of their employees working remotely. Common issues they faced included:
- Inadequate infrastructure to support a fully remote workforce
- Network and bandwidth demands that were we didn’t plan for, prior to the pandemic
- Data security for employees outside of a traditional office’s IT firewall
- A lack of tools to support online collaboration
These were just some of the technical challenges that companies encountered with the sudden shift to remote teams.
The Challenges Weren’t all Technical
However, there were other, more familiar, issues. These related to team dynamics and how different departments would be able to work together in a completely new environment. Project leaders had to redefine their work structures to ensure that all team members were in sync with each other. And they continued to adapt and find ways to elevate the level of productivity with fewer disruptions to daily operations.
In addition, Project Leaders have needed to take the effect of the COVID-19 on team members into consideration. Empathy has had to play a big role in team settings too. Because there have been inevitable interruptions to task completion, as team members miss work due to an illness or caring for a sick family member.
The Biggest Challenges
But, perhaps the biggest challenges have been around maintaining effective Stakeholder Engagement. So, that is what we’ll focus on in this article.
And we’ll keep the structure nice and simple, with two sections.
- The Stakeholder Engagement Challenges Faced by Hybrid Teams
First, we need to properly understand what makes the hybrid work environment so challenging for conducting effective stakeholder engagement.
- Best Approaches to Stakeholder Engagement in Hybrid Work Environments
Second, we’ll look at a range of solutions you can apply in your own projects.
The Stakeholder Engagement Challenges Faced by Hybrid Teams
Even before the shift to fully remote working, a lot of Project Managers have worked with hybrid teams across several projects. However, there was always a semblance of colocation. Many of the project’s stakeholders were physically present in an office building to take part in:
- project meetings
- steering committee sessions
- other project-related events
Before reviewing the best approaches to dealing with stakeholders in a hybrid working environment, let’s review some of the challenges posed by project teams having a fully remote or hybrid workforce.
Diminished Work Relationships
The beauty of having project teams co-located is that it is easier for a Project Manager to build strong relationships with their stakeholders and folks from other teams and departments. This is because face-to-face interactions make it easier for a Project Manager to spot shared interests with other stakeholders. Consequently, this leads to stronger relationships that help in developing team cohesion and harmonious working in projects. And that, of course, means less conflict.
The absence of face-to-face interactions between Project Managers and their stakeholders could result in weakened work relationships. It is hard to build rapport with stakeholders and team members from afar. Recent studies have shown that many remote workers feel isolated and alone. They are not used to the new remote environment. And this tends to create weakened relationships between them and their stakeholders. Because now they only get to see them during virtual meetings. Random coffee meetups or hallway conversations with stakeholders simply don’t happen in virtual settings. And their effects are hard to replicate.
Ineffective communication in a workplace or team setting creates a roadblock to a team’s ability to reach its goals. This is because it results in people not being able to collaborate well.
Poor communication occurs when there is a difference between what you intend to communicate and what the recipient understands from your communication.
Hybrid workplace teams tend to rely more on written communication, which has benefits and disadvantages. However, even when we are office-based and co-located, written communication between Project Managers and their stakeholders – be it through email or short messages through tools such as Slack – is common.
As a result, nonverbal communication cues are lost when we cannot visualize:
- facial expressions
- body posture
- eye movement
…when communicating with their stakeholders. Nonverbal communication is a vital part of human communication. It tells us when there is more to the story than the words alone convey.
However, when used well, words are precise. The best communication combines all channels: written, spoken, and non-verbal communication.
Misplaced Sense of Urgency
Project Managers often need to create a sense of urgency around a project. This is so that stakeholders will focus their attention on providing necessary assistance. However, this is a big challenge when stakeholders have other priorities within their work schedules. So, it may be hard to get everyone into an urgent meeting on short notice.
The inability of the Project Manager to walk into the offices or cubicles of the stakeholders and discuss urgent topics with them without having to schedule a meeting is also a problem that faces hybrid teams. You need to think ahead, to avoid a sense of disorganization from a series of ‘last-minute rushes’ to address urgent project matters.
Poor Resource Allocation
Typically, Project Managers work with other teams to get resources to assign to their projects. Collaboration like this is vital to make task estimates and ensure resource availability whenever they are necessary.
With stakeholders now being spread-out remotely, it becomes harder to:
- Understand their workload and commitments
- Know when they will be available to help with project tasks or provide input to project issues that may require their attention
- Understand other pressure on them
Project Managers find themselves having to assign tasks to stakeholders without having full knowledge. This can carry the risk of unfair allocation or overloading colleagues. And this may be not only with work, but also other personal responsibilities, given that they are working remotely.
Different Work Styles and Schedules
Stakeholders that are based in office environments mostly work in a predictable manner. This is because of the familiar nature of office settings and routines. This changes dramatically when the stakeholders are working remotely. We see variations such as:
- Stakeholder location
How easily can they come into the office if needed?
- Time zone differences
Are they in the same (or similar) time zone as most of the teammates? Or, are they in widely different time zones that make it difficult to schedule meetings when everyone is available?
- Delayed responses
With the over-reliance on email to communicate, a Project Manager may find themselves in a holding pattern. They will be waiting on a response from a key stakeholder who may simply be ignoring messages in virtual settings.
- Work-life balance
Some stakeholders choose to not respond to emails or any work-related communications after a certain time. They thus become unreachable because of their need to disconnect from work and spend time with their families and loved ones.
- Work-style Preferences
As we adapt to hybrid working environments, each of us is finding our own ways of working. We adapt these to many factors, like personal styles, outside commitments, and attitudes to work.
Building Accountability for Virtual Stakeholders
Project Managers are adept at holding stakeholders accountable for assigned tasks. Yet, this is normally a challenge, even in familiar, traditional environments such as in an office setting. This becomes compounded when the stakeholders are working remotely. Because it is harder to gauge how much effort a colleague is putting into ensuring task completion.
Some stakeholders may not be pulling their weight. And this could end up slipping under the radar because of not being in an office. ‘out of sight, out of mind’!
This could result in task slippage going undetected for weeks if not months. This is something that will put a lot of pressure on the Project Manager to get things back in line without an adverse effect on dependent tasks.
However, let’s not over-react here. How closely were you aware of commitment and effort in traditional environments?
Best Approaches to Stakeholder Engagement in Hybrid Work Environments
We have looked at six of the challenges that typically face hybrid teams. Understanding them will help a Project Manager define a robust strategy to help ensure that stakeholder engagement and productivity remain high… even when project teams are not all co-located.
This is becoming the industry trend. Consequently, Project Managers need to be better at managing and engaging stakeholders in a hybrid environment:
- Firstly, because most companies have now fully incorporated a hybrid workforce. This follows the social-distancing measures that emanated from the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Secondly, because this will become a part of the new normal – especially in project environments. Because we need to draw from the widest possible talent pool
- And, thirdly, because Project Managers have always led the way in adopting and developing new ways of working. We need to lead.
Six Practical Steps
So, here are six practical steps that you can take, to optimize working in hybrid work environments. I have labeled them as steps, but please do not consider them for form rigorous sequence. Many can best happen in parallel with one another.
Step 1: Set Expectations Upfront
The switch to hybrid teams has come as a huge organizational culture change to many. And you need to take this opportunity to describe to the stakeholders how you will collaborate and work with them going forward. Describe the procedures that the team will need to adopt, to fit in with a hybrid environment such as:
- Communication channels that work well for everyone
- Requirements (or requests) around acknowledgement that you have received a communication
- Access to project documentation (take a look at our article on Project Document Management: ‘Project Document Management: How to Organize and Manage Project Information’ – also a guest article
- Decision-making processes on vital project-related topics
We have two article that may help you:
- Flexible work schedules to accommodate different stakeholder preferences
- Acceptable timelines for providing responses to open requests or requested information
As a Project Manager, you will set yourself up for success once you:
- Establish clear expectations on how they will engage with stakeholders on their projects and
- Obtain agreement from your stakeholders on how they will operate together in the hybrid environment.
Step 2: Be Flexible when Setting Priorities on Projects
One of the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is that we all need to be flexible with one another. This is botht at work or in our daily lives with friends and family. Stakeholders may not be able to be as easily available as they were when everyone was in the office. They may need to help their kids with online schooling, care for sick family members, and more. Unfortunately, all these unpredictable situations can create delays in completing tasks because of the unavailability of key stakeholders.
With this in mind, Project Managers should prioritize the tasks that absolutely need to be complete, on a weekly or bi-weekly sequence. You must then communicate them to your stakeholders – particularly the ones whose input you will require. This way, they can proactively set aside time to commit to performing their roles on the project.
With this level of flexibility, the Project Manager can work around everyone’s schedules with the knowledge that task delivery will not see an impact, simply because the required stakeholders are not in the office.
Along with this, agree on a regular meeting cadence. That way, all your stakeholders are aware of the requirement for their presence in project meetings. Therefore, they can make arrangements and plan their schedules around eliminating conflicts that could prevent them from attending the meeting.
Step 3: Create a Unified Collaborative Experience for Everyone
A problem that Project Managers encounter in hybrid working environments is the very mix that makes it a hybrid. When some of your team members are in the office and others are working remotely, the ones in the office may come together in a conference room while everyone else dials in virtually.
This creates a two-tier team or stakeholder environment. Firstly, there is greater social rapport among those who are in the same place. And, in addition, the stakeholders that are not in the conference room may have a hard time clearly hearing what is being discussed, or knowing who is speaking. There may even be deliberate side-conversations.
This creates an environment of ineffective communication. It breaks the harmony of a work session when the stakeholders who are in the conference room just speak among themselves and those that dial into the virtual call are left unengaged and feel excluded.
Good Facilitation is Not Enough
You need excellent facilitation skills to manage this mixed environment. And even then, there is still an imbalance.
A solution to this is to provide a unified experience. Have all stakeholders dial in virtually, regardless of whether they are in the office or working remotely. Preferably, the project team should collectively agree to use video communication as much as possible, so everyone can feel included. This way, the Project Manager gets full cooperation because everyone is communicating through the same channel. There are no sidebar conversations that could derail the meeting.
Step 4: Communicate Effectively
It is hard to overstate the effect of communication – or a lack of it – within a project. The Project Manager must work with the stakeholders to establish clear ground rules on how they will communicate on the project while taking into consideration the hybrid environment.
Part of effective communication is ensuring that each message is received and understood by the recipient. If it is an urgent matter, you should opt for a virtual meeting with your stakeholders. This speeds things up. You can get clarity on everything without having to wait on email responses or endless email chains going back and forth.
On a different note, communication in a hybrid working environment does not need to only be around work-related topics. A Project Manager should go work hard to build a rapport with all their stakeholders; getting to know them on a personal level. Just as with social connections in the real world, social connections through virtual meetings will enhance the chances of achieving project success while working together.
Step 5: Enforce Accountability
The Project Manager needs to stay on top of any tasks that they assign to stakeholders. Always know what will be coming due in the next working period. And always follow up to ensure your stakeholders are doing their part to keep things moving.
Additionally, the Project Manager will need to consistently set and re-define project priorities, and provide any support your stakeholders might need. This does not mean that you should be micromanaging your stakeholders; instead, you need to be working alongside them, albeit in a hybrid setting. This is how you can keep a sense ofengagement, show the value of your work, and signify the importance of getting things accomplished together.
Step 6: Leverage Collaboration Tools
A Project Manager needs to create a central documentation repository, so all stakeholders have access to project documents. Please do avoid sending documents through email. Because stakeholders may not know which is the latest version, and this may cause issues within the project. Take a look at our article on Project Document Management: ‘Project Document Management: How to Organize and Manage Project Information’ – also a guest article
But, critically, do take a look at our guide to version control: How to Maintain Document Version Control on Your Project, if you aren’t familiar with this discipline.
Project management tools such as JIRA, Confluence, and SharePoint are examples of tools that Project Managers can use to stay in sync and keep all stakeholders updated. You should exploit the ability for different team members to be able to work on the same document at the same time, to foster stronger collaborations between the Project Manager and their stakeholders.
Do take a look at ‘Collaboration Tools for Project Managers: How to Choose, Get Started and Collaborate with Technology’, by Elizabeth Harrin. Elizabeth is a friend of OnlinePMCourses and an excellent PM writer.
What Have You Learned about Engaging Stakeholders in Hybrid Work Environments?
As always, we’d love to hear your experiences and insights. Please do add them to the comments below and we’ll respond to every contribution.
Related Articles on Hybrid Work Environments
We have other articles about working in hybrid work environments:
- Remote Project Management: Get a Grip on the Path to Success
- Managing Remote Teams: How to Meet the Challenges
And we have a lot of Articles about Engaging with Stakeholders
So, this is just a small selection:
- Project Stakeholder Management Knowledge Area: A Guide to Stakeholder Engagement
- Stakeholder Leadership: Leading Bystanders as well as Followers
- How to Plan Your Stakeholder Engagement Campaign
- Stakeholder Engagement Strategies: Don’t Miss 40-plus Ways to Power up Your Project
- Astonish Your Stakeholders… with a Stakeholder Listening Plan | Video
- Stakeholder Engagement Tips: 5 Tips For Project Managers | Video
- Good Customer Service: How to Keep Your Client and Stakeholders Happy