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TransformationSep 07, 2021

Remote Program Leadership Part 2: A Collaborative Vision for the Future

Arthur Pachachura

Remote program leadership is not a novel concept. Prior to the pandemic, program leaders still made phone calls, scheduled Zoom meetings, and asked other leaders about the weather. However, COVID-19 forced programs and organizations to quickly adapt to a remote-first world. Leaders swapped out phone calls for chat, in-person conversation for Teams, the weather for how their kids—who were running around in the background of the meeting—were doing. 

In part two of this series, we interviewed top program managers at Credera to examine how programs adapted to COVID-19 and create a vision for the future of remote program leadership.

Haven’t read part one? Check out the 10 lessons learned by our program leaders to see how they could apply to your programs.

Meet the Program Leaders

How the Pandemic Affected Programs

Q: How did the pandemic affect organizational behaviors, programs, and program leaders?

Effect 1: Work Became More Personal and Predictable, but It Was Difficult to Engage

Nickoria Johnson: “Working from home, you see people that have challenges and issues. You know when their kid failed their class in summer school or when their dog busts into meetings or their cat is walking across the keyboard. Even though we didn’t have happy hours and lunches, we were able to connect more just based on people operating fully in their home environment. Although there are personal benefits to working remotely, engagement can often be lower.”

Clint Griffith: “For a time, it was like we were just talking to 30 names on the side of a Teams meeting. There was very little interaction, no connection, and no decisions being made. If we were in person, we would have been able to see some folks acknowledging or multitasking and we could get a better feel for how we could engage them.”

Effect 2: Although Programs Continued at Pace, Teams Felt Changes in Productivity

Clint Griffith: “We are still moving at a pace equivalent to working out of the client’s office, although some programs were paused and restarted as clients became more familiar with the situation. I believe that every client who has worked with a consulting firm during the pandemic saw that we can still get work done remotely and be effective, but there are some conversations that are inherently more productive in-person.”

James Alexander: “There was the thought that if we had a remote workforce, the quality of our work would go down because there is ‘magic’ that takes place when everyone is in the same team room and around a whiteboard. While there is some truth to that, what we found over the last 18 months was that we can still be highly effective—at the same or better quality—when dispersed.”

Effect 3: Organizations Entered “Survival Mode” Due to Uncertainty

Nickoria Johnson: “As you drive down the street in your neighborhood, take notice of the many closed physical locations. Organizations that were not able to reinvent themselves—either because they did not have the financial backing or because they did not know what to do—sometimes had to close. Even when folks were open, the traffic wasn’t there. A lot of well-intentioned leaders began to wake up and not know how they were going to pay their next bill.”

Clint Griffith: “Organization-wide priorities were reshuffled as companies went into survival mode. One of our restaurant clients is a great example: As ecommerce became king, clients had to do that well to survive, and that pushed other items down the priority list to keep the lights on. This led organizations like that to ask the following questions: Did we have something prioritized that wasn’t part of the core business? What’s truly important for our business? How do we continue to do those things well?”

The Future of Program Leadership

Q: What is your vision for the future of remote program leadership? 

Nickoria Johnson: “We completed an envision phase, fully remote, with a client in Spain and a geographically diverse team. We were able to come together, like a real team, in a virtual team room and create those team experiences and deliver with great results—the only way we could have done that was remotely. There is a growing future for remote program leadership in part because working dispersed may be the best option for our clients and teams.”

Hannah Falkenberg: “I don’t think travel will resume with the same frequency as the pre-pandemic days, but I do think large meetings (kickoffs, critical milestones, etc.) are more likely to be in person. Many of our clients have realized that virtual program leadership can be very effective, and they can repurpose a lot of that travel budget to prioritize more important initiatives. While a lot of the day-to-day work can be done virtually, project setup is a lot harder to do online but can still be effective with more intentionality and careful relationship management.”

While leaders agree that remote project leadership adds value, and in some cases may be the only reasonable option, key decisions about when and how to meet will differ between various teams.

James Alexander: “Many functions that we convinced ourselves needed to be done in person could really be done virtually. While in-person interactions are still important, we should be more strategic about when those take place.”

Clint Griffith: “Although we can still be effective remotely, there are some conversations that are inherently more productive in person. As COVID becomes a thing of the past, I see clients gradually going back in and changing toward the expectation that we’re back with them.” 

Final Thoughts

Remote leadership became more personal, collaborative, and predictable, but also faced new technological and interpersonal challenges as organizations wrestled with uncertainty and rapid change. Although some organizations will return to primarily in-person work, there is still a place for effective remote program leadership in the post-pandemic world. Remote project leadership adds value to programs, and leaders will need to strategically leverage the benefits of remote work while understanding and adapting to its risks. 

As James Alexander put it, “we are better together.” However, the definition of “together” will continue to evolve as leaders make critical decisions as to when and how to meet in person. If you’re interested in talking with our program leadership experts about how your organization is experiencing these trends, please reach out to us at findoutmore@credera.com.

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