Two Changes I Made During COVID-19 That Made Me a Better Project Manager

I’m a project manager and a chronic people pleaser, so I’ve always taken on a lot of responsibilities. Strategist, resource trafficker, inbox junkie, cheerleader and sometimes perpetual thorn in your side, to name a few. In normal times, I had to be organized, thick-skinned, a creative problem solver, great communicator, emotionally intelligent and able to inspire teams to get things done.

But “normal times” went out the window on March 13, 2020. 

I vividly remember how I felt the day we all went home. In the blink of an eye, I went from worrying about monthly reports to worrying about everything —  including the fear of an unknown health crisis that could impact the lives of my loved ones. Every week grew more stressful as COVID-19 kept spreading. At the same time, my personal life fell to pieces and intense social justice movements swept the country. 

For months, there was a pit in my stomach that I couldn’t shake, and sleepless nights left me in a fog. I felt frustrated trying to navigate a new world all while work at Nebo blew up like I’d never seen before. I was sad. I was scared. I was at the end of my emotional rope. 

Every email felt like an attack. “What do you want?” The voice inside my head raged with every new inbox notification. “Don’t you know the world is ending? Don’t you know how inconsequential this is? Don’t you know how much I’m going through right now???”

Then I realized that everyone was feeling similarly to me. My coworkers and clients did, in fact, know the world was ending. They were also going through the same difficulties as me. Life as we knew it was changing, we were all forced to change with it and I felt like it was up to me to lead the charge.

Managing projects through this pandemic has been an unpredictable experience. While the shift to working from home might seem like the biggest change, that part was easier than I expected. The biggest growth ahead would be less obvious. 

I’ve learned more about my clients in the last 10 months than I did in the previous five years. They aren’t faceless voices behind a phone or names filling up my inbox anymore. Working from home humanized them in ways I didn’t even realize were needed until I saw inside their homes and heard their dogs barking at the doorbell. Invisible barriers crumbled and the formalities that blocked productivity fell away, which made it easier to have difficult conversations and discuss challenges as a unified team.

COVID-19 also significantly impacted many of our clients and their customers. Needs changed daily, so instant adaptation, quick turnarounds and never-ending changes became necessary. We built landing pages, sent emails and upended our strategies overnight. While an influx of new requests and work make Nebo lucky in a lot of ways, it didn’t come without a toll. 

I noticed a low-simmering burnout of everyone around me. People were exhausted without their usual outlets to unwind at the end of the day. Never in my life have I so often told my coworkers, “I need you to tell me the truth, not what you think I want to hear.” 

As I watched all of this unfold, I pondered what it meant to be a successful project manager these days. The role may be more or less the same, but the approach couldn’t be. Two big shifts in how I handle my work have made the biggest difference for my projects — relationship management and task management. 

Otherwise known as empathy and strategically letting go a bit.

What I personally needed most in the early months of the pandemic was empathy. I felt angry with every new email, but not because of the contents. I was angry because I felt like the world was falling down around me and I was always trying to be on when I felt so off. 

I was trying to juggle a million new tasks without letting anyone notice I was struggling and it was exhausting. I wanted someone to say, “It’s okay if you don’t respond to that email right away, I know you’ve got a lot going on right now.” I needed that so badly, but realized everyone around me probably did too, and I wasn’t saying it to them, either. That needed to change. 

Nebo’s core values revolve around being human-centered and if there was ever a time to live up to them, this was it. I stopped answering every, “How are you?” with “Fine” and encouraged people to do the same — and they did! Adding just a few minutes of conversation to a call has been overwhelmingly helpful in gauging how people are doing. They open up to me and knowing what’s going on with my team has made it a lot easier to manage projects smoothly.

I’ve been living with my sister and her family the last few months, so I’ve seen her and her husband struggle to be full-time parents to a toddler and full-time employees. On top of my nephew’s daily shenanigans, they feel guilty about how much he’s had to entertain himself while they work. My clients and co-workers with kids are probably in the same boat. I imagine some of my clients have worried about their jobs this year. Maybe my coworkers who live alone have felt crushed by loneliness. We’ve all been juggling stuff, even if we don’t always talk about it. Approaching my relationships with empathy has increased my flexibility and patience. I’ve been able to support my team when they need it most. In return, the work I’ve seen from my team has been so much better. 

Empathy has also helped me take control over my projects while also having the flexibility this moment in time demands. I call this “an invisible iron fist.” Insteading of holding onto plans with such a tight grip that I become inflexible, I keep a tight enough grip that I can adapt painlessly, and I try to hold that grip quietly without anyone feeling the pressure of it. 

To be successful with the invisible iron first, I needed a better understanding of the inner workings of my projects. I asked more questions and learned more details. I led my teams’ tactical planning until I knew exactly who was doing what and when, which priorities were ahead next and how I could pull from the pipeline as things changed. 

Suddenly, I didn’t just see the big picture, I saw every brush stroke that created it.

This level of task organization hasn’t just made it easier to adapt to change, it’s also empowered me to say no when I need to, which is something I’ve always struggled with as a chronic people pleaser. Being able to say “no” or tell my teammates that they have higher priorities has helped me keep everyone’s eye on the prize and maintain our sanity. An organized project manager helps make a happy, high-performing team. 

In a year of high demands and higher emotions, being all things to everyone was no longer serving me as a project manager. I’ve had to adapt my role and communicate more. I’ve become a workload manager, confidant and unofficial emotional support when needed. 

I’ve shifted from being deadline-focused to an empathetic, organized thinker who can balance the end goals with the small details. I don’t see this new way of project management going away once we all have vaccines in our arms and warm seats in our offices again. Project management has changed forever. 

Most importantly, it’s changed for the better.

Written by Haley Savage on February 12, 2021


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Haley Savage