Working in complex international projects during a global pandemic

Working in complex international projects during a global pandemic

Viking Glory - credit Viking Line

Work life change

During my career, I’ve been involved in developing the business processes of companies in a variety of industries. We live in an ever-evolving world, so it’s necessary for us to realise how the transformation of working life and new technologies constantly being introduced will influence business operations now and in the future. However, nothing had prepared us for such a rapid change in working life as the global COVID-19 pandemic forced on us.

Right before the pandemic, we were actively participating in discussions on how digitalisation and new technologies could change our industry and daily work in the future. Then all of a sudden social distancing dictated by the pandemic grew to such proportions that we began to feel like Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince, working and doing our chores alone on remote asteroids, without the possibility of meeting our colleagues, clients and other members of our social network in person. And the new normal method of communication became Picturephone-like solutions as in a book “2001: A Space Odyssey” by Arthur C. Clarke (or the film version by Stanley Kubrick, if you prefer watching movies to reading) disguised as Teams, Zoom or other similar platforms. Thus came a major change in working life.

When the pandemic came knocking at our door and extensive restrictions were introduced as an attempt to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, we at Deltamarin also had to assess how our business processes and working methods would fit in with the completely new situation.

Working during the pandemic

We spent an afternoon with my good colleague, one of the most experienced project managers at Deltamarin, Mr Rami Suominen, discussing the challenges we´ve faced in our projects during the pandemic.

The pandemic did have a negative impact on our business, as it did for so many other businesses worldwide, but, Fortunately, we´ve succeeded in executing some major projects during that time. Rami Suominen had a project for China Merchants’ Weihai shipyard to provide approval and detail design of Finnlines Superstar ro-pax vessels. I was running the final phase of a project where we supported Xiamen Shipbuilding Industry by providing project management and supervision services during the construction of Viking Line´s new cruise ferry Viking Glory.

Finnlines Superstar ropax - credit Finnlines

Finnlines Superstar ropax – credit Finnlines

We identified three main topics that we in particular had to consider in our projects: building and maintaining a collaborative environment among the project stakeholders, communication and meeting practices, and project time management.

Building and maintaining a collaborative environment

One of the first things that comes to mind when talking about successful project management is how to take care of customer relationships. Because we work with clientele from different businesses, backgrounds and cultures, building and maintaining a collaborative environment is essential for enabling successful and fluent project execution.

Due to the pandemic, we were unable to travel and have face-to-face meetings with clients and other project stakeholders, which normally have a significant influence on establishing the collaboration. In Rami´s project, the challenge was more prominent as the project was just beginning and that´s when you build the foundation for future collaboration.

Rami told me that they had virtual meetings basically every day to establish the communication between all relevant project stakeholders, to deal with various issues and to enable the required conditions to proceed in the project. The good interpersonal and leadership skills of the people in charge are paramount when building and maintaining collaboration. Because we were unable to meet in person, it took more time than usual with an endless chain of virtual meetings and frequent communication to establish new ways to maintain a collaborative environment, but eventually everything worked out well.

In my case, we had been working for years with the client, and we did have a site team at the shipyard working together with the client before the pandemic began. Therefore, we already knew each other’s working methods and already had a good collaborative environment established.

However, the health and well-being of the site team became my primary concern. Having team members working abroad during a pandemic is a situation that cannot be prepared for. Due to travel restrictions, rotation could not be implemented as planned and the team had to adapt to a situation in which the number of uncertainties grew unpredictably. For some people, this meant longer than expected stays abroad. The development of the global situation had to be constantly monitored. Fortunately, there were no dramatic surprises. A big thanks to the client for all the support it provided to make our team´s life easier. And special thanks to the site team for their willingness to be flexible in meeting the needs of the project and client.

Communication and meeting practices

Moving from an office environment to working purely remote of course poses major challenges. Naturally, we had to take this into consideration in our projects as well. At Deltamarin, our organisation was used to using Microsoft Teams even before the pandemic, and remote work was already allowed to a limited extent. In globally operating companies, virtual meetings and online communication between different stakeholders have been taking place for several years.

Fairly soon after moving to remote working, Microsoft Teams became the primary tool for communication and meetings. It was used both for internal communication and communication with external stakeholders in projects. We have also had other video conferencing tools at our disposal, but using one comprehensive system proved to be efficient and productive. It was also easier to identify security issues when one universally accepted system was in place.

The number of virtual meetings increased significantly during the pandemic. It took some time to learn the best practices to adapt the new technologies but it has now become the new normal for us.

Time management

Well implemented time management is one of the most important duties of any project manager and an essential process for managing the timely completion of the project. In a complex, large-scale project, there are typically several stakeholders involved.

We realised that, due to the pandemic, there is a high probability that restrictions in different countries might have some negative effect on the business of our client or some other project stakeholder, which in turn could have consequential effects on the project schedule. How time and project schedule can be managed in a situation filled with uncertainties was one of the concerns we needed to deal with.

We have good risk management procedures in place at Deltamarin. By emphasising risk management to cover also potential risks arising from a pandemic, we were able to identify new risks and consider how to mitigate them.

Through intensive and continuous monitoring of the situation, we remained aware of the effects of the pandemic in different countries.

Frequent communication and regular meetings with project stakeholders ensured that we were aware of the possible changes at the earliest possible stage. If any alarm signals were detected, the necessary corrections could be made in good time.

Surviving the change

The COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped the world and we are recovering from the shock. We have learned to use technologies, which we already had but didn´t realise the benefit of. It seems that working life has changed for good. Remote working will be a permanent part of future work. Although the pandemic momentarily accelerated the change in working life, the change is not over yet. It will now always be a part of working life, as long as humanity is dependent on work.

For more information, please contact:
Jarkko Nurmi
Project Engineer, Cost & Planning

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