Challenges of Project Management in COVID times

TEXT | Adebayo Agbejule

Companies operate in a competitive environment that requires the creation of value for customers, using resources in an efficient way and at the same meeting delivery deadlines. These requirements have created the need for companies to use project management tools and techniques to improve their operational capacities in terms of flexibility, speed and execution of their international operations and projects  (Sane, 2019). Currently, projects are seen as a way to control the flow of activities, implement changes, innovate and obtain competitive advantage (Drouin and Besner, 2012). In addition, the project management has become a way  for organizations to integrate their functions and help team leaders to achieve increasingly complex goals (Morris, 1997). Many projects operate in environments that are considered to be uncertain where management flexibility and tolerance of ambiguity are necessary.  The COVID-19 has redefined the role of many organizational and management tools including project management.

COVID-19 created a new working environment characterized by uncertainties where most organizational activities including project management are done remotely. Researchers (e.g. Atkinson et al. 2006) proposed that uncertainties in project management are related to different requirement of project stakeholders, project time estimates, and the different stages of the project life cycles. These inherent uncertainties in project management coupled with uncertainties created by COVID-19 has increased the the need to find a new innovative approach in how project management can be employed in the new volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous (VUCA) and virtual environment.

The goal of this article is to explore the current challenges of project management, how to deal with these challenges in COVID-19 era, and to suggest a recommendation on the role of project management in a virtual environment. Based on the interview of 20 project engineers, studying in the Master’s program in project management at Vaasa University of Applied Sciences, and working in 10 different organizations, the challenges of project management and related potential research areas are presented.

The results of the interview show that key challenges of project managements include scope definition, uncertainty in project scheduling, and why lessons learned are not implemented in many organization (see Table 1).

Key Issues in Project ManagementKey questions
ScopeWhy is scope creep occuring?
What are the best methods for defining scope boundaries?
How to prevent scope creep?
ScheduleWhy is timeline unclear?
What are some ways to counter late timeline?
What are the best methods for clearly defining the timeline?
Lesson learnedWhy are lessons learned not always taken into account?
What are the main reasons lessons learned are not implemented?
How to effectively transfer learnings from previous projects?
Volume of the work
not clear  
Is all data available when planning the project?
What information is needed before project start?
How to identify you have all data when planning the project?
What are the best tools for estimating workload?
How to accurately define needed resources based on projects workload?
Not enough
before project start  
Is all data available when planning the project?
What information is needed before project start?
How to identify you have all data when planning project?
Work remotely in
project management
What kind of leaders, and more specifically, which leadership skills, behaviors or practices contribute to effective virtual teams?
Table 1. Key Challenges of Project Management

In project management literature (e.g. Atkinson et al., 2006; Bond-Barnard et al., 2018), the recommended approach to deal with uncertainties and the challenges mentioned above is to develop trust among the different parties in the project life cycle. Atkinson et al. (2006) proposed the following aspects of trust related issues in project management: (i) vulnerability (to the action of others);  (ii) credibility (related to both ‘can do’ and ‘will do’); (iii) culture (of the organization) and (iv) visibility (and openness of information). For example, trust can create an atmosphere of psychological safety in the organization where employees are motivated to create new ways of doing things, especially in situations of uncertainty. The organization must include the role of trust in a project management orientations to ensure a balance understanding between control and trust. For example, too much dependence on control in times of uncertainty can lead to dysfunctional behaviours that can slow down innovation and creativity.  When there is a high level of trust in the project environment, managers and project team members are motivated to provide their opinions and ideas without fear, communication is open and transparent which in turns leads to favourable organization climate. Innovative ideas are likely to be generated when communication flows freely. Trusting teams improve cooperative and collaborative processes, which assist them manage the interdependencies better among their respective areas of expertise and with different stakeholder (Bond-Barnard et al. 2018).

Prior research has argued that the key factors for an effective virtual team in project management are technology, trust, knowledge sharing, empowerment and leadership (e.g. Snellman, 2014). Based on challenges presented by the interviewees, this article focuses on trust, knowledge sharing and self leadership. Project team members (PTM) are encouraged to share knowledge to increase cooperation and reduce mutual conflict (Wu, Lin, and Lin, 2006).  Knowledge sharing between members is more difficult in virtual teams than in traditional face- to-face meeting. For effective knowledge sharing to occur, trust among team members is essential  (Holste and Fields, 2010). Hence, trust is also essential for knowledge sharing to occur among virtual team members and this can lead to improve project performance. PTM are likely to share knowledge with colleagues who can be trusted. Another key challenge is how to lead a project team member in a virtual environment. Hoefling (2017) proposed eight virtual leader competencies:

  1. Build commitment, not control
  2. Focus, coordinate, and communicate
  3. Connect, do not gate keep
  4. Manage by results, not by sight
  5. Coach, do not manage
  6. Dialogue, do not dictate
  7. Blend technology and people
  8. Integrate, do not comply

This article has presented the current key challenges of project management. COVID-19 has called for increased recognition of remote working in project management.The article has shown the importance of building trust and knowledge sharing as critical aspect of virtual environment. One of the key challenges for the virtual leader leading PTM without the traditional face-to face- interaction and observation is to understand which type of communication tool is appropriate for different project team members. An effective leader in the virtual environment should be trained on how to use different communication tools to communicate precisely and constructively to promote trust. On the other hand, PTM must develop self-leadership  skills due to the difficulties in monitoring in a virtual environment. A virtual project management leader enables coaching, provides emotional support for PTM, and shifts team management to shared responsibilty to promote job satisfaction and performance. The organization should include the role of trust, knowledge sharing, shared leadership and responsibility in project management orientation to help to improve virtual team effectivness. The article has also presented potential research questions for students in project management.

  • Atkinson, R., Crawford, L., & Ward, S. (2006). Fundamental uncertainties in projects and the scope of project management, International Journal of Project Management, Volume 24, 8, 687-698.

  • Bond-Barnard, T.J., Fletcher, L., & Steyn, H. (2018). Linking trust and collaboration in project teams to project management success. International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, 11, 432-457.

  • Drouin, Nathalie & Besner, Claude. (2012). Projects and organisations: Adding rungs to the ladder of understanding project management and its relationship with the organisation. International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, 5, 175-179.

  • Hoefling, T. (2017). Working Virtually. Transforming the Mobile Worksplace. Second Edition. Sterling, Virgina. U.S.A

  • Morris, P.W.G. (1997), The Management of Projects, 2nd edition., Thomas Telford Publishing, London.

  • Sané, S. (2019). Effect of using project management tools and techniques on SMEs performance in developing country context. International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, Vol.13, No.3, pp.453-466.

  • Snellman, C.L (2014).Virtual Teams: Opportunities and Challenges for e-Leaders, Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, Volume 110, 2014, pp. 1251-1261.

  • Wu, S., Lin, C.S. and Lin, T.C. (2006), ‘‘Exploring knowledge sharing in virtual teams: a social exchange theory perspective’’, Proceedings of the 39th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, pp. 1-10.

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