An interview with Bob Dignen conducted by Bartosz Zych about being a great leader in the world of remote working

Remote working has had a huge impact on the way we communicate, manage teams and build relations. Could you tell us what exactly has happened in this field for the last two and a half years?

Firstly, let’s consider the idea of a huge impact. I would say yes and no, because for people working, particularly in IT projects over the last 20-25 years, remote and hybrid working have actually been very standard. What we’ve seen, therefore, is the standard for a relatively small number of people as becoming standard for a very large number of people.

I think the question is interesting as it touches on the prejudice, particularly among people who worked in face-to-face co-located teams, about working remotely. About four years ago, I supervised a paper at the University of Reykjavik. A guy, who worked for Cisco, researched the difference between working remotely and working face-to-face, and the research was very interesting because it indicated that virtual communication against face to face communication can be equally, if not more effective, and virtual teams against face to face can be even more effective than face to face.

So I think one of the big changes we have seen is the realisation that remote working can actually work and that, in certain circumstances, you can work primarily remotely and still be highly effective. Yes, it’s different, but the prejudice that remote working is a poor relation compared to face to face working, has been destroyed. At least, I hope it has.

Fot. Bob Dignen’s archive

Do you think there is still a difference between co-located and more remote teams when communication and managing in projects?

Let’s come back initially to the idea of what we mean by remote working or hybrid team. Actually, when you think about it, all teams, per definition, are hybrid. They always have been, because we never work 24/7 with people. We have used email… at least for the last 40 years. We have used telephones for the last 100 years. So, we have all been working in a hybrid context as a norm. What has changed is the intensity and the proportion of work that is now hybrid. I think that’s very important to say. We’re not dealing with something transformational. We’ve simply intensified the level of hybrid.

Does it change the way we do projects? I think, actually, that remote is not fundamentally the most significant factor. I mean, going back to the Cisco research, what that indicated is that projects will be successful, not if they are remote or co-located. It’s not irrelevant but there are other more important factors. For example, do you have competent team members? Do you have a clear goal? Do you have enough resources? Do you have senior management support? When these other factors are in play, then remote teams can actually generally work quite effectively.

When these factors are not in play, which, unfortunately, is the reality for many projects, then the problems become magnified in remote teams, and then remote gets the blame. But remote, I don’t think is actually the problem. The underlying problem is the uncomfortable reality that many projects in large organizations are not populated by the best leaders and they’re not resourced effectively by organizations. And so, it’s convenient to blame remote rather than blame internal leadership.

Fot. PMI PC Gdansk Branch archive Bob Dignen at NTPM Conference, Gdansk 2017.

What’s the future of managing project teams? Is there a way back to co-located work or are we heading to avatars and working only online?

We will continue to work in a hybrid environment as we always have. What we’ll see is a more intensive use of remote-centric hybrid. For many reasons, people like working remotely, and I think many employees, particularly the younger generation, will want to keep that. It’s possible that if companies try to go back to a fully co-located way of working, they will lose talent.  Secondly, of course, there are cost advantages to not travelling.  And then the big question is, what’s the adjustment if we’re not working face to face so often, how does that affect how we conduct projects? And I think we will probably need to think more carefully about which work we do online, which work we do offline together, and which work we do online together.

When you’re working in a remote team environment, the more creative, spontaneous kinds of activity are just a little bit more difficult to manage and to do because dynamic turn-taking is problematic, you can’t be as spontaneous and have multiple conversations at the same time. It’s much more linear in a remote environment. So I think the remote will be used mainly for check-ins and for alignment and possibly for informational briefings. That’s why many organizations are looking to design physical space as the creative space, not just for creative workshops, but actually I’ve spoken to many organizations – a couple in Poland – that see the workplace no longer is the place for work. It’s the place where people come to socialize. So you go to the office not to work. You go to the office to have cups of coffee, to play table football, just to have lunch with people. The workplace becomes, strangely, a social space where you can kind of do informal get togethers, get the effect of the relationship side. So I think those are my two big predictions. Workplace will probably become the creative space. Workplace will become the social space.

Fot. PMI PC Gdansk Branch archive

Do you mean something like another place for just spending time, not working?

Yes, which is very paradoxical. We don’t normally think of a workplace as a place not for work. But in the future it will become the place where relationships get done because emotional connections are difficult to develop online due to its more linear mode of communication.

I think there’s maybe one other thing, and it’s an advantage about remote. Online allows you to connect resources much more easily. You can bring people to one place from all over the world much more easily. In the past, it was normal to have just one team building in a two or three year project, because it’s difficult and expensive to bring everybody together. Working more remotely will allow people to bring better talents to projects, because you can connect to somebody in Ukraine, to somebody in India, to somebody in the Philippines. You don’t have to work with local talent anymore. Of course, how you find and manage that global talent is another challenge. But the potential to work with a global workforce for your project is now much more present.

I have several contacts who have challenges in their organizations due to the fact that the methods and tools they were used to don’t work anymore. Could you give some practical advice on how they can deal with managing teams online?

So, let’s talk about the elephant in the room, you didn’t mention. And I think it’s the fear among many managers that when you work remotely, you can’t control the project effectively. And I think one of the big adjustments that people need to make from a leadership point of view is to work what in Telenor, the Norwegian telecoms operator,  is called “tight-loose-tight”. Tight means, when you come together at the beginning of a project you’re brutally clear and direct about what needs to be done, to which level of quality and by when. Everybody commits: “I will do this by this date” – end of story. It’s a more kind of detailed and analytical form of planning and a stronger commitment to do it.

Then you go “loose” – people disappear. There’s very little tracking by management because you don’t want to get involved in micromanagement. You have to trust that people will actually deliver. And then you come back around the deadline and you basically clarify that you’ve delivered on the results with total accountability. And I think this rhythm of “tight-loose-tight may”, which involves more trust, which involves less day to day micromanagement, will be a kind of an adjustment that people, particularly at the leadership level, have to make.

And the interesting thing about that is that the loose component means that team members have to be able to do the work independently of the manager. This means that the project team members have to be more skilled, they have to be able to do the job they have to do. So, that means in terms of recruitment, you have to hire good people in a remote environment because you cannot micromanage anymore. You can’t handle it in the same way. So, you’ve got to recruit better people, train people better so that they can perform consistently and then work with slightly different interaction protocols.

Fot. Anastasia Shuraeva from Pexels

Coming back to relationships for a second, is it always more difficult online?

That’s a good point because I think there’s a little bit of a myth that you can’t build relationships online. Remember, people have been navigating personal relationships by telephone, as I said, for the last 50 years. And actually the evidence indicates when you have a video conference with another person on a one to one, it’s a very effective forum to connect, to have fun, to develop trust.

Suddenly, with the webcam on, I see into your private home; in a way, we actually have the potential to connect in a more intimate way. We can blur private and professional in a new way. Before I used to meet you in a suit in the office. You were much more abstract. Now we are somehow more human, in our private spaces and more relaxed. I think the big opportunity here is in one-to-one meetings. I was speaking to somebody in India this morning about this and her approach to managing relationships was really all about one-to-ones – using a daily 15-minute check in with her direct reports – How are you doing? How are you feeling? What are you working on today? And in a one-to-one in a virtual meeting, it’s all private. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. This kind of personal check in was used a lot at the start of the pandemic when leaders had to have more emotionally driven conversations with people. People were stressed – about jobs, family, health. Leaders just had to connect to emotions. And this was a major breakthrough for many leaders because they discovered the power of empathy. And I think rather than pushing us apart, Covid has actually enabled leaders and team members in many cases to come close together.

Fot. Pixabay

You are a lecturer in different European countries. Do you observe any differences between attitudes to working online in these countries?

It’s an interesting question – what you’re asking me about is cultural differences to working online. And I think those working in international projects, particularly, still use this lens of national culture as a way to explain their world. And they use that lens too much. I mean, provocatively, because again, I work in academic contexts. I supervised a research paper looking at the impact of national culture on international projects. The results of the paper were very interesting. Firstly, the paper concluded that national cultures don’t exist, that there is Poland, but there isn’t really a national culture which you can call Polish. It’s more fragmented than that. And actually, other things are much more significant than this thing we call national culture. In fact, when culture matters is when we have differences connected to professional cultures, whether you work in sales or legal or purchasing or IT. And at the end of the day, individual preferences matter. So, you almost need to do a job diagnostic for yourself. Which parts of my job can I do independently online? Which parts do I need to spend time on, and then you need to negotiate with colleagues and create almost a new culture for your team. And then you ask others – When do we come together? When do we come apart? I don’t think it’s national culture that matters. It’s individual jobs and cooperations models that need to be diagnosed here.

As a nation we are really overworked during Covid. Especially mothers right now in Poland have very tough days. I know there is no simple solution for this problem, but could you give some hints on how we can deal with this problem?

Particularly for those working in projects, I think work overload is a very common part of reality because in fact, the driving force for work is deadlines. It’s not work-life balance. So many people working on projects are often, by definition, overloaded. Actually the intensity, the expectation of the worker today, if I compare it to 15 years ago, is much higher. I think it’s actually almost an economic problem that companies are trying to deliver more profit or the same profit with fewer people. It’s a systemic problem, unfortunately, which many companies don’t admit because at a certain level it’s illegal. You cannot force somebody to work at 130%, but most companies are doing it. So people, therefore, are in very difficult situations. If you want a job today, you are facing a very challenging environment. Whichever job you have, mother, father, son or daughter, how to cope with that?

Fot. PMI PC Gdansk Branch archive Bob Dignen speaking at NTPM Conference, Gdansk 2017.

So how to cope with that?

I think there are a couple of things to think about – and firstly, it’s prioritization. You have to start to divide your working tasks between must do, good to do, nice to do, not necessary to do, and start to segment your tasks with brutal military discipline on a day by day basis, or you will find yourself doing the wrong thing and suffering stress. Prioritization of tasks, of course, may need to be negotiated with your manager.

The other big thing which is quite difficult, particularly for younger professionals, is accepting lower quality. But you need to learn to deliver work at 80% quality, then you can do it faster and you don’t need to spend so much time and invest so much stress. And actually when I deliver something to you at 80% and I say, how is that? Very often people say, that’s fine or somebody says, actually I have another idea and they come back and they deliver higher quality than your 100%. To be honest, the more you do that, the more you realize a lot of jobs are not necessary.

So simple, but so hard to implement, no?

It’s hard to implement because companies reward people who constantly go the extra mile. You’re seen as a talent, if you work 130%, and you deliver 100% quality all the time. So unfortunately, the people who are promoted are not following the best role model. That means, if you don’t follow that role model, it can damage your career. That’s really a trade off, particularly for younger professionals. Again, thinking about what you really want from life, do you really want to damage your health? Do you really want to not sleep well? Do you want to risk your personal relationships? If you do overwork, no problem. It will happen. If you don’t want that, then take a different view. Take a long term view. You;re in a marathon, not a sprint!

Fot. Strefa PMI archive Bob Dignen and Bartosz Zych (Strefa PMI) during an online interview

Poland has the lowest number of anti-covid vaccinated people per citizen in Europe. It’s a huge problem for employers in Poland. Do you see any way the leaders can motivate their team members to get vaccinated?

As always, with any kind of motivational question, whether it’s a vaccine, whether it’s working late, whether it’s going the extra mile. Leaders need to listen to the concerns of their team members to try to understand why they are skeptical. And the skepticism may come from different areas. It may come from fake news that they read online, in which case it becomes a case of education – you need to prove that the fake news is false. If it comes from some kind of irrational fear of needles or some kind of belief that I’m superhuman, nothing can happen to me. That’s a more challenging thing to engage with. The interesting thing about motivation is that I think at the end of the day, what motivates people is an intrinsic motivation, not external motivation. So I think the key for a leader is to discover an intrinsic factor that can inspire somebody to get vaccinated and, for example, respect for other people, for example. Of course, I wish to protect others rather than just focus on oneself may inspire some people, but I think it’s a very difficult one because I suspect that in Poland there may be political reasons here that the vaccine is seen as a state phenomenon and therefore people’s relationship with the state gets mingled with the decision about vaccination or not. And I think mixing politics and health things can get difficult. I think my simple advice would be to go back to the scientific evidence. The scientific evidence is pretty clear that vaccines protect you, protect others, and it’s difficult to deny that.

Thank you for a very interesting discussion, and I hope we will have an opportunity to see each other face to face soon.

I’m sure we will.