People build cities, express themselves through art, and push forward our understanding of the world through science and logic. At the same time, they exhibit cognitive bias and often behave in ways that defy this same science and reasoning.
The simultaneous application of logic and defiance of logic is part of what makes humanity rich and complex. It is also why predicting how the world will change after the COVID-19 pandemic contains much uncertainty. Some effects will be the sensible results of events and reactions. Others will be nonsensical reactions (like hoarding toilet paper) due to cognitive bias. These factors will intermingle and interact with new yet unknown events to create a tomorrow that is impossible to calculate.
So, while nobody knows how our future will be different, we do have some ideas to help make an educated guess.
(Y)Our Thinking is Flawed
Before following the conclusions to their impacts on project management, such as more remote work and an aversion to collocated workplaces, let’s review why this logic will be proved wrong. People do not behave rationally. Instead, we exhibit many illogical behaviors called cognitive biases. There are several informative lists and pretty maps of cognitive biases, but some that apply in predicting life after COVID-19 include:
1. Loss aversion – The feeling that it is better to avoid a loss than acquire an equivalent gain. In experiments that ask people how much they would need to win to risk losing $100 on the flip of a coin, the answer is always over $200, which has financial parity. We genuinely do not like losing things.
Evolution has taught us to be cautious. When prehistoric man hunted for survival, seeing something in the grass that could be a deer or a lion, it was best to consider it a lion and live to hunt another day. The gain (food) is much less than the potential loss (death). All the people with a more optimistic viewpoint were soon eaten and did not get to further contribute toward our evolution.
2. Availability bias – The tendency to overestimate the likelihood of events with greater “availability” in our memory, which is influenced by how recent the memories are or how emotionally charged they may be. People are not going to forget COVID-19 for a long time, and will likely behave disproportionally to the risk of a similar event.
In 2013, my home town of Canmore, Canada experienced a freak weather event when three storm systems became stuck in place for days, creating unprecedented rain and flooding. Scientists estimated that the likelihood of it ever happening again is tiny. However, because it happened once—and it was recent and unpleasant—all kinds of flood mitigation and debris-capture dams were justified and built.
Logical and Flawed Forecasts for Project Managers
The logical and illogical ramifications of the pandemic will change how we work in large and small ways. At a macroeconomic level, the business case for many projects will change. Entire industries will flounder while others flourish. Project managers should expect to see a shift in project types as investments change.
The cruise ship business may take a generation to recover as the vivid reporting of confinement and concern will be hard to shake off. Air travel industries and support services could be severely reduced for a couple of reasons:
- First, more people have now tried remote collaboration and worked through the kinks and learning process. People will question if all meetings in the future have to be face to face. A switch to just, say, alternating remote with F2F would be a 50% reduction.
- Second, the pandemic accelerated through air travel and people were stranded in foreign countries away from their family. People will think of travel differently in the future and be more reluctant to go.
On the upside, remote work tools, health care, personal protection equipment and a host of other industries will see increased investment and growth. Online products and services and business-to-consumer retail sales will likely stay in high demand as people get used to cutting out the middle man and saving money. Project managers would be well served to learn about cloud-based platforms and remote collaboration tools as their adoption has been rapidly accelerated.
Project and Personal Changes
At the project level, what might change? We often want what we cannot have; as people are told to work from home and stay indoors, they naturally want to go out. Yet, once the restrictions are lifted, I think more people will want to work from home when they realize the savings in commuting costs and time.
Do we really have to drive for 45 minutes to sit at a desk and do knowledge work we could do from home? Yes, F2F meetings are superior for communication, but perhaps just two or three days a week in the office is enough, the rest from home. Many organizations had work-from-home and entire remote work structures before the pandemic. What may change is the broader adoption of these ideas. Hot desking can save organizations billions of dollars in office space reductions alone.
What about open-plan offices, high-fives and shaking hands? Open-plan offices favored by agile teams were criticized as “germ factories” long before COVID-19. We often see people wearing headphones to counteract noise pollution (and undermine some of the reasons for having an open space)…might we see face masks, too? When people start pushing back with legitimate health and safety concerns, HR departments might be nervous to support project manager requests for team colocation.
Will people still want to attend project management conferences and in-person training courses packed into hotel ballrooms with communal buffets? Or will lower-cost and more time-efficient virtual conferences become the norm?
Project Managers Have an Advantage
Projects are all about change. We are always building some new product or service, or enhancing something and then working with people to facilitate its introduction. As such, project managers instigate and deal with change in our everyday lives. We have access to organizational change models that explain when people resist change and when we welcome change. We know about stages of loss, building support for change, and confidence assessment models.
This knowledge makes us uniquely equipped to deal with a new tomorrow. Once we realize it will be a weird combination of logical and irrational behavior, we can use our skills to embrace it and move with the changes. It’s the slower-moving industries I feel sorry for, like auditors, tax accountants and lawyers…they may all be in for a wake-up!