One Project Manager’s Guide to Surviving the Pandemic

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Since March of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed virtually every aspect of life both at home and in the workplace. Public health research and support consulting is certainly no exception. The focus of what public health professionals are studying suddenly shifted to COVID-19 emergency response. There was upheaval in how we performed this work. Previously, most public health professionals worked together in person, sitting across from each other in conference rooms in secure government facilities. Perhaps the biggest challenges have been faced by those who plan, collect, analyze, study, and communicate public health research. As a project manager who returned from maternity leave in the summer of 2020 to a very different public health contracting world, I have learned three important strategies to execute contracts successfully during the COVID-19 emergency response.  

As a project manager for multiple federal government public health contracts, I have always valued clear, systematic processes and standard operating procedures (SOPs). Using these established best practices to plan, start, and manage my projects and staff has always given me a reassuring sense of control. If I have all my boxes checked, I can sign off and relax at the end of the workday! 

The pandemic turned our world upside down, seemingly overnight. Like all aspects of our lives, the COVID-19 pandemic presented many new challenges to project managers in the public health space. 

Our work shifted suddenly to an emergency response. The dangers of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and subsequent mitigation strategies caused an abrupt halt to our in-person working environment. Our staff members faced personal physical and mental health challenges. The previously relied upon project management processes and SOPs became obsolete overnight. Now we face challenges regarding how to adapt to new public health needs and virtual work environments while supporting the personal and family challenges faced by our staff. 

Supporting Emergency Response Efforts through Highly Skilled Staff

The U.S. Federal Government immediately called for new public health research and support projects to collect, analyze, and communicate reliable data related to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the COVID-19 pandemic. With the rapid evolution of the pandemic and new science and data emerging every day, the specific needs of the response continues to change and evolve with time. 

In an emergency response, there is no time for contracts and research studies that take years to plan and implement. This country needs reliable information now.  With Karna’s largest client at the forefront of the emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Karna project managers had to be ready to answer the call. 

As a project manager for multiple COVID-19 pandemic contracts, I saw first-hand the importance of having smart, qualified public health professionals on your team who are willing to answer the call – whether jumping from task to task or working nights and weekends. Having existing team members who are willing to change project directions quickly, while keeping a positive attitude and hard work ethic, has been vital to project success over the past 18 months. As new contracts started, I intentionally hired qualified individuals with diverse and varied skill sets, agile personalities, and positive attitudes so that we are prepared to respond to changing client needs. Additionally, it has been helpful to plan for flexibility within my project management plans for easy access to the changing expertise needed by the client. 

Adapting to New Client Needs by Offering Creative Solution Delivery

While the pandemic certainly presented new projects that required fast, new solutions, we could not abandon our existing projects. In order to continue the important work of our current contracts, agility and creative solutions were paramount. For example, Karna had a public health research and evaluation project that was in its second year when the pandemic hit. The researchers had been planning to start traveling across the country to interview hospital systems personnel, right as hospitals were filling up and non-essential travel was restricted. Although the initial instinct may have been to pause or abandon the project, Karna was able to pivot and hold these interviews via videoconference by accommodating hospital staff members’ busy schedules. For this project to succeed we had to be creative and willing to explore new options. Through effective client communication, Karna was able to reallocate contract funding and offer a solution to the client. The quick implementation of this new solution resulted in successful data collection and analysis, achieving the project goals below the planned budget and within the agreed timeline.

Using Empathy to Support a Dedicated Workforce

A healthy, energized, and dedicated workforce is vital to continuing to provide the public health response that our country and world needs. This pandemic has forced business leaders to become intimately aware of the fragility and importance of our interpersonal infrastructure. The resources that we all rely upon to provide safety, care, and education to our families evaporated with the COVID-19 pandemic. As a project manager and nurse practitioner, I find it incredibly important to remember we all have a shared human experience of facing the fear, loss, and emotional difficulty of this pandemic. Approaching your fellow colleagues, staff, leadership, partners, and clients with empathy and compassion is the most important thing we can do for each other and our organizations. Communicating kindness, understanding, and support creates an environment where people willingly and enthusiastically work together toward a common goal. In my experience as an employee and manager, feeling respected and cared for by an employer increases productivity and reduces burn out.

Supporting Staff during an Emergency Response

Concrete ways that you can support your staff may look like:

  • Scheduling frequent touch points and check-ins, making sure to ask how they are doing

  • Active listening to identify ways you can support their success

  • Helping them navigate technology as they transition to remote work

  • Being flexible with work schedules so they can juggle personal and family responsibilities

  • Acting as a liaison and advocating for them with senior leadership, HR, and IT

The sudden change in the public health consulting environment presented many project management challenges. A project manager can successfully navigate this pandemic environment by consistently applying a few project management strategies. Supporting emergency response efforts through highly qualified staff with diverse skill sets, adapting to new client needs by offering creative solution delivery, and using empathy to support a dedicated workforce are universal strategies that help project managers succeed anytime, but especially during an emergency response to a pandemic.

Adrienne Garbarino, MSN, FNP-BC, Senior Clinical Researcher

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