Managing Risk as you move back to the office

Updated: Aug 31

Are you moving your teams, or some of them, back to the office this Autumn in the UK? The UK CBI asks that you do so, but manage the process.

Such a move requires the management of Project Risk, and the best way to do that in your move 'Back to the Future' is to manage the move as a project.

Your project sponsor may only be thinking of the logistics of a Re-location. As you have seen, complexity and risk abound. Logistics are only one part of the project as it exists alongside many projects. As the Project Manager, your knowledge of your company’s enterprise-level risks, strategic planning, and organisational changes, empowers you in the determination and management of Project-level Risks. At a project level, you may not be concerned with Political risks. Still, broader insight into Social, Environmental, Technical and Regulatory factors will be valuable.

Your project is Tactical. It has been chosen as immediately necessary for resumption and continuity of the business, even though the corporate strategy is not firmed up. The company is taking the view that it is better to initiate movement in the right direction while they determine the best option. They accept that they could change the scope and requirement while your project is in full flight.

(As we have discussed elsewhere in my book, a change in strategy could change the organisational structure, roles, responsibilities, locations, processes and technology.)

Defining and Managing your risks Given that your primary project objective is the return of the necessary workforce to a safe workplace, your principal project risks relate to completing the environment in which people will work. I previously said it will be intangibles which will determine the success of the project. Those intangibles are employee perception of safety, and their willingness to return to the workplace. If you get that wrong, you have failed. You will only get that right with rigorous project management and, considering the prevalence of coronavirus, this highlights diligent Risk Management.

As PM, you must deliver to Scope, Cost, and Time, but ultimately you are judged by Product Quality. The quality of your product – a safe and healthy workplace – is paramount. If the resulting environment is unsafe for employees, you score no points for Scope, Cost and Time.

Let’s consider the facets of a COVID-19 safe working environment.

Here is a list of deliverables/products/features a client is having to consider in preparing the new workplace. Which of the following are products within the project that need to be correctly in place before all of your staff feel you have met your duty of care?

1. Air purification must meet any government or union-specified standard. 2. Building and office access should be controlled and have low-touch readers and doors. 3. Desks must be suitably spaced with appropriate screening where needed or requested. 4. Sanitising protocols must be in place and managed with clear accountability. (I would put Service Level Agreements in place with cleaning services.) 5. Some parking bays must allow for appropriate distancing when accessing a car. 6. Common areas should be demarcated with ‘safe zones’ even if government guidance does not require it. 7. Ablutions could be allocated to particular employee groups (bubbles) to increase a sense of ‘ownership’. 8. PPE should be available to staff on request. 9. Arrival and departure schedules should be documented, agreed, and enforced. 10. A third-party should be responsible for the ‘application’ (i.e. enforcement)of the policies.

Here is an example Risk Register I built for a client back in May.

The Quality standards for these project products must be clearly defined and each workstream held accountable for adherence. (These are illustrative and therefore not necessarily a comprehensive list.)

In their guidance on ‘Working safely during the coronavirus outbreak – a short guide’, the UK Health and Safety Executive say to ask the following questions:

  1. Who should go to work? You should think about:

  2. · where and how your work is carried out, consider if there are jobs and tasks that can be changed to reduce risk.

  3. · Identifying everyone in your business who can work from home – if they can, they should.

  4. · Providing (the) equipment needed for employees to work safely and effectively at home (for example, laptops, mobile phones, video conferencing equipment).

  5. · Keeping in regular contact with people working from home, making sure you discuss their wellbeing and helping them to feel they are still part of the workforce.

  6. · Where it is not possible to work from home, the guidance on social distancing and hygiene (handwashing with soap and water often, for at least 20 seconds) should be followed.

  7. · The minimum number of people needed to carry out work tasks safely.” accessed 31 May 2020.

The determination of who should work at home, and who should work at the office is probably not your responsibility. This should be determined by the business in conjunction with HR, Health & Safety, unions and employees. If it is put on your plate, it is the first activity and critical success factor in the project. Since you will be held accountable for implementing the scope of the project, you need to know how the population is determined. This determination of departments, teams, and individuals to move is a critical variable that will probably change during the project.

Wherever possible anyone who can do their job from home with minor adjustment to their environment or tasks, should be encouraged to work from home. There is too much at stake here. We cannot pull people back to a higher risk workplace without due consideration. I have a word of caution from the beginning of the book quoting a McKinsey survey in June 2020. There has been a lot of talk about how we will all be working from home in future. This is not borne out by the surveys of chief executives. I believe that by the end of the year, about eighty per cent of office-based staff will be returning to the office.

Project Risk categories will vary by organisation.

Risk categories or sources that can affect the Re-location could be:

· A resurgence of COVID-19.

· Weak or shifting requirements.

· Change Control.

· Procurement.

· Project Management and Team.

· Construction.

· Equipment.

· Facilities.

· Service providers.

· Employee relations.

· Regulations.

· Policies and Procedures.

· Processes.

· Technology.

· Stakeholder Management.

· Communications and Change Management.

Risk management is both art and science. It draws on our personal experience, lessons learned, templates, methods, and best practice in the industry or field of the project. Risks abound in any new initiative, mainly when producing something unique. It means we are breaking new ground and have to scan the horizon and environment for events that might impact the performance or completion of the project.

Other factors that increase the risk profile of your project are:

· Any new systems for staff?

· The number of staff being moved?

· Is any of the infrastructure a new technology? (eg. Air purification; Access control)

· Are the installers familiar with the technology?

· How many suppliers are involved?

· Are the dependencies clear?

· What is the lead time on equipment?

· How many workstreams are there?

· What condition is the target workspace in?

· The number of people with an opinion on what you are doing!

The importance and context of the project may raise the concern of a risk in one project but lower it in another. People need to understand that raising risk is not saying that event is going to happen, but it is possible under certain conditions.

Let's use the Relocation as an example of risk identification and classification with a possible response:

There is another office location which is not in the scope of your project, but you feel there is a chance it might be brought in scope before you finish. You raised this as a risk. Based on your knowledge of the organisation, you feel there is a low probability that it will happen, but a high impact if it does. You have raised it because of the possibility. You consider the impact and whether you need to take any formal action to have it specified as out of scope. At very least to agree with your Sponsor on how to deal with such a request. For example, you might agree with the Sponsor to write a clause in the new lease agreement that gives you the first option on the empty Floor above your offices. Because it is a low probability, you might not spend much time and energy developing a risk mitigation plan for this specific risk.

There is another risk on your project related to project cost management and project procurement management. The risk is if there is more than a thirty-day delay signing a contract for goods and services, the price will increase by 10%. You have spoken to procurement, and they are negotiating as a priority. Still, you must ask your Sponsor to put some money aside to cover that 10% increase if it comes to pass.

Risks are based on uncertain events and assumptions, around which you will make decisions on how to mitigate or eliminate probability. I call an assumption an unqualified risk. You are making decisions based on something that may or may not be true but could probably be confirmed now so that your choices are fact-based.

There are risks that you can anticipate, and then there are those which are so improbable but catastrophic an impact that you do not even think about them. We find ourselves in just such a position with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Extracted from my book 'Moving Back to the Future', July 2020


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