Information overload: creating clarity as a project manager

Technology has significantly altered our patterns of work and communication – project managers must know where to put boundaries, both on an individual and a project level

Author: David Reynolds

07 August 2020

Construction projects are all about decision making. As project managers we are expected to make decisions based on ever-increasing amounts of information. This information arrives from many different directions including emails, texts, reports, meetings and telephone calls. It can easily become overwhelming and I’m sure you, like me, have often thought there aren’t enough hours in the day to manage it all – and that’s without even considering social media.

The Health and Safety Executive report Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain, 2019 found that work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44 per cent of work-related ill health and 54 per cent of working days lost in 2018/2019. And if these figures weren’t concerning enough, statistics show that they have been on the rise for several years, and the trend looks set to continue this year. Does this resonate with your workplace, or you as an individual?  

"Work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44 per cent of work-related ill health in 2018/2019"
Constant communication

One source of stress is technology which, over the last decade, has altered our work patterns and styles of communication. As a result, the 'always on' mentality has developed making it difficult for us to switch off after business hours, and adding to anxiety levels. Whether it is simply a case of FOMO – fear of missing out – or pressure driven by workplace culture, it can have a dramatic impact on our mental health and well-being, affecting our ability to make decisions effectively.

This 'always on' mentality has taken on a whole new meaning in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. New challenges and stresses are arising as we adjust to repositioned normality; a normality where our world is viewed through a computer screen, with endless online meetings and telephone conversations. As people work, socialise and shop, all from the same chair in their home, and crave the lost stimulation of movement and integration with other human beings in the outside world there is a whole new layer of mental, emotional and physical stresses.

"This 'always on' mentality has taken on a whole new meaning in light of the COVID-19 pandemic"
Focusing on key objectives

So how can we reduce the negative impacts – mental and physical – that technology has on us? One solution is planning, which is something many of us are already good at due to the nature of our jobs. Plan time in your day for key activities. Turn off your email notifications and check them every couple of hours instead. Condition those that email you to only expect responses at certain times, for example, by using an autoreply option that lets them know when you check your inbox. Regularly review the groups you are subscribed to so the volume of emails you receive is manageable.

On working days simplify the processes and focus on the key objective of your day, and at weekends – or any scheduled downtime – take a digital detox day if at all possible. You will soon benefit from the headspace created by not having to continually engage with your electronic equipment. It helps to discover that the world doesn’t stop because a message hasn’t been responded to immediately.

In terms of the projects we work on: who generates the noise? I think we are becoming too top-heavy on projects by over-complicating the processes and reporting remits. We need to strip back on the amount of unnecessary information and concentrate on what is absolutely fundamental.

At the recent Invitation to the Conversation event, organised by the Construction Livery Group and hosted by Arup, the changing management-worker ratio on construction projects was discussed. One presenter shared that when Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit system was constructed in the late 1980s, there was 1 manager for every 10 workers. There are a number of current projects which have a ratio closer to 10 managers for every 1 worker. I don’t need to state which projects are more likely to finish on time and within budget.

As project managers we need to simplify the over-complicated delivery solutions in our industry. Government regulation needs to allow for expert advice – rather than committees and taskforces – to complete projects. Creating a clear roadmap for the day and week, for yourself as well as the project team, can help to eliminate distractions and provide essential headspace, so that you are always in the best position to provide that expert advice.

"We need to strip back on the amount of unnecessary information and concentrate on what is absolutely fundamental"

David Reynolds FRICS is director at Bloomsbury Project Management

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