My very first job out of university was that of “Project Coordinator” (PC). I was the PC for a government-run project that aimed to create a new tool hospitals and mental health organizations could use to make the intake process easier on their patients. I was deeply proud of working on a project that would have such a positive impact on an under-served population. But I loathed going to work.
The work environment was toxic. Many of my colleagues would end their days in tears. Others took sick days more often than not. The project was a mess and going off the rails within three months of kick-off. The reason? We had a terribly negative, overbearing Project Manager who micromanaged, berated, and belittled project team members, spoke over people, and expected us all to treat him more like a king than a manager. It was so bad that the project carried on for two years longer than was originally intended, thanks to a high turnover rate.
Creating and sustaining a healthy project environment is equally as important as the people you hire to carry out the work, though it is often something that is either overlooked or assumed to be just “fine.” Many put little thought into it, but there is no doubt it’s worth the effort!
The benefits of paying attention to a project’s environment are plentiful: productivity goes up, morale is boosted, and creativity rises, too. As a project manager, that’s the kind of workplace I strive to create, no matter how stressful the project can be at times. Since I spend most of my weekday waking hours at work, I want it to be a place that feels good—a place that values all of the members of the team, inspires everyone to do their very best, and allows us all to leave at the end of the day feeling satisfied with work done well.
I’d like to offer you five tips to apply for creating a work environment where your team (and project!) can thrive.
Encourage Open Communication
Think about the best boss you’ve ever had. Did s/he make an effort to connect with you? Listen to you? Make you and your colleagues felt heard? Open communication is important to having a healthy project environment. When you make the effort to connect with your team members in person, both individually and as a group, you are showing them you care. This small effort motivates employees, and when they feel valued and heard, they are more likely to be committed to the project and to what you are asking them to do. Don’t fall into the rut of being “too busy” to connect. It’s easy to put off having 1:1 meetings with your team members because you have stakeholders calling you every other hour, have important meetings with the project sponsor you need to prepare for, and/or a budget to juggle, but don’t let that connection you have with your team members go. Implement an open door policy and let everyone know you are always willing to speaking with them. Then, listen to their ideas and concerns and give consideration to the value of what they have to say. Without regular connections with your team, the goals of the project can quickly dissolve and degrade the strength of your team and project.
Give Positive Reinforcement and Show Gratitude
Take the time to provide meaningful appreciation to your team members. Let them know when you notice how hard they are working. Applaud their efforts. Celebrate their success. Share positive reinforcement with team members individually and collectively as a team, when appropriate. Detailed, deliberate praise shows you’re paying attention and not just throwing around empty words. When people feel like the work they are doing is appreciated, they will want to rise to the occasion even more and may even go above and beyond what is asked of them. A compliment can go a long way in encouraging team members to be invested in, not just their tasks, but the health of the project as a whole.
Consider kicking off each team meeting by giving thanks and praise to each other. Encourage others to share their gratitude and appreciation for their colleagues, too. Giving people the space to express their gratitude for one another in a public forum will help raise morale of the entire team and establish a positive tone for your project and work environment.
Building a culture that celebrates the team rather than the individual (though it’s good to celebrate both!) is another way to encourage a healthy project environment. Support and encourage collaboration whenever possible. Though a little competition can be a good thing and serve as a motivator, you want your team members to feel like they are in this together, rather than competing against one another.
One way to do this is to create casual meeting rooms or spaces where employees can meet in an informal way to bounce ideas off of one another or ask each other for help on a particular issue. When people feel like they are a part of something, they are more likely to be invested in the success of the project in both short and long-term realms.
Trust and Respect Your Team Members
Although the human resources side of project management may sometimes feel like you’re herding cats, remember that your team is comprised of responsible, competent adults. Treat them as such, and demonstrate your trust in them when you can. This means when you delegate and assign work, believe that the work will be done, and done well. No one likes a micro-manager or a manager who is always looking over their shoulder. Hire the right people for the job and give them the autonomy to prove that you have.
You can also communicate trust by being open to feedback and suggestions for all aspects of the project. Let people be heard and know that you truly value their thoughts and perspectives. Demonstrate respect by communicating often with the team and striving to be transparent as possible about everything—successes and roadblocks alike. Go forward on the assumption that your team wants the best for the project. Invite their feedback as often as you can.
Don’t Forget to Have Fun
While “work” and “fun” are sometimes not synonymous, they can be! Fun at work happens when people feel well-connected with each other. It comes about when there’s an awareness that everyone is collaborating and working towards the same goals, you’ve fostered mutual respect, and there is open communication and an acceptance of who people are. When your team works well together, it’s easier to have spontaneous fun. Whether it’s a drink at the local watering hole on the Friday after your project kick-off or taking a break in the afternoon for tea and cookies every once in a while, sharing a few stories and laughs with the group can help create a project environment your team members want to be a part of.
If it’s appropriate, don’t be afraid to schedule team-building activities once or twice a year. Block out time in everyone’s calendars and do something that focuses on the connection with each other. Whether it be a skills building workshop or a competition to see who can make the biggest and best gingerbread house, these activities can be a less formal way of getting to know colleagues. You may be surprised at how something as simple as this can strengthen working relationships.
Yes, you are only one person, but the project manager may be the most important person on the team for creating a healthy work environment. You set the tone for the project’s energy and the way people work together. Get to know your team members, and determine what works best for that particular group. Remember that collaboration, open communication, respect, and trust are the foundations to the overall health of your project’s environment.