A Virtual Reality – How The Summer Of Covid Changed Project Management For Good

As published in Submarine Telecoms Forum Magazine 19th Anniversary Issue.

By Hector Hernandez and Kristian Nielsen
November 24, 2020

Novel Human Coronavirus (COVID-19) – A Global Event

As 2019 faded into 2020, there was a murmuring concern around a new virus, soon-to-be classified as COVID-19.

The global community was beginning to feel the presence of the new virus, that it was transmitted dreadfully quickly and possibly as an aerosol – that no therapeutics or vaccines yet existed for the novel thing. Some months after it had been identified on the global level, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization in March 2020. A pandemic is a global event impacting every corner of the globe causing great concern for protecting lives and reducing the death toll.

Mitigating the Risks

March 12, 2021. It is 3:00PM on the East Coast, WFN Strategies has closed its main office at the advice of the Virginia Commonwealth Coronavirus Response Team. There was a stillness in the building that is so typical of rushed evacuations, the exit signs humming a subaudible fluorescent vigil.

The Novel Human Coronavirus, now COVID-19, had come to Virginia and it was time to begin a self-defensive exile from regular life to stave off the modern plague’s progress.

This scenario played out across the entire world as each Country fought to mitigate the risks from the virus and ensure the safety of its citizens. As of this article, November 2020, these mitigation strategies of social distancing and wearing masks are still in place with most companies still working remotely from home in order to reduce social interaction and potential spreading of the virus.

In fact, the practice of working remotely has become more embraced today, than ever before. Aside from the obvious health safety benefits of maintaining a remote, or scattered workforce, businesses are adopting the practice for financial and convenience.

March – Getting People Home

When President Trump declared an impending closure of US borders for anyone traveling from Europe, we had three Canada based representatives finishing projects and coming home. After the President made his address, a volley of emails and text messages was immediately launched. Projects Team emailed Management, Management emailed Logistics and Logistics was feverishly reading up on a new fluid set of conditions for travel.

Where are our people right now? Are they being routed through the US? Canada just implemented a quarantine rule, do they have adequate housing lined up once home?

Overnight, we had to become experts on something people were just coming up with a name for.

April – The Challenge of Operating During a Global Pandemic

So how does self-quarantining and social distancing impact our world? Well, there are a couple of main items that have been impactful; one is logistics associated with people working on-site and the other is the logistics and technical needs for people working off-site.

The struggle with both of these items are apparent in our daily lives as we see longer delivery timelines for receiving products purchased and when we lose our internet connection or it slows down to the point that it distracts from the work at hand, not to mention the mental stress and anguish caused by the concerns over COVID-19 and the social isolation.

More specifically, in our industry where there is a need to travel, place personnel on-site to work projects, and mingle socially to maintain and create new relations. This challenge, forced on us by COVID-19, demands a different way of doing business. It requires us to learn how to work things differently, how to embrace the scenario we are in, and forces us to develop a new way of doing business.

At WFN Strategies we have learned to work remotely more efficiently, we always have, but we learned how to do it better and introduced video conferencing as a requirement to help reduce negative impacts of isolation. But this is only part of our daily operations, we still needed to understand how to get resources on-site for Submarine Cable system surveys and installations. How to keep our resources safe, remotely, and on-site.

Meeting the Challenge Virtually

The term “Virtual” has been widely adopted globally as organizations and businesses deal with the Pandemic. WFNS adopted this approach on some of its projects where logistically and during the worst of the pandemic, we could not get personnel into specific countries because they were closed for entry by non-citizens. So, we created a process and employed new systems to support Virtual Client Representation during survey and installation operations.

This required the development or further development of our PM 2.0 Project Management system, creating web-based data input tools and dashboards to help capture and share data more efficiently and to support remote or virtual work that would normally be done on-site. This development was already underway, but COVID-19 pushed us to expedite this development in order to improve our efficiency. The key here is efficiency, we have always had the ability to work remotely and have at some level or another, but what is different now is that everyone is doing it.

There is a need to make virtual work more efficient, requiring easier access to data and documents, higher data transmission speeds, greater network reliability and security. PM 2.0 is WFN Strategies system to help improve efficiency and communication, driven by reliable systems and processes. Our PM 2.0 system supports project management efforts and makes working remotely more efficient.

In addition to our system, we needed to implement quarantine and safety protocols for our personnel traveling around the world, as well as our office personnel in order to guard against exposure and the devastating impact that could have on a business.

June – Managing New Quarantine Procedures

Virtual Representation became a cost-effective solution for seriously at-risk projects – where time or availability will seriously delay a project, or when replacing an at-risk resource due to sudden illness or travel restrictions. If you can’t be on-site, having a virtual solution in your back pocket gives clients an extra layer of insurance for their projects.

However, be it for observations during survey activities, or live commentary during installations, there is no replacing having someone available on site. With that in mind, and in keeping with suppliers’ changing requirements, we developed an effective quarantine plan that places our rep’s security and the project’s schedule in high priority.

Currently, marine vessels are considered bubbles – they are self-contained ecosystems and, in most cases, some of the safest environments since the start of the pandemic. To maintain that security, every supplier has quarantine rules for preparation time prior to boarding any vessel. Typical quarantine times range from one to two weeks prior to boarding a vessel.

At the outset of a call for a rep, the WFN Project Team identifies appropriate candidates for the in-field work, based on their experience, location, and of course, availability. With these new quarantine requirements, we aim to provide reps that are either already in-country or are within driving distance of the port of call.

Our regular pool of reps and their priority status has been reorganized based on an entirely new criterion. As a result, we operate an entirely agile, international, and regional rep pool.

June ‘til Now – The New Normal

There are things that are beginning to come back to normal – in-person shopping, dining rooms at restaurants are starting to fill in again, children are going back to school. Life finds a way. There are things that will never be the same again, businesses have optimized processes and protocols that, as it turns out, are bring more efficient fruit to bear, with less overhead and less risk.

In our specific slice of the world, this niche of a niche industry, client representation has taken on new challenges with a roar of defiance. The submarine cable market is more important today than it has in recent memory, as it’s relied upon to provide the literal lifeblood of a world still reeling from this pandemic.

By rising to these challenges, our industry is stronger, more efficient, and most importantly, safer than ever before. Virtual Representation may be a stop-gap measure in some rights, but the lessons learned, and logistics protocols will likely not be lost or forgotten in this generation.

Originally published on page 38 of the November 2020 Issue of Subtel Forum Magazine.

About the Authors

Hector Hernandez

Hector Hernandez is Projects Manager at WFN Strategies and a Project Management Professional PMP™) specialist and possesses more than 20 years’ experience and knowledge in submarine cable systems, including Arctic and offshore energy submarine fiber systems. He possesses extensive experience in ICT (Information & Communications Technology), including data networking/hosting (Data Centers), information technologies, fiber optic, and wireless networks/services. As Projects Manager, he is responsible for on-going project supervision, and Engineering of all other WFN Strategies staff and is the primary point of contact with customers.

Kristian Nielsen

Kristian Nielsen is Quality Manager at WFN Strategies and a Project Management Professional (PMP™) and ISO 9001:2015 specialist and possesses more than 12 years’ experience and knowledge in submarine cable systems, including Arctic and offshore energy submarine fiber systems. As Quality Manager, he supports the Projects Manager and reviews subcontracts and monitors the prime contractor, supplier, and is astute with Change Order process and management. He is responsible for contract administration, as well as supports financial monitoring and in-field logistics. He has worked in-field, at-desk, and everywhere in between.