The unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic presented research teams with the opportunity to optimize collaborative approaches to project management by integrating the productivity software necessary to navigate the sudden shift to remote work. While the shift from in-person to virtual work environments was rapid and disorienting, research teams were able to alleviate this transition by taking advantage of new technologies in project management. The Italian–Canadian Foodways project is an example of this: our project managers implemented a suite of innovative software to manage task delegation in a remote work environment. However, the increased surveillance also created the risk of blurring boundaries between the office and home, potentially threatening a healthy work–life balance. As Thareja (2016) explored, the virtual environment lent itself to various new opportunities for more comprehensive employee surveillance. Our project managers stringently adhered to three pillars to minimize work surveillance in the observation of work methods: planning, implementation, and monitoring. While the pandemic provided an opportunity to re-evaluate work methods, the case study of the Foodways project reveals that innovative technologies alone cannot provide effective project management; rather, technologies must be implemented in conjunction with experienced project managers in order to effectively achieve project directives in a virtual work environment.
The Italian–Canadian Foodways project focuses on the history of the Italian diaspora, tracing the change in Italian–Canadian culinary traditions in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). It is a cultural heritage preservation project initiated by Teresa Lobalsamo from the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM), dedicated to creating a sustainable digital archive of Italian–Canadian culinary artifacts that illustrate the evolution of Italian–Canadian food pathways in the GTA since the early 1900s.
As part of the project, Foodways representatives reach out to historically significant Italian–Canadian eateries in the GTA and, through interviews with the proprietor and collection of old and current menus, prepare reports on the business and its culinary offerings—both past and present. Research findings are added to a digital archive and made available to the public as an educational and cultural resource. Lobalsamo had initially planned to wait for the pandemic to pass before launching the project so that she could arrange in-person field trips and have students conduct on-site research. However, the pandemic took an unexpected toll on the food industry and caused many iconic Italian–Canadian eateries to shut down permanently, elevating the urgency to move forward and preserve their cultural footprint before it disappeared forever. Lobalsamo spent the remainder of 2020 redesigning “Preserving Toronto’s Foodways” as a born-digital Scholars in Residence (SiR) project,1 in which summer research students would leverage digital humanities (DH) software, such as ArcGIS and Omeka, to share the history of Italian–Canadian food traditions.
The Foodways project utilizes DH project management tools in the execution of virtual experiential learning and community-based research in the areas of Italian diaspora and food studies. Over the past two years, the Foodways research team has found diversity to be its strength, especially in terms of team member responsibilities, educational backgrounds, and skillsets. The team is made up of paid and unpaid student research assistants who join the project in a variety of capacities through internships, coursework, research fellowships, work-study programs, and volunteer work. Having team members at different educational levels and with varied experiences has assisted the Foodways project in its accomplishment of research directives, through the introduction of various perspectives and ideas. It has also provided numerous avenues for expansion, introducing research aspects that project managers may not have considered at first, but which have now become vital for project development.
Transitioning the entire research project to virtual methodologies required the Foodways team to rethink the ideals of effective project management, which are articulated in four pillars: autonomy, adaptability, authenticity, and experience. The capacity for autonomy in a virtual environment affords team members the ability to execute work in their own manner, which results in team members feeling empowered and motivated. This pillar is critical to the project’s success as independence is a motivating factor in the retention of student researchers beyond the academic term. Authenticity enables project managers to delegate tasks to team members with the most appropriate skill sets while also promoting personal growth and adhering to project directives. The opportunity to participate in community-engaged research is particularly advantageous for senior students approaching graduation, as it prepares them to seek employment by exposing them to workplace environments and client service. Adaptability is likewise a critical pillar: whatever the circumstance, it is necessary to be prepared for the unexpected and to cope with any difficulties that emerge while working on a project.
With regard to the pillar of experience, the Foodways project embodies a framework that supports team growth through a stringent policy of only assigning tasks that have previously been completed in other contexts by project managers. This practice ensures project success and sets realistic goals for task completion, since project managers understand the research skills needed for each task and can mentor students appropriately. An important component of successful project management is general research assistant experience on the project, prior to entering a project manager role. In addition, having an interdisciplinary project management team guarantees that all the requirements of the project are satisfied.
In early 2020, the world was rocked by a global pandemic that changed many aspects of life. In the realm of research, operations were immediately halted and forced to transition, where possible, to an online virtual environment. In response, research teams had to adapt their research activities to a remote work model. Much of this had to be done in a matter of days. Researchers had to quickly set up home offices conducive to their personal productivity. Project leads were forced to invest in new team management and video conferencing technology. Not only did individuals have to figure out how to navigate this technological shift, but many people battled personal challenges, such as maintaining their mental, social, and financial wellness. One thing is for sure: without communication technologies, the pandemic would have caused many important research projects to stall or shut down entirely.
The pandemic brought new technologies and software features to the forefront of our daily lives. Project management technologies allow team leads to customize their management styles while removing the barriers of physical location and distance. Innovative technologies can positively influence project management practices and improve productivity in work environments that may not otherwise be conducive to all types of employees.
The Foodways project was still in its infancy at the start of the pandemic and only fully mobilized in the fall of 2020. It was extremely important that team members adapted quickly to their new work reality and were able to imagine innovative ways to utilize technology as part of their project management strategies, which were implemented at all levels. There were four software products that made it seamless for the Foodways team to stay connected while minimizing the negative impacts of helicopter management on employees: SharePoint, ClickUp, Zoom, and WhatsApp.2 Helicopter management operates in the same way as “helicopter parenting”: it is a management style with the aim of micromanaging a team in their day to day tasks. SharePoint is a Microsoft intranet application that we used to store all of our project’s cultural heritage artifacts and raw data, which were then uploaded to our public facing websites. SharePoint allowed all Foodways team members to engage with project materials in a single collaborative workspace. ClickUp is project management software used to keep track of assigned tasks for all team members, including associated documents, links, and checklists, ensuring that tasks were completed in a timely manner and that everyone was aware of their personal responsibilities for the project. Zoom enabled the Foodways team to hold weekly meetings through virtual video calls, which helped to maintain clear communication between leadership and research staff. Building upon the idea of barrier-free communication among team members, we opted to use WhatsApp and moderate group chats for each team. This approach was effective in ensuring that communications were delivered to everyone's phones, and everyone was able to respond at any hour of the day. Here the intention was to increase access, with connection being privileged over task management, to ultimately help combat surveillance effects.
If we look at the big picture, when innovative technologies are used in ways that respect privacy in the virtual space, they can be double solutions, both for the virtual and for helicopter management. Project management technologies can also result in the problem of helicopter management and threaten privacy in the virtual workplace. With the introduction of these new technologies to help project leads manage the switch to a remote work environment, helicopter management and over-surveillance blur the lines between work, life, and school. Micromanagement features have become popular during the pandemic, causing employers to fixate on employee productivity (University of Birmingham).
While project management technologies aided employers in the transition to remote work, the potential for constant helicopter surveillance risks blurring the line between employability and ethical responsibility. The shift to remote work has coincided with the emergence of the workplace panopticon (Aloisi and De Stefano 295). The online work environment has developed a new sort of management, one in which employers can survey how much work is being accomplished at any time with the simple click of a button. Such systems do not fairly evaluate the quality of the work being produced, and hence it is an approach to project management that the Foodways project discredits.
Several trends around combating workplace monitoring emerged during the pandemic. Employees published “work hacks” on social media about how to fool managers monitoring at-home productivity, which suggested that the shift to online project management tools felt overbearing to many employees. An example of this can be seen on TikTok, where user Giovanni, also known on TikTok as @ggivau, shares a tip on how to appear as actively working on Microsoft Teams (a platform dedicated to workplace communication) while actually napping. This tip surged in popularity, receiving 5.3 million views (Giovanni [@ggivau]). The Foodways team was able to identify comparable elements in their own management practices and sought to minimize the impact to its research staff. The most widespread examples of these micromanagement features, which are present in the aforementioned products, are online trackers and work timers, which remove the need for trust if they are used by management as the sole way to track and monitor team members’ progress. Virtual working practices have become infamous for blurring boundaries, resulting in a loss of the employee’s personal life. Since our management structure is focused on trust and empathy, we were able to swiftly resolve the issue of over-surveillance through improved communication and acceptable work delegation, which functioned without the need for utilizing surveillance features on our technology platforms. This increased team trust and allowed for optimal output under reduced work pressure.
The Foodways team’s three pillars of planning, implementation, and monitoring enabled them to avoid surveillance in online work settings. Having project managers who were familiar with the job helped anticipate estimated completion times for research tasks and address any potential challenges. It was important to plan ahead and to keep the team informed. ClickUp allowed project managers to allocate research tasks with an estimated completion time and due date, so that students could plan out their research well in advance and fit tasks into their own school schedules. We also found that adopting convenient, barrier-free communication channels had a positive impact on engagement with team members, especially our international students who completed assigned tasks in different time zones. Monitoring is completely related to trust in the project team. Developing a sense of trust among team members is the most important factor that can make or break a research team. Trusting individuals to manage their own time, while establishing appropriate deadlines, check-in meetings, and task trackers as backup monitoring methods, enabled very successful project leadership and team cooperation.
Looking at the Foodways team, we (the authors) have unique lived experiences that influenced our adopted management style. As former students who participated in the project as part of our course work for ITA235: Cucina Italiana, we were able to better understand the needs of students, who must juggle completing their studies in an online environment with contributing to extracurricular research. Due to this understanding, we were successfully able to take a compassionate management approach that trusted the individual to stay on task and complete their assigned tasks within a timely manner. We were able to sustain the wellbeing of the entire team by helping students to understand the importance of maintaining a positive work–life–school balance while meeting research deadlines. Had we not been students in this program, we would not have been able to empathize with student needs in a remote learning environment. By affording flexibility around stressful academic periods, respecting time-off requests, and understanding that students’ coursework often comes first, we were able to ensure that the productivity of the research team did not diminish.
As the world emerges from the pandemic era and is gradually shifting to a blend of virtual, hybrid, and in-person modes of work, the role of project management technologies is somewhat ambiguous, affording great benefits to employee tracking while also creating the risk of over-surveillance. Despite this, the software employed by the Foodways team to promote accessibility and convenience have proven critical to the project's continued success. The lessons learned about surveillance, compassion, trust, and student-first project management translate well into both a hybrid and in-person space. A mix of online and in-person project management approaches have ultimately strengthened the project through integrated team development and creating explicit virtual and in-person work boundaries. It is these core fundamentals of empathetic project management that benefit the overall student experience and project success. Through the transitions back to in-person work environments, there is the risk of resorting to various helicopter management strategies. Therefore, any transition can be an opportunity to bring to the fore the importance of utilizing digital technologies to enhance project management strategies.
Aloisi, Antonio, and Valerio De Stefano. “Essential Jobs, Remote Work and Digital Surveillance: Addressing the COVID‐19 Pandemic Panopticon.” International Labour Review, vol. 161, no. 2, June 2021, https://doi.org/10.1111/ilr.12219.
Giovanni [@ggivau]. “Power Nap Needed, do You Know a Better Way?” TikTok, https://www.tiktok.com/@ggivau/video/7211160218221186309, accessed16 March, 2023.
Thareja, Priyavrat. “Ethics in People Management - the Helicopter View.” SSRN Electronic Journal, vol. 7, no. 2, 2016, https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3340006.
University of Birmingham. “Flexible Working and the Future of Work - Managing Employees Since COVID-19.” 2023, https://web.archive.org/web/20230307191240/https://birmingham.ac.uk/documents/college-social-sciences/business/research/wirc/flexible-working-and-the-future-of-work.pdf