Digital Communication in Project Management

From apppm
Jump to: navigation, search



Within the field of project management it is estimated, that project managers (PM) on average spend rougly 80% of their time on communication. [1] This explains why some refer to communication as the foundation of project management.[2] Communication is the act of sharing and interpreting information across different project areas and interests. Communication is what holds together the people part of any project, and miscommunication can therefore be the downfall of any project which otherwise could have turned out successful. The team members within any project rely on the ability to collaborate, share, gather and interprete knowledge and information to carry out the objectives of any project - hence, they rely on the ability to communicate. [2]

However, in recent times, ways of communicating when carrying out projects have undergone severe changes due to the consequences of the concurrent and ongoing pandemic, COVID-19. It is still unclear what all the consequences of these changes are, but patterns are emerging and it seems that at least some of these will be sustained. [3]

Although the digital tranformation is something that has been an ongoing trend in many facets of project management since the invention of the internet, COVID-19 has made its impact on the way we communicate within project teams. COVID-19 has not only inducted changes of consequential character. [3] New ways of communicating within projects are emerging and they propose new adaptations of existing communication practices. Project team members are experiencing these changes differently and it can be difficult to generalize these perceivings into implementable changes. However, an common emerging pattern is that projects and project management will have to adjust to an everyday life with more digital communication and PMs will have to adjust to an everyday agenda with a more digital characteristic or at least with the possibility of communicating digitally with some frequency.

Communication in Project Management

When addressing communication in project management, it is relevant to first understand the basic mechanics of this.

"Communication is the process of acquiring all relevant information, interpreting this information and effectively disseminating the information to persons who might need it. Communication is of vital importance to everyone involved in, and influenced by, projects.[4]"

Communication Processes

Within project management, most communication will follow the interactive communication model; a sender encodes a message that is transmitted through a medium to a receiver that decodes the message and the receiver will, in most cases, provide feedback on this message. This process happens both verbally and non-verbally, and it has been argued that the feedback on the message is of key importance to any PM, as it enables the PM to monitor the success of a communication process. The feedback will in this case be a confirmation of understanding from the receiving part [2]. Some non-verbal communication might, however, take the form of linear communication, where the feedback is not a necessity, i.e. informative e-mails or simple instructive messages.

Interactive Communication Model

Characteristic for the interactive communication model is, that both the encoding and the decoding of the message depends on both parties' field of experience. People have different knowledge, behaviors, beliefs, situations, psychological factors, etc., and this might influence the effectivity of the communication. For the sending part, this defines the encoding, i.e. the content of the message, and for the receiving part this shapes the decoding of the message, i.e. the interpretation of the content. [5] This is something that a PM with a wish to attain effective communication must take into account when formulating communication.

This way of perceiving communication between two parties was developed by Browaeys and Price [6] and it introduces the idea that the content of the message itself and the channel by which the message is transmitted is influenced by the sender's current knowledge, experience, language, thinking and communication style as well as stereotypes and relationship to the receiver. Similarly for the receiving part, this influences the interpretation of the message. Browaeys and Price refer to this as "Cross-Cultural Communication".

Apart from the interactive communication type, two methods of communication will be mentioned; namely push and pull [6]:

  • Push:
Push communication is one-way communication that can take the form of one-to-one or one-to-many. Push communication is normally used when sending out emails, memos, reports, and so forth. The downside of push communication is that it inhibits the immediate ability to assess reactions and interpretations. This means, that it should be used carefully and with deliberate, clear intention.
  • Pull:
Pull communication can be viewed as the counter-part of push communications. It happens when a stakeholder seeks information through intranets to find templates, ongoing documentation or repositories. Pulling information is applied to sense the concerns/interests of stakeholders.

The big question in communication within project management is to make sure that it reaches all intended parties with the intended interpretation to avoid misunderstandings. The simple answer as to how to achieve this is simply to plan the communication. However, the reality of this might not be as easily simplified.

Planning Project Communication [2]

Because if the immense importance of communications within project management, it is of key relevance for the PM to actively and deliberately choose the right way of engagement with stakeholders, i.e. project members, external shareholders, and any others with relation to the project.

Communication Plan

The DS/ISO 21502: Guidance in project management [7] dictates that the PM must plan the communications to match the needs and expectations of the stakeholders and to include feedback mechanisms. Communications needs to be specifically directed, e.g. through campaings or events, at well-chosen audiences with a well-defined purpose and message.

It also states that the focus of communications should be at supporting project objectives by [6]:

  1. "increasing understanding and coorporation among varius stakeholders
  2. providing timely, accurate and unbiased information
  3. designing communication to minimize risk"

The PM has the responsibility not only to establish the organisational structure of the project to enhance project team creation but also the communication plan and lines of communication. Zulch argues that the communication plan should outline the following:

  • Who:
Lines of communication, responsibility and authority and involved parties
  • What:
Communication scope and form
  • When:
Primarily scheduling communication
  • Feedback:
How and when, document control
  • Filing/documentation:
For retrieval, backtracing, storing
  • How:
What type of information for what purpose?

After developing this communication plan, Zulch advises that consensus around it is achieved to provide a clear sense of direction to all related parties - and in particular when project complexity rises. Zulch also argues that the primary focal points of the communication plan are; keeping key stakeholders in the loop at all times, and promoting the project.

Including and engaging the right stakeholders in the right way is essential to any project. Since project teams is in fact a collection of stakeholders and since stakeholder engagement heavily relies in interpersonal relations, considerations on the engagement should be carefully included in the planning of communication. Stakeholders are actively engaged throughout the project to minimize negative impacts and to maximize positive impacts. [6]

By making a such agreement, the PM and the stakeholders formalize and streamline the intentions of all parties. The agreement becomes a project artifact that can be used at any given time and will provide guidelines throughout the project. By formalizing it even further and transforming it into a contract, the artifact becomes a mutually binding agreement that obligates all parties to uphold the terms agreed upon which at certain times may be practical to serve as a reminder of where the responsibility lies. [6] Practical examples of aforementioned contract can be found in many types of projects and also within student project groups, i.e. "Collaboration Contracts".

Lines of Communication

Zulch divides the lines of communication in two primary categories; formal and informal communication.

Formal communitation:

Generally speaking, formal communication is any communication with a formal, project-related purpose. It happens in four directions:

    1. Downward communication: Flows from the top and down through project levels with the purpose of providing information on topics such as strategies, goals, or policies. It is likely to be filtered based on management intention with communication.
    2. Upward communication: Flows from lower levels and up to supply information. This is crucial to any PM!
    3. Horizontal communication: Happens between project members at adjacent levels and usually coordinates work efforts. This prevents tunnel vision within departments.
    4. Diagonal communication: Takes place between project members at different levels usually to provide relevant information on occasion.

The PM must be aware of these when planning the communication, since the positioning within the project authoritative hierarchy defines the method, content and intention with the communication, i.e. the PM must use different communication skills for different levels.

Informal communication:

Informal communication is mostly any communication without a formal purpose. It may be project-related but in most cases it constitutes the unofficial communication based on both facts and rumours. It can flow in any direction within the project organisation and uses the grapevine as its primary channel. Characteristic for this type of communication is that it takes place without the influence of the PM, but it is a fact that it affects the effetiveness of the communication from the PM.

Practical examples from both of these can be seen in the table below:

Practical examples of communications [6]

For project communication in modern, digital times it should however be added, that e-mails and sometimes even instant-messaging is perceived as formal communication in some organizations.

Modern Communication in Project Management

Communication as a general theme is something that has been reinvented numerous times over the past decades. Buzzwords to explain this revolution lies within globalization, and within the realm of project management it has become a standard to introduce work across borders in the project teams. This has made it a necessity for project teams to rely on digital communication methods, and, in recent time, this has especially been accelerated by the ongoing, global pandemic. It seems that industry is accepting workers' desire to have flexibility on location.

Ganis and Waszkiewicz [8] finds that project teams rely on "fast (real-time), reliable and easy-to-use communication tools, which helped them to connect them all at the same time". Ganis and Waszkiewicz finds that a interdisciplinary team cannot run in modern projects without effective digital communication, and that respective project teams should have the ability to choose the platform with which they base their communication. The platform should be flexible and user-friendly, and the team should have the option to change it, when their needs change, e.g. when the intention of the communication fits better with another platform.

Recent Changes: A Case Review [3]

It is hardly surprising to anyone, that recent times has incentivized changes in the way we communicate - not only in project management. Communicational strategizing and leadership has changed within project organizations due to the implications of the current pandemic. These effects facilitated a shift towards digital communication in project organizations and this presents a set of challenges. [3]

To assess the impact of the recent changes in communications in project management due to COVID-19, we review a case study of communications within a construction project. The study investigates and addresses both positive and negative outcomes associated with aforementioned changes. The study carried out a survey that was completed by "a variety of construction professionals, including project owners, architects, engineers, subcontractors, and suppliers". The results of the study include positive and negative effects of virtual communication and recommendations for improving exactly this. The primary focus lies on verbal communications during meetings.

Benefits of Digital Communication

The following benefits are summarized from the original paper:

  • Virtual is more efficient:
Video conferencing (VC) facilitates direct and precise communication and this makes this a efficient method to utilize. It decreases the time spent on discussing unrelated matters and engaging in "small talk". Generally, workers feel that they are invited to more meetings and this promotes the feeling of inclusion and helps distribute information correctly. VC has eases the process of reaching others and this boosts communication frequency making it the effective alternative. VC also eliminates travel time and costs which is a motivational benefit as well as a sound financial decision.
  • Improved written communication:
Since the use of digital communication increases the amount of written communication, such as emails and texts, it actively increases documentation. This stimulates the use of written reports which facilitates accountability.
  • Improved virtual technology:
Virtual capabilities and average practical experience with these is improving. Using VC as a primary practice helps educate people in the use of this which again improves technological skills overall.
Consequences of Digital Communications:

The study generally found that communications have worsened in the following categories due to the shift towards digital communications:

  • Less face-to-face interaction:
Some conversations require physical presense and this has consequences for the effectivity of virtual meetings. Virtual meetings usually seem to justify the lack of eye contact and complicate physical cues and the use of body language which impacts the interactive communication negatively.
  • Virtual technology issues:
Since virtual meetings separates the context of the meeting from the geographical placement of the meeting attendees, it can be difficult to access project information. People have WIFI-connections of varying quality and this directly correlates to the general quality of a meeting.
  • Coordination challenges:
Dealing with meetings online blurs the roles of the attendees and this creates issues with accountability and the feeling of responsibility.
  • Lack of on-site reviews:
This facilitates miscommunication since project members lack the opportunity to review and assess progress physically.
  • Lack of Understanding:
The study suggests that video conferencing creates disengagement among the team members and makes meetings less relational. This seems to add to the amount of misunderstandings.
  • Lack of Individual Engagement:
There is a general tendency of not responding and delays in response time. Virtual communication tends to complicate of addressing and holding people accountable for this. This incites poor work habits.
Suggested Improvements

The study suggests improvements within a total of 7 themes. These have been summarized into the headlines below. As a general thing, the study suggests that you carry out a alignment of values beforehand to manage expectations and create better empathy and understanding across teams to address commitment and responsibility.

  • Communication skills:
Communicate frequently and speak up in digital meetings! To clarify misunderstandings, it is important to listen and understand actively. Ask questions to stay engaged without getting distracted. Avoid interruptions and try not to mute mics unnecessarily. If you are not using VC, you need to identify yourself before speaking - in any case, you should provide contextual information about your stake in the conversation to unfamiliar meeting attendees. The team should also put focus into how conflicts are resolved. Members should discuss challenges and problems actively and consider different options of mitigating these.
  • Time management:
Document meeting minutes and time spent on specific activities to make sure that you manage your time efficiently. You also need to clarify availability and respond timely when available. Meetings should have agendas that should be handed out in advance and meetings should always be purpose-based.
  • Technology:
Communication should primarily be facilitated by the use of VC, since the general perception is that video is better than audio-only. It helps to maintain the formal setting of meetings to increase focus. It suggests the following tips for improving understanding through improvements simple, tangible improvement guidelines:
  1. Ensure proper lighting and sit in center of the picture
  2. Avoid being monotone in spite of lacking physical presense
  3. Utilize visual aids to help communicate information and keep it simple

Methodological Reflection

"Engaging stakeholders requires the application of soft skills, such as active listening, interpersonal skills, and conflict management, as well as leadership skills such as establishing the vision and critical thinking."[6]

The review of the case above provides concrete examples of where to put your effort as a PM when dealing with poor-performing digital communication. As mentioned, the communication plan is the starting point for developing and planning to transform the performance of the communication system. However, in the case of transforming an existing low-performing communicaton system, this becomes a task of managing change within the project organisation. PMBOK® Guide [6] suggest that you firstly formulate the desired change in an understandable manner to build on the understanding of the purpose of the change. After this, you should identify activities to plan the change. This will help people prepare for the change. After this comes the actual implementation and this should be viewed as an iterative process. Put focus on "demonstrating future state capabilities"[6] and ensuring that the change has the intended impact. This will help the PM manage the transition and ultimately sustain the change.

As digital communications is a wide field, it will be next to impossible to provide methods to improve every matter of the case. Instead, this article provides a few but concrete examples of methods to apply to improve the virtual meeting environment:

  • Active listening [9]:
Active listening may not be the most formal of methods but it does provide the attendees of any meeting or simply any conversation participant with a tangible way of controlling individual focus and success of communication. In a digital context, the rules for listening actively is as follows:
  • Pay attention! Look at the speaker directly - this means that eye-contact or looking into the camera is mandatory.
  • Show that you are listening by nodding occasionally or use facial expressions to emphasize reactions. Keep an open and inviting posture and encourage by applying continous verbal comments like "yes", "uh-huh". And most importantly; try not to interrupt.
  • Provide feedback actively to confirm consensus. Use paraphrasing actively to confirm understandings or occassionally summarize your understanding orally.
  • Refrain from judgement and respond appropriately. This helps to maintain mutual respect. Be mindful and remember The Golden Rule.
  • Systems Thinking:
Apply systems thinking when planning the communication. Understand that the communication system is something that should be developed specifically for the individual project organization and that it should be the foundation of what ties the organization together. Investigate the relations and connections within the organization to turn these into communication advantages. Create flexibility within the system, so that workers feel that they can connect freely. This area constitutes a large and separate subject by itself, and this paper will not investigate this further.

Key References

  • Encinas, E., Simons, A., & Sattineni, A. (2021). Impact of COVID-19 on Communications within the Construction Industry [3] :
This reference is a research paper from 2021 invetigating the impact of COVID-19 on communications in the construction industry. It produces key results within perceptions from workers related to the changes that COVID-19 has induced on projectual communications. Specifically for this paper, it served as a key reference for documenting quantitave and qualitative results from a specific industry where PMs play a role.
  • Ganis, M. R., & Waszkiewicz, M. (2019). Digital Communication Tools as a Success Factor of Interdisciplinary Projects. [8] :
This reference is a research paper from 2019 which investigates the use of digital communication tools in context within two specific project teams. The research paper takes on two different tools while investigating the possibilities and benefits of these while also reflecting critically on the consequences and downsides to these. The paper draws several insightful conclusions based on this.
  • Project Management Institute, Inc. (PMI). (2021). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK ® Guide) – 7th Edition and The Standard for Project Management. Project Management Institute, Inc. (PMI). [6] :
This is key literature for any PM that wishes to gain a deep and profound understanding of methods within project management. It constitutes key framework for selecting methods in context and also explains the process of selecting the correct method and how to use them. In this paper, this literature has been used as a general inspiration.


  1. Geraldi, Joana; Thuesen, Christian; Oehmen, Josef; Sting, Verena (2017), Doing Projects. A Nordic Flavour to Managing Projects, Engineering Systems Division, Management Engineering Department, Technical University of Denmark.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 BG Zulch, Communication: The Foundation of Project Management, Procedia Technology, Volume 16, 2014, Pages 1000-1009, ISSN 2212-0173, (
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Encinas, E., Simons, A., & Sattineni, A. (2021). Impact of COVID-19 on Communications within the Construction Industry. 2(Cdc), 165–156.
  4. Egeland, B. Project communication series: PM communication skills. [online]. Available from: <>.; 2010.
  5. [online]. Visited on: 16-02-2022 20:00
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 6.8 6.9 Project Management Institute, Inc. (PMI). (2021). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK ® Guide) – 7th Edition and The Standard for Project Management. Project Management Institute, Inc. (PMI). Retrieved from
  7. Standard, D. (2021). Dansk standard Vejledning i projektledelse Project , programme and portfolio management –.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Ganis, M. R., & Waszkiewicz, M. (2019). Digital Communication Tools as a Success Factor of Interdisciplinary Projects. Problemy Zarzadzania, 4/2018(77), 85–96.
Personal tools