What It's Like to Be a Project Manager: A Day in the Life
With any career, what may look interesting and glamorous to an outsider can often be the complex and stressful aspects of a job. Choosing the right career is important so you need to do your research. Looking beyond the glossy recruitment pages and getting to know a bit about the day to day realities of the job can help you make a more informed decision about whether that career is right for you.
In this article, I've taken together my own experience and that of other project managers to give you a glimpse into what a normal day looks like. Have a read through, and see if it is a career that you could picture yourself enjoying.
Of course, in reality every day as a project manager is very different, but for the purpose of this article I've structured some typical activities across the average 9-5 day.
8AM: Start Work. Check Emails.
The eagle-eyed reader will have already spotted the contradiction in my article. In the introductory paragraph, I mentioned that I would give you a typical 9-5 day, and now I've started the day at 8am instead.
This is the first reality of a project manager: a day is very rarely 9-5.
Project management is a demanding career. This is especially true when you are at a critical point in a project. Projects are so intrinsically linked to timescales, that when things get tough, there is no time to stop and pause. What this means in reality is that during busy periods, you may be working long hours to support your team, get through your tasks, and ensure your deadlines are met.
To handle such a demanding job, many project managers will start work before the morning rush of phone calls and meetings, so that they have time to catch up on emails. It is not uncommon for a project manager to start work at 7 or 8am. And of course, a large email inbox in common. You must be organized enough to be able to manage your inbox well, and keep on top of answering important emails.
9AM: Conference Call
Conference calls have taken over from meetings as the most common communication method on projects. Why? Because many projects now have remote teams. When you are working with people based in numerous locations, having the time to travel for meetings becomes unrealistic. And with technology as advanced as it is, a telephone or video conference can be just as effective. (Well, this isn't always true. Just for fun, I've linked to a video below which gives a unique take on what a conference call would look like in real life. If you've ever experienced a conference call, this will definitely make you laugh.)
As a project manager, it will often be your responsibility to host conference calls, and you may need to act as a business representative on other calls related to your project. Project calls are often scheduled to give the team a regular opportunity to chat through how they are getting on with the project, and to discuss any problems they might be having.
A Conference Call in Real Life
10:00 AM: Review Conference Call/Project Issues
So, let's assume the 9 AM conference call is an hour long. That is pretty typical on a larger project. As project manager, you'll finish the conference call with a set of notes you've taken throughout. Your team has probably notified you of work that has been completed, work in progress, and major project issues. The likelihood is, there is going to be urgent or semi-urgent work you need to do after you've left the conference call to handle the issues that have just been raised.
So at this point in the day, you are likely to be doing several things:
- Updating your project documentation e.g. your project plan, to reflect everything you've just been told in the conference call
- Do some initial work to address any urgent issues you've been notified of e.g. if a supplier is running late with a delivery, you might check the impact this is going to have on your project, call the supplier, or escalate the problem.
- Other emails/phone calls/discussions are likely to take place and might take up a vast amount of your morning. It is common for a project manager to get a continued stream of emails, issues and phone calls throughout a day, so you will have new stuff to deal with, even whilst you are busy handling the problems you've already got.
11:00 AM: Project Planning/More Calls
So following on from your meeting earlier, you've probably discovered that your project plan now needs updating. However, don't expect a great deal of time to get this done. You'll probably be interrupted by more calls and emails. However, you make a start on the plan anyway.
11:30 AM: Specialist Meeting
I've used the generic term 'specialist' meeting for this heading, but in reality this could be any sort of meeting related to a specific topic on your project. For example, if you are an IT project manager, this might be a software review.
However, the point to make here is that meetings do take up a considerable chunk of your day. And don't forget, a good project manager will take time either side of the meeting to make sure they get the most out of the time. They might be collating reference material beforehand, or reading through background information, and afterwards they might write-up and distribute notes they made during the meeting.
12:30 PM: Lunch
So I don't want to paint too bleak a picture when it comes to how busy life as a project manager can be. So at 12:30, here's a stop point for lunch. It's a good idea, however hectic your job gets, to always take time out during the middle of the day. You'll find you have more energy for the afternoon and you can focus better.
1:00 PM: Presentation To Executives
Be expected as a project manager to have to do a lot of presentations. You may find that a high profile project is watched carefully by your manager, senior executives or the project sponsor, and they may ask you to present a regular update to them.
Of course, a regular presentation is not only an hour long meeting out of your working week. It takes time to put the details together that senior executives expect to see in a presentation, and you may find yourself having to send through follow-up information after the meeting finishes, to help answer any questions or concerns they have. Being skilled at taking lots of critical data and turning it into a clear, straightforward presentation is very important if you want to perform well in your job.
2:00 PM: Write Reports
Project Managers do spend a considerable amount of time on documentation, as there is a lot of information that needs to be stored and regularly updated on a project. As well as presentations to executives, you might need to provide written reports to a wider audience on a regular basis, or to a customer. Having solid writing skills is important, as you want your reports to look professional and be easy for people to read and understand.
3:00 PM: Catch Up With Team
Your core job as a project manager is to maintain control on a project, and it shouldn't be underestimated just how quickly a project can start to slide. The only way to prevent this is by having a solid relationship with your team, and communicating with them on a regular basis. It is important that your team feels comfortable enough with you that they can talk you through any issues they are having which might be causing problems to your project, so good interpersonal skills are a must.
During this time you may be proactively catching up with individual team members by phone or in person, or you may prioritize certain team members if you are currently dealing with a particular issue on your project.
4:00 PM: Update Budget
Keeping control of project finances is essential. At the start of any project, you will need to put together a budget to estimate what you are going to spend, and when. To maintain close control on your project, you'll need to review the budget on a regular basis and check it against your actual spend figures. An excellent grasp of numbers is very important for a project manager.
4:30 PM: Finance Meeting
If you are running over budget on a project, you may well find yourself in a meeting with the finance team to review your spending. Or your organisation may simply want a regular financial review on your project to check that it is on track. However, what you will certainly find on any project is that you will be frequently asked to attend meetings with internal departments who have an interest or a stake in your project.
5:00 PM: Urgent Conference Call
It is a rare day that everything runs smoothly on a project. You may often find yourself having to change your carefully planned-out schedule to handle a growing crisis on a project. For example, you may have to schedule in a late conference call to catch up with a third party about an issue that was raised with you that morning. Remember too, that if you are dealing with teams in different time zones, you are likely to find yourself having to schedule calls either in the early morning or the late evening. One of the many reasons why a project management job is rarely 9-5.
5:30 PM: Reply to Emails
Email is still an important communication tool for any business, and whilst you may have had 10 or 20 minutes at odd points during the day to read and reply to emails, you will probably find that your inbox has growth rapidly as the day has passed. So you may often find yourself squeezing in an extra 30 minutes at the end of the working day just to catch up on emails and get on top of the rest of your to-do list, before you are ready to leave work.
6:00 PM: Review To-Do List for Tomorrow
So at 6PM, you may now feel like you have made some progress with your work, and that you are ready to leave the office. However, to try to give yourself a head start on the very busy day you have planned tomorrow, you might just spend 10 minutes reviewing your to-do list. Of course, a to-do list is an essential tool for every project manager, as it will aid you in managing your time and juggling a very demanding schedule.
Conclusion: No Two Projects/Organizations Are the Same
If you find yourself surprised by any of these points, remember that this is simply a guide, and in reality all projects are different and how you manage your time on them will be different. In addition, all organizations are different. Some may have cultures that expect you to work long hours and take minimal lunch; others may have a very different approach and may actively encourage employees to take proper breaks, reduce their workload, and work reasonable hours. Whatever project you find yourself managing, one lesson you can take from this example is that the ability to remain organized, alert and efficient is incredibly important for a project manager. Good time management makes a significant difference in being able to keep on top of the complex demands and unpredictability that comes with overseeing a project.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.