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Stepping up to the challenge of socially distanced teams

Written by: Dr Simon Willson is a Solace Associate and freelance OD consultant and coach
Published on: 15 Oct 2020

Since April, it is likely that you have been on a steep learning curve adapting to the abrupt shift to homeworking caused by COVID-19. With 74% of directors now saying they will keep some form of homeworking after coronavirus, this seems like a good time to take stock and to think about some of the possible longer-term implications of teams working.

The concerns arising from remote working have so far focused on some of the psychological and practical challenges facing people. These include increased isolation and loneliness, difficulties in managing boundaries, worries about performance levels and problems relating to sharing information.

Much of the advice offered in response has centred on establishing the best ways to maintain employee welfare, leading to a focus on practical ways for teams to work together remotely using existing technologies. But now it is time to see how we can move from simply surviving this new way of working to actually thriving.

An important first step, is to deepen the trust and rapport between leaders and their teams. With a lack of physical oversight and daily informal contact, leaders need to trust people to deliver what has been asked of them and to ensure there is consistent follow through on agreed tasks and that any communication is regular.

Furthermore, leaders need to pay attention to setting success-measures that enable performance to be evaluated remotely. This might prove trickier than it first seems. While the quality and speed of work done remotely can be assessed, leaders need to think about how people’s leadership skills, their attitude to work and their ability to collaborate and motivate colleagues can be assessed when these can’t be observed.

Over time, this may require councils to think differently about how tasks are articulated, delivered and measured and how this might shape future employee development and appraisals. A failure to do this may result in reduced promotion opportunities. This could be particularly difficult for new and younger workers who may already be experiencing less hands-on supervision and training. In the longer-term, this may cause difficulties with succession planning and filling senior posts, thereby affecting the performance and stability of councils.

Developing this rapport and trust also extends to working collaboratively with staff to find the best ways for them to work remotely. Encouraging staff to take responsibility for creating this new work culture requires a focus on the opportunities it presents, as well as on minimising its disadvantages. The emphasis, therefore, needs to be on flexibility and adaptability to help people establish good home working practices; set clear boundaries between work and home; and to encourage them to remain socially connected to their work colleagues. This is vital. Without team members interacting at a personal, as well as a professional level, trust, cooperation and creativity between team members is likely to decrease and, in turn, stress and lower performance levels will increase.

The social nature of teams reminds us of the important part human behaviour plays in forming, developing and maintaining high performing teams. Most team development theories suggest teams grow and mature together through daily social interactions. It is through sustained physical contact that teams develop routine ways of doing things, establish a pattern of roles and find the right dynamics to achieve unity and high performance. Not being able do this in person reduces the opportunities for teams to successfully form, normalise and grow.

Leaders have to start to think about how they can recreate these conditions when teams are working apart. Leaders have to actively re-engage staff in activities that will set team goals, shape how information is shared and determine the best way to get things done when working remotely. Investing in team building and development needs to become a priority now.

With this in mind (whilst adhering to COVID-secure guidelines) teams should be encouraged to continue to come together physically, whenever possible, for events which are focused on people reconnecting and on addressing work issues.

If ‘awaydays’ can only be held on-line, then teams need to harness their natural creativity to organise activities that are inclusive, engaging and effective at addressing work challenges as well as reinforcing people’s roles, achievements and their sense of belonging to the team. Electronic media and creative software (such as Miro, Mural and Padlet) can make these events highly interactive and good fun.

At the very least, time should be made at video conferencing team meetings for people to discuss team development issues and also non-work items to help maintain relationships. Some workplaces are holding virtual office lunches and parties where ‘care packages’ are sent out in advance of the meeting to be opened and enjoyed simultaneously.

Measures like these will help leaders to ensure that staff continue to ‘rub up’ against one another. Issues that need addressing will be highlighted, and they will provide a mechanism for teams to raise and resolve issues - sustaining creativity and productivity and clearing up the misunderstandings that can easily develop in e-space.

Longer-term, I don’t think people are going to permanently adopt this way of working. But I do believe this experience will expand everyone’s ability to work remotely in a more effective way. There will be a recognition that socially distanced teams, when managed and supported well, can contribute to a more diverse, freer and healthier workforce. In turn, this will lead to greater creativity, efficiency and resourcefulness, increasing the impact councils are able to have on their local communities.

Dr Simon Willson is speaking at Reflect. Reset. Re-Imagine, Solace’s Virtual Learning Week this week. The sessions will be available for the next 90 days.  

Dr Simon Willson is a Solace Associate and freelance OD consultant and coach