For Management Solutions, teams are the avenue by which most of our work happens in our organization. Whether operationally focused or delivering value to projects, collaborative teams are key to our success.
Despite that truth, teams can be a challenge to navigate. Building and maintaining momentum can be tough. Even during the best of times, being face-to-face and collaboratively interacting, developing and maintaining team performance is challenging. Facing a pandemic and learning how to transition into interacting through the internet made it even more difficult.
Regardless of the industry, teamwork over the last year and a half has been complicated. Managing the safety of ourselves, the concern for our colleague’s safety, looking after our families and responding to a different atmosphere of living, family and social situations left us exhausted. Emotional and psychological hurdles were created due to the pandemic and all the changes it brought only added to the complexities in maintaining team continuity. Misunderstandings and overreactions combined with heightened tensions and raw nerves from the learning curve of online interaction are inevitable.
Although it is now the exception rather than the norm, face-to-face team interactions have become more complicated. Even with the benefit of being in the same workspace, safety considerations and concerns shape obstacles. The ability to communicate is hindered by maintaining distance and some still wearing masks. Mannerisms like facial expressions are hidden, bringing the realization of how much harder it is to read emotions and understand others.
For those of us working remotely, working in teams can promote a new level of distraction and awkwardness. The transition to working at home is not easy for many. Workspaces are less than optimal, presenting the challenge of other people in your house at the same time, who have their own commitments. Sharing physical, work and auditory spaces with others is an additional challenge to work through.
In addition to these challenges, the multitude of online meetings has not helped. Most of us find ourselves spending the bulk of our time communicating through online meeting platforms, one after another. Attention span dwindles and the psychic toll of always being “on” in less-than-optimal environments has not helped either.
It would be easy to write off the last 18 months and attempt to forget they ever occurred. Nonetheless, living through the pandemic offers insight and observations about how we work in teams—and how we can improve team interactions moving forward. These insights can enhance team functionality even during the move to whatever our new “normal” is:
- We need to look out for each other. Seemingly obvious, until we realize how little it happens. t was even more true at the beginning of the pandemic. While people were navigating the upheaval, transition, uncertainty and panic, work was easily viewed as a distraction. Checking in on team members and understanding what is going on professionally and personally is fundamental but often forgotten.
- Do not accept the first answer when you ask how someone is doing. It occurs at the beginning of almost every interaction. Someone asks, “How are you doing today?” To usually the default, obligatory, safe answer is “Good.” Rarely is that true, and we should not take it at face value. Good leaders and team members push beyond and care about hearing the answer to: “No, really, how are you doing?”
- Time for the team to interact with each other is essential. Team building has always been part of the job and yet all too often it was left for after work during personal hours or only in specially sanctioned “team building” sessions. Allotting the time for team members to interact with each other on a purely social level is vital for people to be able to efficiently work together and collaborate. Build time into your schedule to connect on a human level, with no other work expectations attached, instead of reducing it to a couple of minutes before a meeting starts or after it ends.
- Communicating with video on is better. We are unquestionably dealing with less-than-optimal work environments, but face-to-face communication is still an essential part of managing interactions, especially when stakes are high. A best practice is for team members to keep their video on so that body language can be understood, and team members can maintain focus on the meeting at hand.
- Allow flexibility in work schedules when possible. Yes, the work needs to get done but everyone has experienced the challenge of needing to attend to household interruptions, childcare, family emergencies and even more trivial duties like grocery shopping. While it might have been normal to be at your office desk from 9 to 5 in the “before times,” allowing teams to negotiate what works for them and finding the flexibility they need to do the work when it most makes sense all the while continue to deliver excellence in a timely manner.
- It is okay to ask for help. This should always be acceptable but social protocols often suggest otherwise. People want to appear competent, in control and on top of things. The reality is that we are often feeling less than in control, and there are days when we struggle with feeling like we are making progress or doing the right thing well. Asking for help, asking for feedback, asking for clarity and asking for space in—and should be—welcomed and encouraged.
- Be each other’s allies. We all have good and bad days, whether as leaders or members of the team. This makes it easy to shoot down, ignore or simply not see when someone’s trying to communicate. Sometimes it is intentional because as a team lead you feel pressured to maintain the agenda on schedule and what you are hearing sounds like a possible tangent. Other times, you may not have even noticed someone had something to say. Speak up for each other. When someone contributes a great idea that the rest of the team did not hear, amplify it by highlighting each other’s contributions.
- Not everything has to be a meeting. Before things changed, we interacted in many ways: We met each other in the hallway, popped our heads into each other’s offices, went out for coffee and grabbed lunch together. Now, our default forms of communication are emails, messaging, meetings and the temptation when we need someone’s time is by scheduling a meeting. It is okay to pick the phone up and call them. Think about whether you really need to schedule another meeting, or you just need to negotiate a chat or ask a question.
Teamwork is essential and we are still learning how to do it well. The pandemic has created some new conventions and has also amplified possible legacy bad habits. We can learn from both and find what works best. It is reasonable, appropriate and necessary to question historical norms and see if they still make sense and if not, negotiate some of these new norms to enable and you and your teams to perform at an optimal level.