We are all experiencing this change. Change is always hard, but when widespread change occurs without preparation and with immediate impact, the adjustment is even more jarring. So much is already written about Parent Burnout, but I can tell you that Team Fracture is happening too. Our teammates are attempting to establish their relevance and their voice now that they are not physically present. Seen and unseen variables are everywhere, affecting our decision-making, our reactions, and our ability to feel fully engaged.
Now that many of us are working remotely, we need to establish a new way of working together; a way to collaborate, innovate, communicate, and produce the same quality outcomes that our organizations expect from us. Interdependence and trust form the basis for the Telework Team, which means accepting being human and feeling vulnerable.
“The result is that teams can be motivating and supportive — team members are trusted confidants all pulling together — or they can just as easily be demoralizing and unfair, when team members’ fates are tied to others they cannot count on.”
Did It Have to End This Way? Understanding the Consistency of Team Fracture by Stanford University et. al
This article cannot give you trust in your colleagues. What it can offer is a set of seven small changes that can make a difference among your teammates. These improvements can solidify your remote relationship. These are the ways we have managed the change at Zuri Group, an organization that is majority-remote already. Even with our home offices and desks already set up, we needed to help each other adapt to the confines of homebound children and family members, managing our face-to-face project visits over video calls, and balancing at-work vs. at-home when the two worlds are fully blended. Because we are already a remote company, we are also able to offer support to coach our clients through what it means to manage their own teams remotely.
In this environment, every small change has a major impact. The suggestions below have worked for us and for our client partners to recognize our collective humanity and to give people the space to think together.
Offering the space to share with one another cultivates trust or nurtures the team’s existing interdependence.
- First, recognize that we are all experiencing this change in our own ways. We must acknowledge that no one person feels it more keenly than another. There are visible impacts, but the impacts we can’t see are the ones that drive reactivity and behavior.
- When we co-locate, we can rely on our senses to gauge someone’s level of comfort or understanding when working on a project. When we are remote, that sense is blocked. We must recognize that if we hear hesitation, push-back, or perceive that someone is disconnected, it is more likely due to their confusion about how to proceed than their lack of desire to participate. Taking a few extra minutes to clarify the path forward will work wonders to keep team members involved and moving.
- Simplify access to the tools you are accustomed to in the office. Easy access to your systems that are maintained within the organization’s network will help people feel less isolated. If your organization set up security measures that require a restrictive VPN connection, for example, devise some ways that team members can work within the VPN instead of around it. If your organization uses many different external applications, consider creating a single webpage that includes links to all of your familiar programs as a single starting point for your team.
- Establish your conference call culture: Each of us has a different “backdrop” to our conference calls than we once did. Noise in the background is one of the many variables that teammates are grappling with right now, which can cause the most anxiety and disconnect on a call. Establish an understanding with your team that dogs bark, cats walk on keyboards, children scream and cry, and lawnmowers roar. Acknowledging that it is okay to have a reasonable amount of noise in the background during a call will reduce the pressure on your team members, and it will allow them to better focus on the call (rather than spending that energy trying to “shush” a dog or child).
- Allow “water cooler” time at the start of each conference call. Remember that folks don’t have an opportunity to interact casually as they would in the office. Although it may feel counterintuitive, allow the first 10 minutes or so of each meeting to talk about “stuff.” Talking about the woes of homeschool, pets, grocery shopping, weather, and menu planning gives us a chance to check in with one another and to understand what each team member is bringing with them to the conversation. That said, don’t let it spin into perpetual complaining or get out of control with the discussion of controversial issues which have no bearing on the purpose of the call. A delicate “let’s pause on this topic, and the two of you can regroup offline if you’d like to continue” can work wonders to refocus the conversation.
- Use video with your conference calls if you are able. Your team is used to seeing each other in the office, so it makes sense to encourage them to share video when not in the office. The benefits are huge with this one – the feeling of isolation dissolves when you can see your coworkers, you can much more easily gauge their reactions and engagement when seeing their faces, and you have a “window” into the human side of their lives. Similar to a call, forgive the activity that happens in the background (enabling virtual backgrounds in Zoom or blurred background in Teams can help with this as well). Even take it one step further to support parents on your team: show grace and a welcome smile when a child, dog, or cat pops their head into your team call. A bit of comic relief can help lighten any conversation!
- The last and most important is you: Model the behaviors that you expect from your team, and coach and mentor them through this massive change. Let them know how the change is impacting you and that you feel the pressure, too. Dress for work the way you expect your team to dress, bring lightness and joy to the conversation when possible, and share with your team how you are getting things done. Humanizing your own experience can help your teammates feel less alone in their experiences.
Confusion and isolation are the biggest consequences of our telework, the long-term impacts of which are not yet understood. If we can do something small, like sharing our own feelings and frustrations, and showing grace when the stuff of life appears, we can connect with the people on the other end of the phone in a way that lessens the burden of isolation.
Group is accustomed to these practices when we work with each other. We have been practicing telework as a team for a dozen years. Now is the time to lean on our experiences to help inform your path forward with your teams. We are always available to help you brainstorm, plan, and establish your own Teamwork practices during Telework. The entire concept of collaboration changed overnight, and the practices that we test-drive and put into place today will likely stick for years to come.
Kate is a Senior Consultant here at Zuri Group. With more than 15 years of experience in strategic, organizational, and fundraising systems consulting, Kate support client partners through strategy and change and provides the expertise needed to engage deeply with the project team, sponsors, and organization leadership.