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How to build team resilience remotely

Covid-19 has exacerbated the challenges of a distributed workforce and made building a strong team more important (and difficult) than ever. Here’s how you can get started

The ongoing pandemic has accelerated a pre-existing trend towards distributed workforces.  Organisations are increasingly ‘location agnostic’ and, subsequently, more are questioning their investment in the fixed workplace. 

As team members adapt to unaccustomed ways of working, leaders face real challenges - how do you keep your teams engaged, productive and focused when operating, to a greater or lesser degree, remotely?

The major challenges facing all teams

Even when based in a single location, research has shown that team members face a number of challenges with a potential impact on the progress of their work:

- Only 48 per cent felt they could anticipate and adapt to changing priorities.

- Only 38 per cent were happy with the speed of decision-making.

- Only 35 per cent found it easy to move work forward.

- Only 46 per cent felt they could spend time on work that was important to them.

And with Gartner reporting that 48 per cent of employees are likely to be working remotely, at least part of the time, after COVID-19 a new layer of complexity will exacerbate these challenges for leaders and pose new ones as well. 

Optimum ways of working within a distributed workforce

Wherever and however a team chooses to work, there are four key areas that enable it to function at its best – these are the four building blocks of team resilience.

  1. Clarity. Every team member understands the ‘why’, ‘how’ and ‘when’ of what the team wants to achieve. 
  2. Support. Tools, processes, and other formal mechanisms exist that proactively increase transparency and help team members sustain work pace and achieve goals. 
  3. Experiment. The team are solution-focused and challenge assumptions about what and how work is done to improve workplace efficiencies.
  4. Collective ownership. All team members own the management of work demand and pace. 

With these four attributes of team resilience providing the bedrock for team working, teams demonstrate a much-improved collective ability to manage and respond to changing circumstances and periods of uncertainty; they continue to move work forward at pace irrespective of pressure; and they learn from past experiences in order to continuously improve behaviours and processes.

Practical ways to build resilience

Survey data by organisational change consultancy Rubica, shows that even high-performing teams struggle when it comes to managing change and experimenting with new ways of working during periods of uncertainty. That is when resilient teams are able to rely on simple tools and processes to build ways of working that create clarity, support, and experimentation. 

1. Creating clarity 

In times of change, and with no fixed office routine, it’s crucial to establish a sense of stability, if only for short periods of time.

There are various ways in which leaders can promote stability and clarity: 

  1. Offer actionable strategic guidance and take more control of setting priorities. 
  2. Share your vision and purpose. Let people know why they are doing what they are doing.
  3. Orientate your teams around specific actions, with a focus on what matters most.
  4. Establish small workforce ‘cells’ that are fit for purpose and accountable. Encourage teams to take responsibility for results.

Keep it simple when setting priorities and avoid over-complicating the process. This will help to create useful conversations and encourage participation from the whole team.

Try using a simple matrix during a 10-15-minute team check-in, virtually or face-to-face.  The matrix will help to focus discussions, by highlighting the priorities that are easiest to implement and have the highest impact – helping people to decide what to prioritise for the week ahead or deprioritise for the time.

2. Providing support

Camaraderie is not enough. You need formal support mechanisms to improve transparency, build trust and actively develop the ability to manage disruption, pressure, and pace.

The performance pressure curve (first created by psychologist Robert Yerks & Don Johnson in 1908) is a great tool for team members to express how they are currently feeling and is easy to use in any working environment. It works by illustrating 6-zones: 

  1. Boredom
  2. Relaxed
  3. Comfort
  4. Stretch
  5. Strain
  6. Overwhelm

Ideally, you want at least 60 per cent of your team in the ‘stretch’ zone. That’s where we are more likely to feel healthily challenged, engaged and at our most productive. A lack of challenge and focus leads to underperformance. Conversely, being over challenged with too many competing priorities creates strain, which undermines productivity and performance. 

To use the performance pressure curve during a team check-in, ask individuals where they feel they are right now. For those in ‘overwhelm’, provide an immediate, one-to-one response, and remove one or two stressors. 

For those in ‘strain’, ask how the team could help.  Those in ‘comfort’ can probably contribute most here or encourage the letting go of minor or even major tasks. 

3. Encouraging experimentation

Team members need a solution-focused mindset and to be prepared to challenge assumptions to improve the way things are done. 

There is a temptation in working life to focus on issues and/or problems and get bogged down in the detail. When change happens, this tendency is often compounded. 

At times like this, you want people to think innovatively. To encourage this, try using a tool like the Radial Solution-Focused Planning Model. 

This model helps people to reframe a problem by describing specific blockages in words. To use it, convert the challenge into a goal and place it in the centre. From here, work your way out – detailing the blockages that are hindering the achievement of that goal. Then finally, detail solutions to overcome those individual blockages.

4. Building collective ownership 

In disruptive times, managers tend to become more proactive, constantly checking in on their teams. It’s a natural response to support people who may be struggling to find focus and stay engaged. 

Although manager-team connectivity within remote working environments is to be applauded, overreliance on managers to help teams ‘cope’ dilutes the opportunity to create interdependent teams and develop robust links between members. Only then will the team own its achievements as a group rather than relying on the pull of a single individual.

Encouraging participation from the entire team in virtual and/or face-to-face meetings is a great way to build collective ownership.  Simple ways of doing this include:

  1. Set clear expectations and key points for participation. Signal them on the agenda and slides.
  2. List each team member’s name on a slide, leaving space for their input. 
  3. Type in their contribution as it’s offered or encourage them to add it themselves.
  4. Offer moments of reflection. Pose a question, then give everyone five minutes to consider their input. That allows for people’s different styles.
  5. Be upfront. If you’re not getting the energetic participation and collaboration you need, ask for it.

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