China was one of the first countries to begin heading back to work at the office about four months ago.
What we have learned there can help leaders and teams everywhere:
1. Everyone has suffered differently, but teams are universally fractured.
The range of suffering is broad, across two different dimensions. The first dimension is what happened: many have suffered prolonged separation from close family members, missed important celebrations, and squabbled over living space and internet bandwidth. Some have been hospitalised, given birth or suffered relationship breakdowns without access to their normal support structures. And a small subset has suffered major trauma: a close family member dying alone and uncomforted, or a breakdown as the accumulation of acute stressors took their toll.
The second dimension is how we were affected by what happened, and that range is just as broad. Some found an uneasy path through the new restrictions and learned to live with a new baseline of fear. Many felt guilty about feeling bad, knowing that what had happened to them was nowhere near as bad as what happened to others.
This variability in resilience levels has resulted in people making judgements about their colleagues – about other team members’ ability to show up and participate in the new normal of back-to-back Zoom meetings and virtual workarounds. Judgement has a way of not only expanding pre-existing fractures in teams but also of creating new ones.
2. The second upheaval in how we work is now underway.
The first upheaval divided us into those who could work at home and those who could not. For the first group, it meant a sudden and complete transition to virtual working. Returning to work in the new normal is the second upheaval to undergo.
The post-Covid-19 workplace is different. Perhaps only half the staff can be on site at once in order to maintain social distancing. Maybe it's not an equal half: some people can't come back to work because they are stuck in another country, immunocompromised, afraid, or have caring duties. Resentment over covering for these people creeps in. You may have to show your health-tracking app and have your temperature taken as you enter the building and several times throughout the day. The canteen is open, but your lunch slot might be at 10am because regulations only allow 30 people at any time. The continuation of virtual and home-working means a mix of (socially distanced) face-to-face and virtual meetings happening all day, every day. And we all know how hard it is to be the person not in the room. The cleaner you knew by name from working late has been transformed into a hazmat-suited disinfecting squad. And if you get one case reported, the building is locked and you're all quarantined again.
Against this backdrop there are revenue numbers to make up. How exactly are we going to get everything done? And what are the consequences if we don’t? The stress levels are eye-popping.
3. Teams need help to reflect, recover and re-engage.
For as long as civilisation has existed, teams are how we’ve got things done, and they remain our best option for harnessing the collective brilliance of humans to achieve the desired objective. But even on a good day, problems with coordination and motivation typically chip away at the benefits of collaboration.
Google decided to explore this problem in their study of what makes the perfect team. In examining the makeup of high-performing teams, they were initially flummoxed by the data; no matter how teams were configured, there were no discernible patterns in their over- or under-achievements. But when they looked at how people behaved in high-performing teams, they discovered the key to be psychological safety. When team members felt that they wouldn’t be judged or embarrassed to share a feeling or a risky idea, they routinely over-achieved. The highest performing teams in the world are comprised of members who feel that they can be wholly themselves.
Right now there are people all over the world who feel judged by colleagues about how they have (or haven’t) coped. That’s why teams need a reset now. It is crucial that team leaders acknowledge that their teams are human beings. And when human beings have been through a prolonged period of stress, they need the space, time and energy to reflect on what they have been through, and to share their experiences and feelings in order to recover well.
The good news is that team leaders can purposefully work at creating an atmosphere of psychological safety that will not only help people recover from past challenges but will also help to build resilience for the challenges they are facing now. And if the team can nurture that safety, they will be setting themselves up for high performance in the future.
Creating psychological safety can be tricky. Team leaders who are typically focused on what the team is trying to achieve may find it challenging to pivot to how they have to be in order to achieve it – especially when they are desperately focused on the challenges of the second upheaval and recovering lost revenue.
We are lucky to work with brilliant clients in China who recognised the fractures in their teams and asked us to help them come back to work, well. Typically this would have involved one of our facilitators going to create and hold the space for teams to reflect, share and generate understanding about how the team will work together in future. But with strict rules in place about who can be inside workplaces, we needed to find a way to equip their team leaders with these crucial facilitation skills quickly, virtually and at scale.
The resulting virtual – yet still experiential – programmes are already underway, with team leaders trying their new skills as you read this. I’m humbled by their courage, as they share their own vulnerabilities and create space for their teams to do so too. They are making a positive difference to how the world emerges from this crisis. I urge you to give your teams the reset they need now.
These past few months have turned the world upside down, but the teams we nurture now can be so much more than just our organisations’ organs of progress. Crisis makes us all turn inwards, to the most important things in our lives: our families, our health, the roof over our heads. And as we emerge, our work teams can be the bridge back to outer-directedness, interaction with the world, and forward momentum. They can be a source of strength, allowing us to take a breath, be ourselves and re-marshal our creativity and enthusiasm to accelerate out of the crisis into the important work ahead.
For more information on how Impact can equip your team leaders with the necessary skills, please get in touch.
Helen Hibbott is Head of Impact Asia.