How to Build Teamwork When Your Players Work Alone From Home

COVID moved us apart. These approaches pull us together.

“2020 has been the longest year of my life.”

I have heard this statement repeatedly from clients this year, regardless of whether they are a small business owner or a Fortune 500 CEO.

In April 2020, the world shut down. Business leaders scrambled to make sense of the new reality under COVID. Remote work, rising cases, and lockdown protocols put every leader to the test.

Seven months later, the initial shock has turned to frustration and fatigue. Many leaders are struggling to maintain team motivation when workers are solely connected by virtual threads.

To find answers, I reached out to two respected industry experts for guidance. Carolyn Hendrickson is CEO and founder of Tandem Group, Inc., holds a Ph.D. in industrial-organizational psychology, and has worked as a senior partner in several major consulting firms. Debbie Brecher, President of Tandem Group, Inc., holds a Masters in organizational psychology and previously worked as Managing Director at Accenture.

Brecher and Hendrickson explained their four-pronged approach to keep team engines revving while working remotely.

Hold Meaningful Conversations

“Change scares people,” said Brecher. “And when people get nervous, they shut down.” To maintain motivation, Brecher advises leaders to use proactive communication to create connection, alignment, and a sense of togetherness.

There are two kinds of conversations: foreground and background. “Foreground conversations are the things people say out in the open,” says Hendrickson. “Background conversations are what people are thinking or saying behind closed doors. These background conversations have a disproportionately higher impact on employee actions and motivation.”

In other words, all the stuff people are thinking (but not saying) is going to have an impact on the business. Leaders need to consciously draw those conversations out and address frustrations before they derail performance. Background conversations can also provide clues to areas of opportunity that you as a leader may not have seen.

How can you pull those background conversations forward?

  • Ask for advice instead of asking for feedback. This tends to create a stronger sense of safety for those who have constructive commentary to share.
  • Lean into team conflicts, listening for friction areas that can be addressed.
  • Call out the current constraints and have the team brainstorm solutions, committing to a decision once the solution is made.
  • Ask your direct reports questions around their current level of motivation, fulfillment, and sense of connectedness at work. Listen intently for what aspects you could further improve or adjust.
  • Send personalized thank-you notes to your team and their families, demonstrating gratitude for their continued efforts during such a trying time.

“One of my CEO clients has brought about deeper conversations by checking in with his team each week on a personal front,” says Brecher. “He asks, ‘How are you doing? How are your families managing? Is there anything you need?’ By showing his team that he genuinely cares about them as human beings instead of worker robots, he’s fostered a culture of appreciation. That appreciation has translated into a connected and motivated workforce.”

Leaders must create an environment where employees feel safe to speak up about issues when they surface. Once concerns are on the table, leaders can shift the focus away from what isn’t working to what’s working well. Focusing on successes and opportunities allows leaders and their teams to co-create a vision they can accomplish together.

Cultivate Capability

COVID temporarily froze a lot of learning systems. “At first when the pandemic hit, there was this reaction to shut a lot of the programs down,” says Hendrickson. “It’s important to get creative and find ways of offering continued professional development.” Performance conversations and development discussions are critical to performance and motivation. Creating that feedback loop with disconnected teams pulls them back to see the bigger picture in addition to what they are doing well and where they need to make further adjustments.

A job well done generates a sense of confidence and pride. It is a leader’s responsibility to make sure their people have the training and support required to succeed. That’s just as true if your workers are sitting in a conference room or at their kitchen table. How can we mobilize professional development in a virtual world?

  • Better leverage existing technology by transitioning training into online classes with smaller groups.
  • Use the breakout room feature to further engage the participants.
  • Incorporate polling tools along with live instruction.
  • Use ice breakers regularly as a way to generate laughter and connectivity on a more personal level.
  • Have direct reports identify two competencies that need to be honed over the next 12 months. Ask them what support is needed, and schedule meetings every two months focused solely on their professional growth.

According to Hendrickson, it is also important to keep people connected and aware of how they contribute to the overall outcome. In team meetings, frequently tie work back to the mission and goals the team is aligned with. “People want to see what they are doing is making a difference, and they want to be appreciated for that difference.” Your positive feedback grows your team’s sense of accomplishment. That sense of accomplishment fuels future successes.

To boost morale and motivation, make sure your people are equipped to do their jobs effectively. And give them credit for the hard work they’re doing. Your appreciation goes a long way.

Empower People Through Choice

“Leaders have such an unbelievable impact on an employee’s experience,” says Brecher. To maximize the positive effects of leadership during a crisis, present team members with choices to help them feel empowered.

Leaders need to design flexibility into the system so their people have options. When offered a choice, individuals will feel a stronger sense of commitment to achieve their organization’s desired outcome. Similarly, when your employees feel overwhelmed, show them where they can impact decisions or how the work is executed. This is an easy way to help them feel less victimized by their circumstance.

One boutique consulting firm created a sense of choice by offering their team the right to choose where to work. While some were quite happy working from home, others faced a huge impact on their emotional well-being. Even the CEO experienced fatigue at home with both her kids in virtual school and her husband using the only home office. She’d been doing all her conference calls in her home bathroom and finally decided enough was enough. The CEO created a rotating schedule so that those who wanted to work at the office could come in safely. They implemented COVID testers onsite every Monday, with results by Wednesday, so her employees could get tested and keep each other and their families safe.

What are other ways of creating a sense of choice?

  • Offer flexibility around when hours are worked.
  • Carve out 10% of an employee’s time to focus on a work project that they are personally excited about.
  • Provide the option of not turning video on for conference calls.
  • Be directive on the outcome while providing some level of autonomy in terms of how they get there.

Creating choices provides that sense of security and a sense of control. When employees feel like they have a choice, their satisfaction and productivity increase.

Find ways to give your team a choice.

Show Up Authentically

“This year is calling all leaders to a higher level of personal mastery,” says Brecher. “Running on autopilot and doing things as we always have just won’t work.”

Leaders need to be consciously aware of how they’re showing up and how that impacts their team’s performance and well-being. Brecher and Hendrickson encourage leaders to list two or three values that embody the working environment they want to create. Those values act as a guide for how to behave, even when under stress.

To pressure test whether you’re showing up as you intend to, Brecher and Hendrickson recommend gathering rapid-cycle feedback. To do this, share the values you want to exemplify with four or five people you trust, then ask them where they see you living up to those values or falling short. A colleague may say, “When you asked me how my family is doing, I could tell you care about me as a person. But when I saw you cut off Peter in the meeting, I started to wonder whether you really care at all.” This rich data can provide leaders with the necessary insight to shift their behaviors and drive the outcomes they seek.

Video conferencing creates a unique chance for personal reflection because you can see yourself on the screen. Use that visual to your advantage! Reflect on how others may be experiencing you. How are you sitting in the frame? What is your non-verbal body language saying? What emotions does your presence elicit? How can you modulate your behavior to support a different outcome?

2020 brought an increased level of personal strain for everyone. Fires, hurricanes, significant political divide, civil unrest, and a global pandemic are just a few of the highlights. Modern leaders are called to create unity and consistency in this world of constant change. To intentionally build and maintain your team’s motivation despite these challenges, you must cultivate deeper conversations, encourage capability, empower through choice, and leverage personal mastery. Where the virtual world has compartmentalized us, these approaches will pull us forward together.

And that unity makes all the difference in the world.

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