How to create effective, engaged workplace teams after the COVID-19 pandemic
by Matthias Spitzmuller, Associate Professor and Distinguished Professor of Organizational Behaviour, Queen's University, Ontario
Focusing on elements of teamwork that bring team members closer together should not be left to chance.
Well into the pandemic’s second year, we are beginning to see light on the horizon. We’re not out of the woods here in Canada. As some areas of the country continue to struggle to contain the virus, others are optimistic due to lowering case counts thanks to restrictions and lockdown measures.
Ontario — the country’s largest province by population — is now in the first step of its reopening, and officials have said the majority of those who want to receive a vaccine could be fully immunized by the end of the summer.
The rolling lockdowns and public health restrictions of the pandemic response meant a massive shift to remote and virtual work for many workplaces. As we look towards and plan for the post-pandemic future, businesses and organizations need to thoughtfully consider what the future of work looks like for them.
They will need to reflect on their operations pre-pandemic, consider what they learned from the disruption of the crisis, and ask themselves: How can we build back better?
Recent decades have seen a shift in the structure of businesses and organizations, away from hierarchical models in favour of cross-functional and, at times, self-managing networks of teams. In fact, a 2016 survey found the majority of large corporations rely on interdisciplinary and cross-functional teams. In 2019, 31 per cent of respondents said that most or almost all work is performed in teams.
For many of these organizations, the pandemic saw these teams transition from in-person work to remote interactions via video-conferencing services like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Skype.
Many appreciated the comfort and autonomy inherent in working from home, but the erosion of work-life balance and social interaction has caused challenges.
As we come out of the pandemic, workplace teams will need an environment that retains the experience of autonomy while also providing a sense of belonging. Employees should be free to decide where they want to work and when they want to work whenever possible. But we must also address the negative impact of isolation — loneliness, fatigue or even depression, all of which have been frequently reported during the pandemic.
Research on workplace teams finds that autonomy can in fact co-exist with a sense of belonging and cohesion. For this to be achieved, organizations need to find a balance, and need to organize teams according to these structural considerations:
- Teams have a strong leader, or they can feature shared leadership.
- Teams have clearly defined task interdependencies and interfaces among team members, or team members can perform their work largely in isolation.
- Teams have the same goals and rewards for all members, or they can offer individualized goals and rewards.
- Teams communicate virtually, or they can communicate so face-to-face.
- Teams have a shared history and aspirations, or they operate for a limited time, after which they disband.
A strong leader, alongside clearly defined task interdependencies, focuses on the team as a whole, whereas virtual teamwork and individual rewards emphasize the individual team member.
Combining features of teamwork that promote autonomy with other features that foster cohesiveness and a sense of belonging is likely the best path forward.
Emphasize shared goals
As long as employees continue to operate in a virtual setting, it’s important for leaders to define shared goals and rewards. Teams must share a vision of the future that complements the larger degree of autonomy they’ve experienced through virtual teamwork.
Focusing on elements of teamwork that bring team members closer together should not be left to chance. As some organizations learned during the pandemic, scheduling social hours can replace the spontaneous conversations at the water cooler. A book club can replace the informal learning over a lunch chat. A fireside Zoom chat on company values and goals can replace an in-person town hall.
But post-pandemic, few organizations will maintain an all-virtual presence. Many will move towards a hybrid model. For those teams returning to the office, it will still be important to protect the benefits of remote work: uninterrupted time for strategically important projects, and respect for personal preferences.
The pandemic has also almost eliminated a troublesome feature of organizational life: presenteeism, or showing up to work when sick. We must not go backwards in this regard. Workers must protect themselves and their team members from the consequences of illness.
Post-pandemic, the world of work will probably never be the same again. And that’s probably a good thing. We now have an opportunity to make it better.