The COVID-19 pandemic is already well into its second year and, depending on who you talk to, we’re either getting close to the end or still have a long way to go before life can return to some semblance of the pre-pandemic ‘normal’. In either case, workplaces are seeing the need to adapt how they operate in order to keep teams effective and engaged.


Even once coronavirus cases start to drop and offices reopen, over a year of working from home has opened up new ways of thinking when it comes to work. An Ipsos survey for the World Economic Forum has found that almost a third of employees interviewed will consider quitting their job if they are required to return to an office full time while two thirds are hoping for flexible working conditions. But how do you maintain team dynamics and effectiveness when most of the team want to continue working from home?


Decentralisation

In some ways, COVID-19 and the restrictions used to attempt to control its spread served to accelerate developments that were already in the works. Much of the technology that employers have relied upon to keep their teams working together existed for years before they became such absolute necessities. Video conferencing, for example, is hardly a recent innovation as Skype was enabling it in the 1990s. Shared online documents and workspaces are a little more recent, but they still existed and were widely used well before COVID-19 struck.


The same can be said of business structures. There has been a gradual shift away from hierarchical models for decades since they put too much dependence on too few individuals. If a single manager falls sick or leaves the company, under such a model, there is an inevitable lag in productivity while a replacement is found and/or trained. Even back in 2016, years before “corona” was anything other than a beer brand, most large corporations were shifting towards self-managing, interdisciplinary and cross-functional teams. By 2019, 31 per cent of those surveyed by Deloitte said that most of their work was done in such teams.


The advantages of this structure are self-evident. For one thing, the team is no longer entirely dependent on a small number of individuals and projects are much less likely to collapse because a single person is unavailable. As an added bonus, the team structure is much more motivating for the average employee. Rather than working for a ‘boss’, they are instead working to support their teammates, creating a greater sense of investment and a feeling of cooperation instead of exploitation.


A further advantage of this team-based approach is that each individual within it has a certain degree of autonomy. Everyone is working towards the end goal of the project in their own way, meaning that they can do so without necessarily needing to work closely with other team members. This proved to be an important advantage during the pandemic since social distancing and lockdown measures made close cooperation effectively impossible.


Isolation

There is a flipside to this coin, however. While the cross-functional team approach makes it easier for people to work with a degree of autonomy, it also makes it easier to get through your day without needing to interact with others to any significant degree. On a purely practical basis, that’s great news. On a human one, it’s very worrying.

The social isolation measures enacted to prevent the spread of the coronavirus have helped us to dodge one bullet while putting many people in the path of another. Various studies have found that they had a significant impact on mental health. The US Census Bureau, for example, found that the rate of anxiety or depression jumped from 11 per cent of respondents in December 2019 to 42 per cent in 2020, with similarly dramatic rises reported in other parts of the world.

This creates something of a no-win situation for employers. While one survey warns that up to a third of their staff could quit if asked to return to the office, a similar proportion could suffer from significant mental health risks if they do not.

Equilibrium

As with most things in life, the optimal solution is a balance of both extremes. Fortunately, research on workplace teams has found that it is actually possible to maintain both autonomy and a sense of togetherness. However, this is not something that will emerge naturally - a certain amount of management is required. Key structural elements include:

  • Leadership
  • Task management
  • Goal setting
  • Communication

Exactly what form each element takes depends on the team and the project they are working on. A more decentralised team may share the responsibility of leadership while a centralised team may need a single leader. Similarly, teams where members are mostly working in isolation will need tasks that allow such an approach while those working closer together may have some interdependencies, which need to be clearly defined. Goals and rewards may be either shared or individualised. In either case, good communication is essential.

The trick is in finding the balance between the various approaches available across these four elements. To meet the needs of your team and the team’s project while working within the limitations of your circumstances, you will need to combine features that favour autonomy with those that favour cohesion. The exact combinations to achieve that balance, however, are unique to each team. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

The importance of shared goals

The greatest strength of a good team is the combined effort of working towards a shared goal. Without a clearly defined shared goal, you do not have a team; just a loose association of individuals, each working for their own interests. Even working largely autonomously, contributing towards a shared vision will keep employees feeling like they are part of a team.

Of course, it can’t be all work and no play. Many organisations discovered that scheduling social hours can help to replace the social aspects of a shared office environment - the so-called water cooler moments. This has taken various different forms among different companies, from book clubs to replace informal learning and lunchtime chats to ‘fireside’ Zoom chats on company values to replace in-person town halls.

Despite that worrying survey result we’ve been mentioning, it’s highly likely that most companies will expect employees to return to the office for at least some of their working week. Many are working towards a hybrid model, allowing most of their staff to work from home for at least some of the time in order to get the best of both extremes.

The hybrid approach will likely be the standard post-pandemic work model as it enables employers to retain the advantages of remote work (such as the ability to work on key projects without interruption) while getting back some of the benefits of a shared workspace (like increased scope for closer cooperation and team building). They will also want to retain some of the benefits that the pandemic has produced, such as reduced presenteeism (showing up to work even when sick, thereby spreading the sickness to others).

Suffice it to say, the world of work will probably never return to the ‘normal’ that we knew before. The pandemic has proved that alternative approaches can be effective and both employees and employers alike will be determined to find a mutually beneficial ‘new normal’. Exactly what form that new normal will take remains to be seen.