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Lasting Impact of COVID-19 on the Way Teams Operate

In March, employers around the globe told millions of workers – practically overnight – to “work from home until further notice”. Many of these employees had never worked remotely before. Most were given no training or guidance on how to work effectively in such a radically new way.

Yet, remarkably, these newly formed remote teams figured out how to survive in real time. People got on with their jobs and managed complex personal responsibilities in the face of extraordinary economic uncertainty. However, this crisis-driven, ‘trial-by-fire’ response will be difficult to sustain for another six to nine months – the point at which experts estimate it will be safe to recalibrate work back into physical workspaces.

To stabilize the performance, psychological wellbeing and inclusivity of remote teams in the near term, it’s important to understand how this rapid shift has already changed the way members think about and approach their jobs, their lives and each other. We must leverage this learning to reimagine work going forward and lay the foundations for what will probably be a hybrid onsite/remote reality, post-pandemic.

Communicating and coordinating

The sudden onset of COVID-19 restrictions destroyed the traditional boundaries between work and life. Not only did the strict 9-5 and the commutes disappear, so did the educational and caregiving supports many workers relied on to do their jobs. Remote workers have had to consider the realities of both work and life, when planning, coordinating and executing priorities.

One model of working life does not fit all – especially during a global viral pandemic. Therefore, setting boundaries has required a level of shared accountability between each worker and their manager. Establishing this has been a challenge; managers can set clear priorities and make it safe to problem solve, but optimizing the way work and life fit together, based on current realities, is up to every individual and the team. That requires a new skill set that most people do not have.

In our 2018 study of full-time workers in the US (involving a nationally representative sample), only 17% of respondents said they frequently used video- or web-conferencing software to update supervisors and colleagues about work progress. It’s clear, then, that when the pandemic hit, most remote workers faced a steep learning curve when it came to adopting the digital tools to communicate and co-ordinate with each other and their customers.

While many successfully climbed the curve, challenges such as so-called “Zoom fatigue” are a symptom of a deeper need to organize and prioritize current communication channels; to clarify which channels to use when and how to use them most effectively, according to what we are communicating; to specify where both formal communications and informal gatherings are happening virtually and invite people to participate, as they prefer.

Some employees may love video-conferencing ‘happy hours’ where pets, partners and children participate freely in the activities, while others may prefer to keep their private lives separate and to take part in smaller, more intimate team-building sessions; for example, break-out room lunch chats during work hours.

From where we work to what we do

The rapid transition to remote and flexible working, experienced by so many for such an extended period of time, will change the operating DNA of organizations. For remote teams, work has already become less about ‘where we go’ and more about ‘what we do’. This requires managing to clear performance metrics (around outcomes versus presence); organizational culture must be founded on a shared purpose and impact (versus shared place and space).

The sudden shift to remote working has forced each of us to rethink how we approach our jobs, our lives and one another. Now we must define and leverage what we have learned, in order to stabilize the way flexible, remote teams operate in the near-term and prepare for what’s next by:

  • giving teams and their managers the knowledge, skills and tools to collaborate and set better, more sustainable boundaries between work and life
  • clarifying and coordinating when and how to use different digital communication channels
  • emphasizing outcomes to gauge performance, and shared purpose to define culture.

In the process, we will also be positioning our organizations to rebuild, and grow stronger and better, in the flexible and dynamic post-pandemic reality.

(This post originally appeared as an article in the international management publication, Catalyst)