Returning to the Workplace
How to re-build a positive team in the post COVID world.
As we make our way out of COVID-19 restrictions, organisations and businesses are returning to some kind of normal. In many cases this means people are returning to the office after working from home.
What are the challenges in returning to the workplace?
Of course, many workplaces are finding this harder than just picking up where they left off. For managers, the COVID pandemic has left some unexpected challenges. For example, some employees have mixed feelings about returning to the office after working from home. Stricter hygiene protocols are forcing changes to hotdesking and physical meeting arrangements. Not everyone approaches social distancing the same way and some individuals, including those in higher-risk groups, may hold genuine fears of contracting COVID. Previous personality conflicts or team tensions, left dormant during the restrictions, are ready to re-emerge from beneath the surface. Some staff, recruited during this period, may only have experienced on-boarding remotely and are yet to meet their new colleagues in person. And anyone unaware of recent changes in attitudes towards gender bias and sexual harassment in the workplace should probably consider early retirement.
The bottom line is that we are simply out of practice working together. We have lost our familiar routines and sense of connection. And just like getting back onto a horse after a fall or a long absence, there is real hesitation and anxiety.
So how can managers rebuild their teams? How do we support staff with the uncertainty of the post pandemic world?
Team Building after the Pandemic
Despite the unique challenges described above, the process of re-establishing our teams is surprisingly similar to conventional approaches. We already know a great deal about building and re-establishing teams, with the most trusted and widely used model being the Forming Storming Norming Performing model developed by psychologist Bruce Tuckman.
Forming Storming Norming Performing:
This model is one of the most widely cited approaches in the study of team development. The model sets out a four-stage process that new (and rebooted) teams go through as they find their feet and discover the way forward.
Here’s how it works.
Stages of Team Development:
In the forming stage we are right at the beginning. People are introduced (or re-introduced) to each other and begin to figure out who does what. In this early stage people tend to be polite. As with most face-to-face situations where people are new, they play nice at first. You may even notice the normal social anxiety as people are settling in and learning what to expect.
Your job, as leader, is to make people comfortable and to facilitate ‘getting to know you’ type discussions. You need to create trust and certainty with structure and clear goals as people figure out where they stand.
Don’t be too concerned about low energy levels or low productivity just yet. You can think of this as an orientation process whereby people are discovering the lay of the land rather than being productive. Think back to your own experiences of being in a new job or a new team. Structure, clarity, and breaking the ice are the priorities at this stage.
Very soon the politeness is dropped in a surge of activity. This is the ‘storming’ stage. In this stage the group starts its’ first work together. However, because people are still learning the ropes and learning where they fit in there is still uncertainty. This is where the first power struggles begin. It’s also where personality clashes emerge. As with any human relationships, we can expect to get on each other’s nerves, just a little. Personalities may clash, or simply disagree on how to get things done. Some individuals may even test the limits and challenge your authority as leader.
Your job here is to show firm and steady leadership. Even if your management style is fairly relaxed people still need to know who is in charge at this point. People are working out what the expectations are and whether they follow your direction, or that of the dominant person next to them.
You are turning the corner. ‘Norming’ describes people internalising the rules, customs and routines. In other words, they adopt the team’s norms.
Norms should be encouraged as they allow smoother operation, less conflict, and more group efficiency. The conflicts of the previous storming stage have been resolved and the team agrees on the way forward. People show more confidence and mastery. They know what’s expected and they know what good performance looks like. They are more interested in doing their work and are no longer sorting out where they stand.
Now your job is to back away a little. The best thing for you to do here is to reinforce norms. For example, by acknowledging good performance and showcasing examples of good work for others to follow.
In the final stage the team has achieved its’ own momentum. People know the expectations. They know their jobs and they know each other.
A level of trust has been created allowing each to excel in their respective roles. There is very little confusion about who should be doing what or how the team members relate to one another. The norms have been internalised and are guiding people’s behaviour, as if on autopilot.
This stage describes the maximum of stability and productivity. Teams in the performing stage are productive and well equipped to respond to changes in membership, conditions, or objectives -with minimal disruption.
In this stage you are making management look easy. Of course, it is anything but.
Leadership is a contact sport. There is no substitute for being there. Now, after an extended period of working remotely your traditional leadership skills are being tested. Don’t worry. The process of establishing or re-booting teams is no different from conventional team building and team leadership practices. Yes, there are additional challenges unique to the post COVID world. But the roadmap back is well documented. Guide your people through the four stages set out above and watch your team flourish better than ever.
Occasionally, significant change or staff turnover can set your team back to an earlier stage. That’s fine. In fact that’s to be expected. Ultimately, your job is to continually coach your team towards the performing stage and to maximise how much time they remain there.