Ask the Expert: How can team spirit be improved when working remotely?
“Since my team started home-working last March, I’m concerned at the deterioration in our team spirit. Maybe it has always been the case and I just haven’t been privy to it in the face-to-face office setting, but I am now included in side-chats during online meetings about certain people’s performance and appearance, both of themselves and their homes, and it makes me feel uncomfortable. To be honest, my discomfort is both for those being judged but also about whether some are doing the same about my home and me. I don’t want to rock the boat as I need my job, but are there any actions I can take that may ease my discomfort?”
Working from home, for many people, has been the largest change in workplace practice for many decades. The adage that “we’re all in the same boat” has not been the case either. While some employees have had a home office, privacy, decent broadband, and may have worked from home (at least to some extent) before March 2020, for many employees home working has been stressful. Working from a bedroom or kitchen, with few office facilities, little privacy, and poor broadband, has been hugely disruptive. That’s before taking account of home schooling, the psychological impact of work invading home life, and all the stresses posed by COVID; including health concerns, caring responsibilities, redundancies, and in many cases, bereavements.
Against this backdrop, it can be no surprise that many employees are frazzled and stressed, with impacts on mental health. Team members have largely lost those informal team conversations that used to take place at the coffee machine, photocopier, or even between adjacent work cubicles. Many teams have had new members join in “virtual world”, and people are now working with colleagues and managers they’ve never actually met.
Given all this, how can we improve team spirit and behaviour? Here are some suggestions for what you could do. As a starting point, ample doses of empathy, good listening, and asking great questions will work best as an approach. In other words, approach the issues with an open mind and open ears, rather than an open mouth!
- Consider building in some informal online ‘coffee’ morning meetings, for members to discuss life, work, and enjoy some social chat. Establishing a climate too where it is okay to talk about challenges and difficulties in the current situation can also be helpful. If your team realise that other members are facing their own challenges, that will help to build team spirit.
- Establish a climate where it’s okay in team and 1 to 1 conversation to talk about stress, mental health, and challenging situations. This will help team spirit, as well as identifying potential issues earlier – and before they become the subject of tittle tattle.
Addressing the behaviour gap
Unacceptable behaviours in a team context need to be dealt with before they undermine performance and team cohesiveness. You may want to consider and act on the following:
- “We judge ourselves by our intentions, we judge others by their impact”. The trouble is that intentions and impact are not the same thing. Is your critical team member trying to help, or simply gossiping and undermining their colleague? Asking them why they are raising the issue with you can flush out their intentions. Asking them what they think they could do to help would also encourage individual ownership for helping colleagues, rather than passing the buck on to you.
- Ground rules for online meetings are important, defining both desirable and unacceptable behaviours. Holding a team meeting to establish future ground rules would be a great way to start. Also important is to agree how these ground rules should be enforced, and by who. Light-hearted enforcement approaches can be helpful by pointing out breaches without being too heavy – e.g., “giving someone a yellow card.” With effective ground rules, team members will be clear on where they have crossed the line.
- Where necessary, give feedback to individuals on their behaviour, along with recommendations for how they might improve. It is important that you phrase feedback constructively, and with respect for the individual. Should the behaviour persist, in some cases it may be worth pointing out that criticising people behind their back potentially constitutes a breach of the organisation’s bullying and harassment policy. (and having a clear policy in the first place will be helpful here!)
Dealing with underlying issues
While being critical of people behind their back is not acceptable behaviour, you may also want to consider whether the comments may have substance behind them. Are there indications of slipping standards? Could the individual be having problems at home? Could stress or mental health be a factor in this? If there is a potential issue (and you’re unlikely to know for sure what it is – don’t assume!), opening up a conversation with the person may give opportunity to resolve it.
“Start at home”
As a team manager, it’s also important to deal with your own feelings in this whole situation, as you too have been affected. You mention your own discomfort at potentially being gossiped about, and fear of rocking the boat. It is worth taking a step back and considering what evidence you have for this view of yours. Are you worrying about what isn’t there? There is evidence that working from home can generate feelings of uncertainty, being left out, and even paranoia in some circumstances.
Working from home has been hugely challenging for many people, and that will have impacted on behaviours. Feeling remote and cut off is stressful for many. Approach the challenges with a curious respectful mindset. Empathising and listening to others is a great starting point for helping to build that stronger team, particularly in adversity.
This Ask the Expert Q&A appeared in our Spring 2021 newsletter, if you would like future editions of our quarterly workplace wellbeing newsletter to be sent directly to your inbox, you can sign up here.
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