Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads (Back to the Future – 1985)

The world is quite different now – the very concept of “team” has been challenged, revised and reconstructed. On the one hand, globalisation has accelerated the employ of diverse and remote teams, where team members operate from many different countries in the world. On the other hand, the COVID-19 pandemic, with its need for physical distancing, has forced our hand towards remote work, where team members now never get to “see” each other apart from necessary video calls. One of the preferred recruiting lines, and subsequent “employee value proposition”, is no longer entirely applicable – “great environment in which to work, with lunch together in the canteen and drinks on Friday afternoons”. Managers and team members thus sit with a problem – how to build team spirit, get everyone focused on key deliverables and solidify team relationships when team members have probably never even met some of their colleagues personally.

Apart from the “distancing” caused by globalisation and the corona virus pandemic, but certainly related, there is a parallel pandemic of which everyone has to be aware – many months of extreme uncertainty with many people experiencing waves of anxiety and fear and even depression for some. Psychologists refer to these feelings of fear and persistent anxiety as an emotional tsunami – being overwhelmed completely by the current context. According to research, the condition is spreading fast:

The impact of prolonged stress and anxiety on emotional wellbeing and work performance is enormous – even more so when organisations need their people to perform at their peak. The team manager’s role of supporting employees and bolstering their mental health and emotional wellbeing has become critical in these tough times – so, too, for team members with respect to supporting each other. This is not easy when employees have never personally met their respective colleagues. The “Back to the Future” quote above suggests that the entire human interactive landscape has changed, even accelerated into an uncertain new way of communicating and relating to each other. So, where should the manager and team members place their focus and energy with respect to charging the batteries of team members remotely? The following key Agile responses are essential:

  1. Managers should lead flexibly and confidently – in their excellent publication, “Agile Leadership” (CapGemini Invent), Tessa Rammers and Ellen Veenema note: “A culture of fear is the biggest enemy of the Agile mindset and the ability of the Agile team to learn and grow together”. Their research further demonstrates that 82% of Agile frontrunners state that culture and mindset are the biggest obstacles in scaling Agile. Clearly this has huge implications for leadership – the willingness to set aside some of the more traditional approaches that sought to garner large amounts of control over employees and processes within the company and leverage within customer relationships to a more flexible and constructive style of leadership. Agile leadership needs to relook processes like project and performance management, control, accountability structures and supplier/client interfaces to achieve faster responses to ever-changing environments. Leadership style and mindset needs to shift from a sense of authority and position to enablement – a culture that is flexible, trusting, collaborative and action-oriented. An important element of “future-proofing” organisations is the development of an Agile culture that is able to shift with and even lead change in all its forms. Leaders need to demonstrate this agility practically and confidently.
  2. Managers should get everyone focused on customer experience – both leaders and team members should be aware of how the client perceives products, interactions, brand value, partnership strength, etc. Doing work for and doing work with customers produce different outcomes. Doing work for customers implies authorisations, time taken to get practical and meaningful decisions, formal sign-offs, distance in relationship and subsequently trust-hesitancy. Doing work with customers, on the other hand, engenders a sense of combined accountability, faster decision-making processes, deeper understanding and ultimately enhanced customer experience. Agile team members also gain huge experience from working with client companies from a variety of sectors, enabling the charging of team members’ batteries as they grow mentally and perceive that they are adding real value. Something important to note here – customer experience extends beyond the formal relationship that the company has with a client. It also impacts on the client’s customers, especially in relation to the elegance and user-friendliness of digital customer experiences (DCX): for example, the ease of use, speed, personalisation and security of shopping trolley and payment portal applications.
  3. Managers should use effective Agile communication techniques – these involve the following elements of communication to foster collaboration and build trust:
  • Demonstrate care – individualised supportive conversations with each other show the member that he or she is valued and has an important part to play towards the team realising its objectives. Ask questions like: “Is there any way that I can support you more tangibly? How is your family doing at this time? Is there any more information that I can source for you? If you are to achieve your key performance objectives, what support are you going to need from me?” Managers, and employees alike, need to utilise more meaningful expressions of care to bolster employee relationships.
  • Connect emotionally to build resilience – resilience comprises the following:
    • The ability to adapt to change
    • The ability to deal with what comes along
    • The ability to cope with stress
    • The ability to stay focused and think clearly
    • The ability to not get discouraged in the face of failure
    • The ability to handle unpleasant feelings such as anger, pain or sadness
    • Emotional connection strengthens the ability of an individual to be resilient, especially in knowing and experiencing a manager’s support. The pain of isolation, loss and resultant anxiety does not just dissipate, but need to be debriefed by everyone on the team. Even though possibly feeling slightly uncomfortable talking through emotional matters, team members need to encourage each other to work through any emotional state to get to a place of more confidence and focus.
  • Encourage team members to take ownership – when employees blame others or circumstances and ignore their own respective roles, they become passive. Taking ownership, however, enables action. Help team members accept the things that can not be changed and rather to act on that which can be changed. When team members blame other people or things, they give away their power, which leaves them feeling anxious, powerless and helpless. Giving team members real responsibility with precise expected outcomes focuses them on what can be achieved.
  • Personalise work spaces – even though not working with colleagues in the same room, work spaces can be personalised to be inclusive of all team members – for example, get everyone to send in a high quality picture (self-portrait) and redistribute all the pictures to team members. Get them all to print the pictures in colour and paste them on the wall above their respective screens. Visualisation assists with solidifying connections. Alternatively, get everyone to send in pictures of themselves when they were babies – having a baby picture of the manager on the wall in front of you really gets the conversations going!
  • Recognise effort and achievement – use individual and more public forms of recognition to encourage team performance. Acknowledging what is going well reinforces value and, also, demonstrates the behaviour that is expected from each other. Always link recognition to the impact it is having for the company and the value it is adding for the client. Linking enhances connection.
  • Offer adequate amounts of relevant pieces of information – administering accurate doses of pertinent information regularly with respect to the “Big Picture”, company vision, values, strategy, operational issues and general company news connects team members with those things that matter most to the organisation. Withholding information frustrates employees, causes confusion and diminishes trust. Always check for understanding – communication can be misunderstood, so the manager could simply ask all team members to use the chat box and describe what they have just heard in their own words. Once complete, any mistaken thoughts can be rectified.
  • Work hard but have fun – laugh a lot and then some more. Celebrate birthdays and other special events, even though perhaps executed digitally. Get cake or flowers delivered. Send cards. Have frequent connect sessions. Get team members to take turns to take responsibility for fun “gatherings”. Have “appreciation sessions” where each member is to say what they appreciate about another’s contribution. Find unique ways to connect.
  1. Managers should keep it simple – unravel complexity into projects that can be understood easily. Ensure clarity regarding responsibilities and authority, workflow, expectations, deliverables, escalation routes and accountabilities. Solve the availability of resources swiftly and ensure their efficiency and effectiveness – no-one likes to work with dysfunctional tools. Sprints and scrum meetings should focus on achieving results for a client and not on peripheral issues. Laser-focus on real targets helps team members disregard the unimportant and leverages energy in the right direction.
  2. Managers should keep their fingers on the pulse of accelerating change – with the advance of artificial intelligence (AI) and its inherent ability to self-learn as it develops, change is ever-increasing in speed and magnitude. With this change, customer expectations also grow. Staying up to date and finding or creating elegant solutions for client needs keeps one in the forefront of technology and digital-solution consulting. Involving team members in research and problem-solving gives them a sense of belonging and inclusion. Inclusion, in a very meaningful way, catapults idea creation and collaboration. Continuous improvement gives the team members confidence and builds efficacy.

It is tough to solidify team relationships when you have never personally met your team members, but creative approaches to other team members accomplish more than one realises. Genuine attempts at connection by the manager and the team members go a long way to cementing focus, applying energy appropriately and performing well as a team.

Where we are going, we don’t need “roads”. We need to use innovative and effective Agile communication channels and practices to stay connected meaningfully and keep everyone’s batteries charged.

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