The New Teamwork

Article 04 February 2021

Thriving or Surviving in 2021?

What is the outlook for teamwork in 2021?

It now seems clear that through 2021 most workplaces (at least in Europe and the Americas) will see a mix of working together in a shared physical space and working together remotely. This is not a new phenomenon: indeed, there are many globally dispersed teams who know well the rhythm of virtual working as the norm, interspersed with occasional in-person meetings. However, what is new is that this will become a much more pervasive norm in organisational life. This has implications for how we think about the culture of the team, and indeed for how teams are led. 'Work' is now a virtual space we inhabit, rather than a place to which we go each day so, we had better take care of the space between us - the climate and relationships we have with our colleagues.

More now than ever, trust your team.

The literature abounds with advice to managers to trust and empower their teams and working remotely has thrown a spotlight onto this clear necessity. Could it be that the last traces of outdated ‘command-and-control' management styles and the orientation towards ‘presenteeism’ have been wiped out by the experiences of 2020? We have noticed that leaders who engage in adult-to-adult relationships with colleagues (rather than a more hierarchical, ‘one-up’ orientation), and who lead purposefully towards outcomes, trusting their team to deliver, are the ones coping best with the complexity and unpredictability of these pandemic times. 

What, now, are the levers of team effectiveness?

For over 50 years, Sheppard Moscow has been helping senior teams to develop their effectiveness and their leadership capacity. As a new client recently observed however, “Sheppard Moscow is a true learning organization”, so we wondered afresh, again, what now are the levers of team effectiveness?In a context where some or all the team members, for example, have never met in person?... where the pressures for both growth and cost containment are applied in equal measure?... where people within the team, and those led by the team, are experiencing unprecedented pressure as they juggle the various personal and professional implications of life under the cosh of Covid?

We explored this and related questions in our Conversation Series recently – an informal gathering of clients and friends meeting to make sense of current challenges together. Linking this with insights from our practice, here is how we attempt to answer our own question: what now are the levers of team effectiveness? The “team leader” is pivotal: the extent to which this person attends to the dynamics and health of the team as a human system is a significant determinant of that team’s success. 

  1. Relationships amongst the team members, and the extent to which all members of the team feel mutually accountable and genuinely interested in one another’s well-being and ability to deliver. 
  2. The clarity and focus of the shared purpose and goals, and the extent to which the team has strong rituals and agreements about how to get work done together.
  3. The team’s focus on the needs of its various stakeholders, and to what extent the team can effectively balance competing needs as they emerge.  

With these levers in mind, we notice that the most effective teams are those who collaborate to create the conditions for their own success. There, the team leader is cast more in the role of convenor and facilitator, orchestrating the efforts of the team as a whole. When leaders empower their team members to share responsibility for creating a new team dynamic, it amplifies connection and wellbeing, leading to enhanced results.   

Teams produce and Communities care.

In this hybrid workplace, it is important to think about the team as serving two equally important purposes:

1.  as a unit of performance, delivering outcomes for the business and its stakeholders; and

2.  as a social unit providing community, connection, and care to its members.

Of course, an effective team would serve both of those purposes. Yet, wherever we look we read and hear about worrying levels of burnout and low motivation as people literally run out of steam. Similarly, coping mechanisms used at the beginning of the pandemic (online quizzes, virtual coffees, etc.) are now reaping diminished returns. People look for support from the workplace, and while it seems the first port of call is the team leader (which has worrying implications for over-loaded managers who may be as burned out as their team!), in an ideal world the team itself should be a source of mutual support for its members. Creating this support is less about coming up with creative activities to stimulate people but more about teams truly developing their empathy skills and making space for real connections and conversations. Simply listening, deeply, seems to be more important than ever before. 

Grieve the old to look ahead to the new.

Change is hard, period. And for many of us, our working lives have indeed changed utterly. For most teams, while working remotely through the pandemic, it was simply too hard to make space to explore and acknowledge the demands of change. Add to that the fact that so many businesses were already in the midst of significant transformation even before the world was turned upside-down! Now ‘change fatigue’ and a sense of weariness has crept in as the realization dawns that whatever the future holds, we are unlikely to return to some familiar ‘before’ state. What can leaders do to mitigate these effects? Make time and space to allow the team to grieve what has passed. This is an essential transition before people can focus on how they can look ahead. So, do this first and then look ahead together to what you want to create for yourselves, your organisation and your stakeholders.

Sheppard Moscow’s view: The New Teamwork

No matter the level of change and challenge in organisational and business life, the team remains the key unit of organizational performance.  The extent to which your culture values teamwork is a key determinant of sustainably successful business outcomes.  The question for many organisations now is how to support leaders to focus on the team as a uniquely important dimension of the system they lead, and to run experiments to enable the conditions necessary for the team to thrive.  It is only through this that we can build teams whose practices and ways of working will sustain them for thriving rather than merely ‘surviving’ in ever greater levels of complexity.

Sheppard_Moscow_Headshots_056.jpg Andrea Cusack