Can operational teams still deliver in the age of post-COVID-19 hybrid working?

By Chris Sheryn

Productivity spikes, at least on more routine tasks, are one often-mooted benefit of homeworking, but the overall picture is more complex. Some people have taken eagerly to working from home and now don’t want to turn back the clock. But not everyone has embraced the flight from the office. Many miss the social buzz of face-to-face interaction with colleagues, while others appreciate the separation of home and work life that comes with commuting to an office. These issues affect people as individuals, but they also affect operations and project teams.

Building, developing and nurturing teams is a delicate enough balance without throwing in the variable of hybrid working – and the loss of those in-between spaces and chats between meetings. Can teams still be as effective if they’re not together for long periods? And can they be as creative and innovative without the brainstorms and on-the-spot problem-solving that happens when they share the same workspace?

Our clients are grappling with these issues. In fact, more than two thirds of leaders (69 per cent) say they urgently need to refine their leadership approach post-COVID-19. And it’s their insights and experiences that give clues to how to get teams working effectively:

Agree the new normal – and agree to keep revisiting it

Home working started almost overnight as lockdowns began, with many organisations still working out the long-term ‘rules’. Our recent research found building a positive culture in remote/hybrid teams is one of the main challenges currently facing leaders. It creates tension around ways of working and the team’s identity, from onboarding new members to kicking off and finishing projects. For instance, some team members might cope effortlessly with the switch to hybrid meetings, but the team dynamic could be disrupted by ‘proximity bias’ in favour of those in the room, or by online attendees feeling less involved. In turn, this affects how well any team functions.

The only way to combat this uncertainty is to confront it. A client in nuclear told us: “Some of the detrimental effects are relatively easy to manage through discipline and rigour. If a meeting chair is more humble and empathetic, a remote environment can be a more inclusive space for people who wouldn’t normally speak up.” A client in defence manufacturing suggested the hybrid model could work for transactional meetings, but strategic and creative meetings are best in the room: “When there’s a problem to solve or a plan to develop, or we need to be more creative, face-to-face collaboration is more effective.”

A ‘team charter’, or set of principles and practices, is one way to make things clear. Even if the team never needed a written set of norms before, today’s uncertainty is reason enough to introduce one. It will help create a new sense of team identity, and the commitment and sense of ownership that comes from co-creating something. This needn’t be rigid. There should be ongoing efforts to discuss work styles as a team to understand changing needs and preferences. Doing so will create cohesion and stop individual team members becoming isolated.

Embrace agile working

Pre-pandemic, agile methods had already moved from IT projects to the realisation that the most successful organisations embrace agility. Now, the emerging virtual world will accelerate this. Combining different specialisms, working in short ‘sprints’ and coming together for regular ‘retrospectives’ are all ways to combat the silo-building that could come from remote working. The retrospective is an important part of this, bringing the team together to reflect in a facilitated way about what they want to achieve, where they are on the journey and how to adjust ways of working.

Agile methods also encourage teams to work together in new ways, which again will stop them getting into ruts – as well as promoting collaboration across the organisation and a more integrated culture. You can catalyse collaboration and development by giving groups stretch performance challenges to tackle. Be sure to couch these in terms of an ambition rather than a problem, and make these ambitions complex enough that a single department can’t ‘own’ them.

This is a way that leaders can ensure that they and their teams are working in the growth zone – one of the recommendations in our new leadership report. For example, asking ‘how can we apply Lean thinking across our operations to offset rising supply chain costs?' creates cross-silo accountability and helps teams flex collaboration muscles that may have atrophied in lockdown.

One of our clients in the nuclear sector has set some 'grand challenges' for their operations. The language they use is 'what would need to be true for us to double X or halve Y?’. The nature and scale of these challenges mean the organisation can’t tackle them successfully by working in the way they always have. They will demand cross-functional working and collective accountability.

Make the most of time together

Social interaction matters, but isn’t easy to sustain in a hybrid environment. Performance and motivation can suffer, along with people’s contribution. This interaction is an important part of the cycle of team development often referred to as ‘forming, storming, norming and performing’, where people create relationships, agree roles and resolve conflicts, start working together effectively, and eventually excel with each other’s support.

Without the instant, almost on-demand contact of office working, team leaders need to ensure they are making the most of time together in the office by working collectively on strategic issues rather than transactional matters they can cover on calls, and make even more effort than normal to see that team members understand each other’s perspectives. Any time the team does spend together needs to strengthen the relationships that are vital to the ‘forming’ stage, and the team’s ultimate success. Our partner ON-Brand has found success in promoting group activity using the MS Teams environment to build connections, collaborations and chemistry to help teams perform better.

When disruption and sudden change challenge organisations, leaders become even more important in shaping how they respond. The fourth article in our series will look at their role.

About the authors

Chris Sheryn PA operational excellence expert

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