There used to be a simple formula for effectively managing a team: gather everyone in one location, provide ample opportunities for professional and personal bonds to form, motivate everyone under a single banner, and enjoy the fruits of your labor.
You still had to meet all the criteria required to be a highly-regarded employer, of course (pay people well, house them in productive and comfortable surroundings, communicate effectively, etc.), but the team part of proceedings largely took care of itself given an appropriate initial push. Conflict might arise on rare occasions, but most workplaces were anodyne.
Things changed when COVID-19 arrived, of course. Those centralized working locations largely ceased operation, as employees were tasked with working from home whenever possible in an effort to arrest the spread of the virus. This caused immense confusion in the beginning. Many professionals didn’t know how to get things done from home, and it was only the collective determination to weather the storm that kept smaller companies afloat.
Today, though, we live in a post-COVID world: not one no longer having to deal with the virus, but one that has moved far beyond the initial shock, uncertainty, and hope of things going back to normal. We now know that things won’t be going back to normal, particularly in the working world. So how can you manage and maintain strong team collaboration in a time of remote working as standard and a greater push for flexibility and work/life balance? Let’s consider it.
Promote free-roaming discussions
One of the biggest losses when moving from the old-fashioned office model has been the ability to freely discuss relevant topics without getting stuck on specifics. Great ideas often stem from idle chit-chat on company time, but that isn’t something that’s easy to achieve when the team members aren’t sharing a physical space. It isn’t impossible, though.
What you need to do is make a concerted effort to allow and encourage your employees to discuss work matters without needing to hit particular goals. This means finding a middle ground between arranging social events (online quizzes are entertaining enough, but won’t do much beyond promoting general team harmony) and having specific meetings that tend to end up being formulaic and achieving only niche target-based objectives.
There are software tools that can help with this: Topia.io, for instance, offers a form of spatial video chat that mimics the dynamic nature of in-person conversation by allowing audio groupings to change through simulated movement. The most important element, however, is how you frame your online team discussions. You need to give them enough time for people to talk about meta concerns (how the company is being run, etc.) without allowing them to be so devoid of form that they go nowhere. They should produce takeaways, for instance.
Devise company-wide projects
The collaboration that stems from office conversations is often spontaneous and not related to formal projects. One team member can simply get talking to another from a different department and find that they can solve a problem together. When you go remote, those opportunities dry up, and you become reliant on group projects that are few and far between.
Your task, then, is to devise further projects. Come up with ideas for things that all your team members could work on together. It doesn’t matter if they feel completely contrived. If they get people working together more effectively, they’ll be useful — and if they happen to produce useful work in the process, so much the better.
You could ask everyone to work on your company branding guidelines, for instance. Does your logo need updating? What about your slogan? Is your color scheme still fitting? Bring everyone in and ensure that each person contributes something and interacts with their coworkers in some way. It’s useful to so many perspectives, whatever the topic.
Schedule regular one-to-one meetings
When someone is listless and miserable in the office, their colleagues will notice. When they’re listless and miserable at home, it can go completely missed. This is important in the context of collaboration because people who don’t feel good about themselves tend to become distant and uncooperative. They don’t want to share because they feel inept and even worthless.
You need to fight this however you can. You can’t ultimately ensure that all your employees feel good about themselves, nor are you responsible for this, but you can make an effort to give them chances to share how they feel and get some help if they’d like it. To do this, schedule regular one-on-one meetings that people can attend (Asana has a good piece on them).
When someone takes you up on that offer, don’t push them. Just ask them simple questions about how things are going and let them talk. Remind them that you’re hoping to help and don’t intend to criticize them for their failings. The more open you can seem, the more they’ll be willing to share — and once you know what’s bothering them, there’s a half-decent chance that you’ll be able to do something about it.
Rent shared office space
Lastly, part of your post-COVID team management strategy should involve the simple acknowledgment that online collaboration has its limitations. People need to spend time together in person to really gel. This doesn’t mean you need to go back to full-time office work, though: instead, you can rent shared office space and adopt a rotating schedule allowing your employees to work from the office on some days and from home on others. Note that there are coworking schemes with many facilities: if you sign up with one of them, you can allow your team members to choose which office space they visit.
You should encourage people from the same department to attend the office on the same days whenever possible, as it’ll help with teamwork in general. Additionally, allow people to tweak their working conditions however they prefer. If someone can get more done working away from everyone else, going against their preference won’t achieve anything.
And when there’s a big company-wide project, you can rent some additional space and bring everyone in for a day or two. The rarity will make it feel like a momentous event, and you can condense the discussions from several months of office life into a short span of time. If you have no alternative but to run a virtual event, you can do that, but it won’t be the same.
Managing a team in the post-COVID world is certainly more complicated, but it doesn’t need to be that difficult. By concentrating on opportunities to collaborate, mental health, and flexible working conditions that work for everyone, you can keep your employees in the right frame of mind to get things done.