"Team Work" needs "Inner Work". How (remote) teams can achieve top performance

Updated: Sep 23, 2021

Corona presents many teams with the challenge of working entirely in a home office - without regular personal contact. How can teams maintain closeness and trust, solve conflicts, successfully go through change processes and never lose sight of the common vision for the future? What new competencies must each and every one of us develop in order to be prepared for a hybrid working world? And how do we manage to see the spatial distance that has arisen less as a challenge and more as an opportunity?

How can teams maintain closeness and trust in each other despite physical distance? And how do technologies help us do that?

There are lots of technologies and tools. We put together an overview of remote tools at the very beginning of the pandemic:

The new standard of online teamwork is a combination of digital project management tool (e.g., Asana or Jira) to organize work, video conferencing (e.g., Zoom), chat (e.g., Slack) to communicate, and one of the digital boards (e.g., Miro) to visualize. Some teams use special facilitation software to conduct their retrospectives, and few use digital offerings for coaching and development. As a result, while the current workload is more or less done well in the home office, future-oriented strategy work, personal development and team development tend to fall by the wayside.

What are the secrets to success of teams that thrive in pandemic times?

Teams are always as successful as their individual members. It takes personalities who take responsibility for themselves and the common cause. Teams that thrive have enough of these personalities. Taking responsibility means actively addressing the following issues:

  • Common rules of engagement - general and remote.

  • A trust, feedback and error culture in which critical issues are addressed openly and managers set a good example - preferably with non-violent communication.

  • A good meeting culture (agenda, rules, timeboxing, enough time for preparation and follow-up, external moderation for difficult topics).

  • Clearly defined tasks, roles and responsibilities - clear and transparent for all.

  • Rather too much than too little regular communication (e.g. check-ins, dailies, weeklys, retrospectives).

  • Time for personal contact and team rituals.

  • (Team) reflection as an integral part of the daily work routine.

This is always important, due to home office and partly asynchronous working even more than in normal office hours.

How can I do a regular "pulse check" on my team so that I know how they are doing and where their current challenges are?

For the format, it's good to ask the team for suggestions, for a good start to an open conversation, coaching questions have worked well, e.g.

  • What should I ask you today?

  • What do you need right now?

  • What has changed since we last met?

  • What is working well? What do you think should be different?

  • How well are we positioned to achieve our goals?

  • How do you think the next few days will go?

  • What do you need? What resources/decisions/agreements would be helpful?

  • What has helped you in difficult situations in the past?

What does a newly assembled (virtually working together) team need to agree on in order to be able to work together productively virtually?

There are a number of more preventive reflection exercises, some more strategic, some very operational, to get into productive work quicker:

  • Shared team or project vision: what makes the project successful for clients, the team, and each team member?

  • Who are the important stakeholders and sponsors for the project? What do they need? How can they help?

  • Back to the future: what experiences (good and bad) of team members will help in the new project?

  • Who has what role and responsibility in the team? Are all the important roles and tasks well distributed?

  • Decisions: What does the team decide, who and how?

  • Instruction manual for team members: am I in or extroverted, nightingale or owl, what is my red panic button, by what can you destroy my trust immediately,...?

  • Motivators: What tasks and and behaviors (de)motivate me at work?

  • Meeting "housekeeping": what makes a good/bad meeting? Who must/may participate, how often makes sense, with which rules?

The joint processing has two effects: The exchange creates clarity and the team members open up to each other. This can either happen all at once in a big kick-off workshop, regularly with focus topics in retrospectives or as a weekly 30-minute "team development quickie" at the start or end of the week.

How can a promising meeting and feedback culture be designed in virtual teams?

Meeting and feedback rules can be agreed upon by the team, as well as

other topics, e.g. that "camera on" is the default setting in online meetings or which feedback may be given in the team meeting and which is better given in private.

There are a few specifics that need to be moderated more online:

  • How does the team deal with members who do not actively participate or are there irregularly?

  • Is there enough time for interpersonal issues in addition to technical matters? Or is there a need for moderated get-to-know-you sessions, targeted check-ins and rituals?

  • Does the team have enough transparency regarding working hours, progress, or other support needs?

There are no fixed rules that work well for all teams, but clear team-internal internal team agreements are very helpful.

What methods are suitable for solving problems even across distance?

Distance or not, solution-focused team coaching can help - moving away from long discussion of the problem to quick solutions. I'm convinced that teams can find the best solutions themselves with the right questions, good facilitation, and some method support.

The process is always similar. After data collection and prioritization, there is an agreement on what to work on together:

  • What is the (positive) goal? What should become better/different?

  • What exactly does the future look like then?

  • What from the past (experiences, knowledge, behavior, people, etc.) helps to get there?

  • How do we get to observable progress? For example, are there helpful experiments, etc.?

Both data collection and the team's processing of the topics can happen either on-site or digitally.

What competencies are needed for New Work employees and managers?

New Work often offers employees more self-determination, but also demands a higher degree of self-organization from them. However, most of them have often not learned this in a structured way in their training and careers. It can be exhausting to negotiate everything with each other that is no longer dictated "from above." But everyone can learn it, and with practice it becomes easier and easier. As a consequence, lower and middle management levels, which previously often took care of this moderation and definition of cooperation, are often thinned out and leadership spans are increased. "Old leadership" is often divided into technical/business leadership and people leadership. This gives the space for employee development as a core task, to bring competencies, employees and teams into action and individual development with the help of coaching. And ideally corporate, team and individual goals into a coherent triad.

What are simple means - Baby Steps that I can take every day to acquire the new competencies?

The first Baby Step can be to put a 30-minute rule appointment for reflection in my calendar and week by week defend the time slot for working on a specific topic.

Then I can either start with myself and, for example, in small guided reflection exercises, become clear about what I am good at, what makes me me as a person, where I want to go and what the first small steps towards this could look like.

I can start with my communication and use non-violent communication to formulate feedback that I have wanted to get rid of for a long time. But I could also spend a week just asking questions instead of giving advice and let myself be surprised what happens as a result.

Helpful (team) coaching books

"The Teamcoaching Toolkit" by Tony Llewellyn.

"High-Impact Tools for Teams" by Stefano Mastrogiacomo/Alex Osterwalder.

"The Fearless Organization" by Amy Edmondson.

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