Managing and Leading a Team in our New Work Reality

Introduction

COVID-19 has really thrown us a curveball in 2020. A virus we have no vaccine for. The only strategies we have are around ensuring our medical facilities are not overwhelmed and as few people as possible are infected. So far, we have been quite successful at flattening the curve in Australia and restrictions are gradually being lifted.

We have lived and worked largely in isolation for a few months with only essential workers being in the workplace. Many of us have worked from home. Something many employers resisted prior to the virus often taking the line that this was too hard to do or that all staff were required in the office. The pandemic has given us the space to experiment with the concept of working from home and many have found it to be a successful way to work. 

We now have the available technology to do many tasks from any location and a physical office is more a form of habit than a necessity in the modern business world. If anything positive comes from this virus perhaps it is a real change in how we work. For business and government this innovation could represent major savings with a potential reduction in the cost of hiring office space. For employees it represents a lifestyle improvement with reduced time away from family, lower time and costs in commuting and perhaps increased productivity. 

But if this is the new work reality how do managers lead a team when they may only have rare physical contact with them?

The Potential

I’ve spent over three decades working in the public sector but this work has been in environments where I’ve been part of teams working closely with people, often in their own homes or at community based locations. My attendance at the office was a necessity largely to sign in and out and complete administrative tasks. In reality, there was little need for me to be in the office, except that my employer demanded my physical presence. As a manager I led teams of Community Development workers. From my perspective, if they were at their desks for more than one day a week I had serious doubts as to how much work they were doing with the community. The more they were out working with people the better. 

With changes in technology there is very little reason for employees who are field based to attend the office. They could be working from anywhere. The use of laptops, mobile devices such as tablets and phones means they can access the net and communicate with the office as needed, conduct administration and other tasks fromthe field. We can now easily have meetings via the net using video conferencing. This has been one of the hallmarks of working from home during the current restrictions. Team briefs, supervision, mediation and any other meetings can be conducted online.

Managers need to incorporate these new approaches and technological aids into their repotoire to lead effectively. Much of what was done through physical contact can now be done virtually. There seems little reason why we need to return to our old ways of working.

But this represents a real challenge to managing and leading a team. For many this will mean a departure from hands on, close management and even micro management to a more open and democratic form of management and supervision. If recruitment has been done well and ongoing training/professional development is available to the team there’s every reason for managers to have trust in their teams and lead by stepping back. Of course there will be the need to maintain contact and ensure team members are on track and continuing to perform. If performance drops this should be observed through lower productivity and feedback from those they are working with. This is where intervention will be required, not with a big stick but with other tools such as mentoring, a buddy system, increased training etc.

Review Plans

The review of strategic plans and other operational documents will need to be undertaken. Your organisation will probably still have in place their strategic documentation and direction but how your team will perform under that direction is potentially different. Now is the time to review and possibly create new plans and documentation. In this I would strongly recommend using an approach based in Appreciative Inquiry with some assistance from tools used in CommunityDevelopment. In particular, it is recommended that you, as the manager, use the resources of your whole team in developing new strategies and approaches. This is the best way to have them on board. Involve them from the start. 

Let’s look briefly at how this might look.

A Strengths Approach

This is a good time to investigate the strengths of your team and discover what it is that makes your team a high functioning unit i.e. what it is that makes it a great place to work when everything is firing. Often we take this for granted but we need to interrogate what this is if we are to grow the team.

You will need to work with your team to identify their strengths, both directly work related and indirectly work related. This will include strengths and personal interests. It is surprising how often their personal interests and passions relate to their career. There are a number of tools to identify these strengths but I would recommend using a simple tool from Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) “The Gifts of the Head, Heart and Hands” This tool will quickly identify a range of skills a team member has. It can be used for self identification of strengths and well as others identifying the strengths of the person. The Three Gifts will assist in identifying the strengths, interests, passions and knowledge areas of each person. This information can be used to delegate work, pair staff on projects, peer to peer training and identify any gaps. It is a simple but effective tool to achieve this.

To uncover the strengths of the team, the things that make the team an attractive place to work when all is going well is an essential ingredient in team development at any time but more so given the current situation. An investigation of this will uncover what is called the “positive core” of the team. To achieve this and commence planning for the future it is recommended that Appreciative Inquiry be considered. This is a well tested and successful approach to change management and team building. It is based on what is already strong in an organisation to create an even stronger organisation. This approach would involve the whole of your team.

An additional tool to assist in planning for your team in the new work environment is a SOAR. This is a good alternative to a SWOT in that it doesn’t unnecessarily highlight perceived threats that may or may not be relevant. Instead it looks at any threat or weakness as an opportunity for growth and states these in positive terms. A SOAR (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, Results) analysis is based in Appreciative Inquiry. It is a great tool for strategic planning and for developing a shared vision for your team.

Conclusion

COVID-19 has presented us with a new work reality. Let’s view this as an opportunity to innovate, grab working from home as a real option for the future of work, rebalance our work and home life, develop new strategic directions and manage our team in a positive manner. We have the tools and technology. Let’s jump into the new approach to work. 

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