“Since my team started working from home in March last year, I’ve been concerned about the deterioration in our team spirit. Maybe it has always been like this and I just wasn’t familiar with it in the personal office setting, but I’m now involved in side conversations in online meetings about the performance and appearance of certain people, both themselves and their homes, and it makes me uncomfortable. To be honest, my discomfort is with both those who are being judged and whether some are doing the same for my home and me. I don’t want to rock the boat when I need my job, but can I take steps that can alleviate my discomfort? “
For many people, working from home has been the biggest change in practice in the workplace in many decades. The adage “we are all in the same boat” was not the case either. While some employees had a home office, privacy, adequate broadband, and may have worked from home (at least partially) before March 2020, working from home has been stressful for many employees. Working in a bedroom or kitchen with little office space, little privacy, and poor broadband was extremely disruptive. That’s before considering home schooling, the psychological impact of work entering home life, and all of the pressures that COVID brings with it. These include health concerns, caring responsibilities, layoffs, and in many cases, bereavement.
With this in mind, it is not surprising that many employees are baffled, stressed out, and having an impact on their mental health. Team members have largely lost the informal team conversations that used to take place at the coffee machine, the photocopier or even between neighboring work booths. Many teams have added new members to the “virtual world” and people are now working with colleagues and managers they have never met.
Against this background, how can we improve team spirit and team behavior? Here are some suggestions of what you could do. A lot of empathy, good listening and good questions are suitable as a starting point. In other words, approach the problems with an open mind and ears rather than an open mouth!
- Consider setting up informal online coffee meetings in the morning so members can discuss life, work, and social chat. It can also be helpful to create a climate in which it is okay to talk about challenges and difficulties in the current situation. When your team realizes that other members are facing their own challenges, it helps build team spirit.
- Create a climate in which it is okay to talk about stress, mental health and challenging situations in a team and in one-on-one meetings. This will help team spirit and identify potential problems earlier – and before they become the subject of minor issues.
Fixing the behavior gap
Unacceptable behaviors in the team context must be addressed before they affect team performance and cohesion. You may want to consider and respond to the following:
- “We judge ourselves by our intentions, we judge others by their effects.” The problem is, intentions and effects are not the same. Is your critical team member trying to help, or is they just clapping and undermining their colleague? If you ask them why they are bringing up the problem with you, you can wash out their intentions. If you asked them what they think they are doing to help, you would also encourage empowerment to help coworkers instead of passing the money on to you.
- Basic rules for online meetings are important and define both desirable and unacceptable behaviors. Having a team meeting to set future ground rules would be a good start. It is also important to agree how and by whom these basic rules are to be enforced. Carefree enforcement approaches can help by pointing out violations without being too heavy – e.g. B. “Give someone a yellow card”. With effective ground rules, team members can see where they have crossed the line.
- If necessary, provide individuals with feedback on their behavior and recommendations on how they could improve. It is important that you formulate feedback constructively and with respect for the individual. In some cases, should behavior continue, it can be pointed out that criticizing people behind their backs may be a violation of the organization’s bullying and harassment policy. (and having a clear policy in the first place will help here!)
Dealing with underlying issues
While it is unacceptable to be critical of people behind their backs, you should also consider whether the comments may have substance behind them. Are there any references to slide norms? Could the person have problems at home? Could stress or mental health be a factor? If there is a potential problem (and you probably don’t know exactly what it is – don’t assume!) Opening a conversation with the person may provide an opportunity to resolve it.
“Start at home”
As a team manager, it is also important to deal with your own feelings in this whole situation, as you are also affected. You mention your own discomfort, possibly gossiping about it, and your fear of rocking the boat. It is worth stepping back and considering what evidence you have for your view. Are you worried about what’s not there? There is some evidence that working from home can, under certain circumstances, create insecurity, omission, and even paranoia.
Working from home has been a huge challenge for many people and that has affected behavior. Feeling remote and cut off is stressful for many. Approach challenges with a curious, respectful attitude. Empathizing and listening to others is a good starting point to build this stronger team, especially in difficult situations.
These questions and answers from Ask the Expert were published in our Spring 2021 newsletter. If you’d like future issues of our quarterly workplace wellbeing newsletter to be sent straight to your inbox, please sign up here.