Workplace teams face a looming calamity. In the face of COVID-19 and work-from-home orders, employees have added as much as 40% more time to their workdays. Teams are now meeting virtually more than they ever did at the office, creating an environment of unbroken collaboration, as a result of shifting between Zoom meetings, chats, and other screen-based tools.
So, as teams continue to work apart for months and possibly years, how can we continue collaborating virtually without risking burnout? My answer focuses on team dynamics and the resources among them.
The central question for teams
I use a team-effectiveness framework and methodology developed from the research I worked on at Mars Inc., a consumer goods company.
My current clients have told me they are relying on this approach to perform one important function: reducing excessive team collaboration by focusing on key areas of work. In this way, they stop themselves from becoming overloaded and conserve their bandwidth.
These teams determine their level of collaboration by answering, “When is full-team collaboration essential to delivering the results expected of us?”
For example, one team of senior HR leaders I worked with already turned to a group of strategic initiatives to achieve their larger, organizational goals. Despite this, the vice president of HR, Ulrika, told me everyone felt overwhelmed and no one knew where to begin. Moreover, under the pressure of the pandemic, she had lost sight of the foundational tools I coached her and her team to use.
When I hinted that perhaps the problem was that everyone on the team felt responsible for everything, Ulrika instantly understood what I meant and what she needed to do. About three weeks later, she called to tell me she had it sorted.
Their version of the key question was, “Which of our 47 initiatives truly requires everyone to be involved and responsible, and which do not?” After a few hours, they’d whittled the list down to four projects, then focused collaborative time and energy on just that work. Everything else would be deferred or done by subsets of the team.
Answering this question immediately lessened their collaborative workload; it meant fewer team meetings focused on fewer objectives. This alone was a win, but there were three additional benefits:
- Fewer virtual team meetings freed up time for individuals to do other work.
- Meetings were more engaging since they focused only on essential work that required everyone’s active engagement.
- Team members had more mental energy since fewer meetings lessened virtual meeting fatigue.
Putting the question into action
I am not the first person to suggest that teams lessen their collaborative loads. The challenge has been how to do that. How can teams decide what is worth their collaborative energy and what is not?
There are three steps to answering the central question:
1. Create clarity of team expectations. Lead a discussion about what the larger organization expects of the team, including any high-level objectives and goals they are accountable for. Also, discuss and agree what the team expects of itself, the value they believe their collaboration could create. For example, Ulrika’s team crafted a purpose statement committing their focus to collaboration on initiatives that foster employee growth and development.
2. Specify the work. Itemize the discrete projects and initiatives the team and its members are responsible for, e.g., the 47 initiatives Ulrika’s HR team had. This listing does not include general job responsibilities, such as completing weekly reports or doing expenses.
3. Ask and answer the central question. Using the clarified expectations from step one as a guide, the team discusses and decides which pieces of work (from step two) require collaboration and which don’t. Where collaboration is required, the team also decides whether the full team needs to be involved or if small groups would be more productive.
Plot your strategy with a visual exercise
The third step is where it all comes together. To help the conversation, many teams use a tool, a simple graphic we call the Radar Screen, which is comprised of three concentric circles.
The screen boils down to an innermost circle, involving projects requiring the whole team’s attention; a center circle, involving projects requiring subsets of the entire team; and the outermost circle, or projects best addressed by individual employees.
More than ever, remote teams must find ways to sustain the drive and commitment that are being drained by long-term virtual working. The pandemic and the restrictions forced on us will not go on forever. But even when they do end, collaborating less where it matters most will be a boon to any team, regardless of where they are working.
Carlos Valdes-Dapena is a speaker, consultant, and author. His new book, Virtual Teams: Holding the Center When You Can’t Meet Face-to-Face, is a short guide to keeping teams together while working from home.