Team Collaboration in times of COVID

Hamsa Selvam

This is one of my favourite quotes that outlines the impact this pandemic has had in totality. The COVID has indeed forced us to accept changes that many of us predicted will only happen to us in the future. And Yes, today the world is interconnected, but I want to specifically talk about collaboration in a remote working setup.​

If we think about it, we have been working with global teams who operate in different time-zones, from different cultural background, different age group, religion and ethnicity  – for many many years now. ​A survey by Gallup says that when the restrictions were deployed in April, the % of people working from home in the US peaked to overall 62% as compared to 25% before COVID. ​

​The added complexity to the existing situation is the uncertainty factor, the shift in the majority of business operations to function remotely and the fact that people can’t travel or meet their teams in large gatherings once in a while.  All of these factors have impacted the productivity, engagement and performance of the workforce greatly.  ​

So the need of the hour is…Why has collaboration become difficult in a virtual setting? And How can we enable collaboration within our teams by keeping productivity, engagement and performance at the centre?​

​Impact of COVID on Productivity

There is a popular belief that working from home during COVID has improved the productivity of people, because of several factors including reduction in travel time to the office, not wasting time speaking near water coolers and flexibility in work-life balance, etc. ​On the contrary, this global research by a Professional Services firm has seen :​

  1. The number of meetings have gone up by 23%​
  2. After hour emails have gone up by 24%​
  3. Interruptions have gone up by 34%​
  4. The focus has gone down by 29% ​

… ​which results in productivity loss.

Impact of COVID on Engagement

Because the type of work we do can be done remotely, didn’t we all assume that Video calls are an elegant solution to remote working? ​The unprecedented explosion of their use during the pandemic has proven that virtual interactions can be extremely hard on the brain. ​

​Humans communicate even when they’re quiet. ​During an in-person conversation, the brain focuses partly on the words being spoken, but it also derives additional meaning from dozens of non-verbal cues, such as whether someone is facing you or slightly turned away if they’re fidgeting while you talk, or if they inhale quickly in preparation to interrupt. These cues help paint a holistic picture of what is being conveyed and what’s expected in response from the listener. ​

​However, a typical video call impairs these ingrained abilities and requires sustained and intense attention to words instead. If a person is framed only from the shoulders up, the possibility of viewing hand gestures or other body language is eliminated. If the video quality is poor, any hope of gleaning something from minute facial expressions is dashed. ​

​This is like humans trying to cook and read at the same time. That’s the kind of drastically different multi-tasking your brain is trying, and often failing, to navigate in a group video chat. This leads to problems in which group video chats become less collaborative and more like siloed panels, which reduces team members engagement. That’s why many months into remote working, it is getting hyper difficult to get people to stay engaged in an hour-long zoom call.​

Impact of COVID on Performance

And finally, the third factor is about how performance is impacted. When working remotely, the pressure is on the team members to set their own schedule or show results that are at Pre-COVID standards or resolving any technical problems. There is enormous potential for frustration. ​

​More than ever, employees feel the pressure to maintain self-discipline and self-motivation, deriving satisfaction from the work process and their output. Working from home can result in a merging of life and work, with a negative impact on family life and an increase in personal stress. The prolonged habit of working from home with relayed frustration can harm team spirit and affect the team members’ attitude towards their employer. ​

In order for us to promote collaboration and achieve the 3 key results – productivity, engagement and performance, we need to first understand the basics of how different people interact differently with each other.

What brings people together to work as teams?​

The Psychology behind ‘Collaboration’

In her TedTalk, Amy Edmundson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management, talks about the Chilean Mining Accident back in 2010 when 33 miners were trapped 700m underground. We see teaming between hundreds of different professionals/companies/ sectors and even nations working together over a period of 10 weeks – as this process unfolded, everybody had lots of ideas, they experimented, and they failed – EVERY SINGLE DAY. They were devastated for the lives of those 33 men trapped underground. But they persevered and went on board. ​

​But what drove them forward was that they were humble at the face of failure, curious to learn why these ideas failed and were willing to take risks to learn quickly. Ultimately, because of these traits, ideas came from everywhere – it came from people who were appointed by Government to lead the rescue, came from people who worked for NASA, they came from Chilean special forces and from volunteers all over the world. ​

​After 69 days, over 22 hours, they managed to pull the miners out one by one. So how did this team produce extraordinary results? Did they not face conflicts or have professional or cultural differences? How did they overcome a professional culture clash? And what does the Agile Methodology which is being adopted by the likes of Spotify, ING Bank, Netflix and several other organizations around the world – have in common with this incident?​ These organizations enable collaboration and agile ways of working to effectively optimize their client services.​ So – What can the high-stake situation like miner’s rescue have in common with delivering high value to customers through Agile? ​

  1. Humility (you can’t learn if you feel like you know everything already)
  2. Curiosity (Why did these efforts fail? Retrospecting and adapting)
  3. Ability to take risks (Thinking about What’s at stake if we don’t do this?)

​To summarize, for teams to start collaborating and drive better results, leaders in the organization must create an environment where people feel psychologically safe to express things and autonomy to try new things out of curiosity and make mistakes and learn from them. And as leaders, it is your responsibility to create that at both systemic and cultural level for people to thrive and collaborate.