Way back in the year 2019, I would have told you that face-to-face communication was the one sure-fire way to build trust within your team and to foster creativity.
Then the pandemic broke, Zoom saw a thirtyfold increase in usage, and we all began our rapid learning curve in remote working. The reality is many comms teams have had no in-person group meetings in eight months, and so it feels like the right time to ask: ‘just how wrong was I?’.
To answer the question, we asked 14 charity comms leaders to share their experience of how their team has fared during the pandemic. Did they think their teams were as connected and effective as before? And what advice would they give others keen to promote a team spirit during a pandemic?
This is what we learned:
A strong team culture is durable
In spite of the upheaval experienced, the general picture is more positive than we expected. It appears that the teams that already had the foundations of shared purpose and trust have continued to foster a strong team identity working remotely.
The pandemic has transformed some working practices
Quite a few teams, with the backing of their leadership, made breakthroughs in new ways of working. Several reported the increased speed by which they were able to execute new appeals, campaigns or pandemic-related communications to staff and volunteers.
“We pulled together a successful integrated appeal in three days instead of the 12 months it might have taken us previously.” Joe Jenkins, Children’s Society
Remote meetings and platforms can build connection
Some confidently claim that their use of online tools has enabled them to create more efficient meetings than their previous face-to-face meetings. Many also welcome the ability to connect more meaningfully online with colleagues in other departments and geographies.
“Using Zoom and WhatsApp has given us a shared sense of fun and humour. In the office, the banter might have been across a desk; now it’s across the whole team.” Claudine Snape, National Deaf Children’s Society
The risks of remote working: growing fatigue and barriers to creativity
Team members are tired though, and incremental fatigue has been cited as one of the biggest threats many teams now face. It’s been a testing time for many of us personally, and it can be harder to step away and switch off when working from home.
Some have sorely missed in-person interaction this year, both those serendipitous conversations around the kettle as well as the team creative sessions.
“With remote working, the sense of disconnect can become very strong… In my experience, creative people are attracted to collaboration and interaction. They’re like flowers. They need this like plants need water and sunlight to thrive, and they can wilt very quickly without it.” Laura Mason, London Wildlife Trust
In our own work, we have had to become more creative to help teams generate new ideas online. On the plus side, it feels more inclusive, but it’s difficult to generate the same energy on a screen that you can create in a room.
So what can comms team leaders do to protect and enhance team culture remotely?
There are four areas you can focus on at this time:
- Give thanks and recognition: It has become more important than ever that we remind each other what difference our work is making to the world, when we all see so much less of the world than we did before. The smallest of gestures of thanks can sometimes be enough to recharge our battery after a difficult day.
- Demonstrate openness: In his book The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle argues that sharing vulnerability is a top three ingredient of any successful group, alongside a sense of safety and shared purpose, as this actively builds trust and cooperation.
Comms leaders can model this approach to their teams“Don’t be afraid to show vulnerability; give a little and you will get it back.” Matt Horwood, akt
- Regularly check-in with people: It’s more difficult to read a room in a virtual meeting. We may not pick up on the cues online if someone is feeling anxious, upset or simply worn out. This means finding the time to check-in 1-1, and to listen to staff who may be experiencing a high workload, upheaval or changes to their role.
We can also show visible support for the need to make time away from work. Dan Metcalfe puts his school run in his shared diary to send a signal to staff that it is OK to protect time for non-work commitments during the day.
Kindness and compassion are key; making sure you are respectful and there is a culture of genuinely listening.” Dan Metcalfe, Wellcome Trust
- Consider the frameworks you work within: Continue to develop and protect the frameworks that support a cohesive team: the conversations around goals, purpose and values; consistent approaches to managing work; shared accountability and learning from each other.
Our ‘communications health check’ might help your team make a quick and more objective assessment of the way you work, to identify both strengths and areas for development.
“Don’t think of it as a task and finish group. It’s not a problem to be fixed, but an ongoing approach focusing on how we improve our work and value each other.” Daniel Fluskey, Institute of Fundraising
Research has consistently pointed to the importance of our physical environment and our proximity to each other in fostering creativity and collaboration. As we consider our working arrangements for 2021, we must not take this or the resilience of our teams for granted.
But it’s striking how hardy and adaptable some of these teams have proved to be. Whilst working remotely, they have fuelled their team spirit through shared recognition, openness, kindness and a consistency in approach. More so than I would have ever imagined possible back in 2019.
In our next instalment, we look at how comms team leaders are adapting team structure and culture to build a stronger focus on their audiences.