Rebuilding corporate teams post-COVID

When lockdown started on March 22, more corporate teams in Australia were disbanded or geographically dispersed than at any other point in history. As social distancing laws ease, the number of corporate teams forming will also be unprecedented.

In 1964 Dr Bruce W. Tuckman obtained a Ph.D. in Psychology from Princeton. The following year he published a paper titled “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups” This is important because Tuckman’s “Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing” theory is still highly relevant 55 years later.

This pandemic has turbo-charged the existing trend towards remote workforces, which will no doubt increase the time needed to turn a forming team into a performing team.

During the forming stage, group members establish relationships with leaders, organisational standards, and each other. With less face-to-face interaction, relationship building is going to take much longer.

Hiring new staff from outside companies is even more problematic with a remote workforce. Onboarding new staff and introducing them to your company culture and norms is crucial. Zoom meetings are not optimal when it comes to inducting new staff.

Mentor-mentee relationships can develop quickly when the mentee can knock on a physical door for advice, which is delivered immediately by the mentor, and then they go out for lunch together. Face-to-face is crucial.

During the Storming phase, Tuckman stated that “Group members become hostile toward one another … as a means of expressing their individuality and resisting the formation of group structure.”

While this sounds bleak, the storming phase is essential in moving on to the norming phase. Team leaders need to be asking themselves, “What does the storming phase look like with a dispersed team?”

The big problem I see is team members, who are working remotely, keep their opinions to themselves. Internalising dissent sees problems fester, creating a dysfunctional team that doesn’t get to the norming stage.

During the storming stage, groups are best described as people who work for the same company. Given many are working entirely or partly at home, group members might not even have a shared location. Becoming a team is just going to take longer.

During the norming phase the group develops cohesion, members understand and accept each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and continue to express personal opinions. As with the two previous stages, Zoom meetings aren’t a great format to getting though the norming phase quickly.

When groups hit the performing stage the key is to make the team sustainable. I see two key issues post-COVID. Firstly, digital nomads are now even more flexible and can easily be poached. This problem is amplified if departing team members can take clients with them. Without a great office environment, will freelancing thrive, and will monetary remuneration play an even bigger role in determining where people choose to work?

The second key problem I see with remote teams is overwork and unpaid overtime. Australians are notoriously bad at not switching off. Team leaders need to be really careful about making unreasonable demands during family time. While employees will put in additional time while unemployment is high, it’s not a desirable or sustainable practice as the economy recovers.

Key recommendations

During the forming, storming, norming phases maximise the face-to-face interactions within the group.

If team members are working partly from home and partly in a central office, work schedules should ensure mentors and mentees work the same days in the office. The same rule applies to team members who work closely with each other.

Have more team retreats, especially during the early stages of team development. A strong social program at retreats is more important than ever.

Team building is much more effective when it’s a process rather than a one-off event.

Celebrate more to develop a positive culture and acknowledge milestones. If you don’t celebrate your team’s success, nobody else will.

Establish ground rules for post-5pm work. The last thing any team needs is for key individuals to burn out or shift to a rival company with a better work-life balance.

Understand that building a successful team is more difficult, takes more time, and requires a bigger effort from team leaders after coronavirus.

Adventure for Life is one of Australia’s premier team building companies that create incredible team experiences for corporate, sporting, and social groups.