What Has 2020 Taught Us About Building Resilience In Teams?

Owen Evans
March 5, 2021

2020: I don’t think anyone will say that was quite the year they expected during December 2019. I live in New Zealand so I specifically remember sitting outside on my lawn with the family, in the sun, talking about all we’d achieve over the course of a year and none of them included:

  • Friends and family being in confined spaces for so many months of the year
  • Shuttering a startup as clients changed focus and money dried up
  • No longer being able to visit my wider family (who live on the other side of the world in the UK) and not being sure when I’d see them again
  • Zooming becoming a noun
  • Masks being a fashion statement
  • Lesser known words like furlough joining the common lexicon
  • Companies announcing they were going 100% remote for the foreseeable future

So a rollercoaster is probably the least apt metaphor to put on the year, but it’s certainly taught a bunch of us more than ever about new ways of working and resilience, I thought it might be useful to reflect on my own learnings:

Social contact doesn’t have to be with colleagues

We’re relatively lucky here in NZ, our lockdown was pretty strict (stay in you house, don’t mix with anyone else) but it was only for a matter of weeks before we were allowed to socialise again. However during this time it became so apparent that humans are social animals at heart and I needed to be able to chat to someone other than my wife occasionally. Having worked for Zapier (a 100% remote company) in the past, I knew what remote working was like, and those few weeks were as far away from that experience as could be.

However once lockdown eased, we wanted to keep nimble and we knew potential further lockdowns were on the cards so we stayed remote as a team. The biggest concerns were expressed by the CEO who was such an extrovert he loved working in the office with others, as he forced them to chat to him all day. However a couple of weeks into us going fully remote after lockdown he surprised me by telling me how much he loved the new mode of working, he was socialising with old friends and family as he was able to shift his work around easier, work was no longer the defining thing for the day for him and he was building more trust with the team too. So many extrovert managers seem to conflate their need for social contact with a need to sit near there team and see them every day, those of us that thrived with remote working learned to separate the social contact from the work contact.

Measuring on outcomes not hours

Prior to this year I’d argue we’d slipped into lazy management quite a bit at larger companies (and smaller ones too) where managers needed to see people at their desks to believe they were doing work. In the knowledge economy this is a false positive measure. Most people are working on ideas even away from their computer and as software engineers the amount of breakthroughs that happen when you’re mind is on other things such as walking or just hanging washing means it’s sometimes more productive to NOT be at a computer. We’re starting to understand this more and I’ve seen more companies look to measure outcomes rather than the number of hours that people are at a desk, Unilever here in NZ for example have announced they’re moving to a four day work week realising the number of hours has less to do with output than people think. Conversely people actually have to be somewhat productive (within reason, considering pandemic and all) as they can no longer signal they’re working just by sitting at a desk. Negotiating clear goals, and giving concrete measures that people subscribe to is key to success here.

Meeting fatigue is very real

The number one complaint or feedback we had after jumping remote was just the sheer number of video calls people were having to get on in a week, they were exhausting for people. Not just the number either, the actual effect of a video meeting seems more debilitating than anything else. The constant trying to read social queues with less than normally available signals, the constant thread of trying to work out who’s next to speak, the inevitable ping pong of “can you hear me?” “is your mic on?”. Video calls are exhausting and yet we tried to fill up our new mode of working by doing more of them. Instead we should have asked ourselves how to be productive with less face to face time. How do we encourage people to move things to asynchronous communication and transparent decision making. Once we started to work on this we were able to (somewhat) reduce the number of hours people spent on video calls and tried to get some sanity back

Remote teams require high trust environments

There’s nothing worse than working on a team where you’re constantly having to show your work and having people question what you do. More so remotely as this can flair up to the point where people are so busy micromanaging that nothing actually gets done. Remote can initially feel like it’s going to reduce trust in teams “how can I trust them if I can’t see them” but if you’re all in the same boat you suddenly get a strong level of empathy for everyone else on the team. You’re all having the same underlying questions “am I doing enough?” “Am I working on the right things?” And that’s where we have to build the ability to trust in everyone’s decision making abilities. By measuring clear goals above, but also by having transparent processes around information and decisions

Writing well is becoming a core skill for everyone

No longer can managers/leaders/team members rely on being able to have rapport over a coffee or in a big team meeting to get a point across. We all have had to level up our written word skills. Planning documents have become more important than ever. Slack conversations become the way small decisions are made and less ad hoc decisions are made. On the plus point we’re building up strong corpus of information, strong breadcrumb trails that allow anyone to find out how we made the decision we did, and we’re thinking out decisions a lot better than we have before

Those are some of my core learnings but what about you? How has remote working worked for you? What were the surprises and insights you’ve had? I for one would love to know.

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