Teamwork makes the dream work: How to adjust during COVID-19
With people around the globe still being subjected to movement restrictions, communication has changed dramatically. People were thrown into virtual worlds, with face-to-face interactions becoming something of a luxury. The challenges that come with lacking full-bandwidth interactions are numerous and have huge implications for the workplace.
On April 29, 2020, swissnex China organized a webinar on the Impact & Efficacy of Virtual Teamwork: How to overcome the challenges of COVID-19 in collaboration with GloCoach, which addressed some of these challenges. The speakers didn’t shy away from giving practical tips on how to keep employees engaged, motivated and productive.
Dr. Sarah Genner, digital expert and lecturer, started her presentation by talking about the now ubiquitous video conferencing tool Zoom and the “Zoom fatigue” that comes with it. She offered several explanations for the fact that people seem to get tired and distracted quicker while using Zoom. For starters, eye contact is never quite straight making looking at people rather tiring; moreover, with the video camera only capturing a fraction of one’s room, there is a considerable temptation to multitask (after all the children might be playing in the other room and darting a glance or two at the smartphone is just too easy); lastly, working on a couch or on the bed, people might have poor posture leading to a quick depletion of their energy. Thus one simple but effective tip: Improve your posture. To that end, companies might consider spending money on high-quality chairs for their employees.
Importantly, Dr. Genner pointed out that digital skills are not merely digital. They go beyond knowing how to start a Zoom call, or sharing files on Google Docs, they are also about empathy. It all starts with empathy towards oneself. Big changes follow a predictable curve of shock and frustration, until one is ready to experiment with what is new and can finally accept and integrate those changes. As Dr. Genner put it, it is okay to not be okay. Digital skills are also about feeling empathy towards others, knowing that they might be on the bottom of the learning curve and need some time to adapt. To help facilitate empathy, it is essential to make time for informal talks with colleagues and find a replacement for what is no longer possible, e.g. the small-talk at the water cooler.
Another focus of Dr. Genner’s talk was the importance of practicing gratitude in spite of the current pandemic situation. Thus, we should focus on what we have, not on what we don’t have or are in danger of losing. For instance, many people might still have a job, despite having to stay at home and not being able to get a proper haircut anymore. Even given greater challenges such as a job loss, one could still be thankful for having a place to shelter. Since adults are experts at taking things for granted, being grateful doesn ́t come easy. Hence Dr. Genner recommends to exercise this ability on a regular basis. This could take the form of writing down three things one is grateful for each day, e.g. by using this free app. For a more in-depth account of the topic, she recommends the TED talk “Want to be happy? Be grateful” by the Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast.
The second speaker, Chris Zheng Vice president at Eddingpharm, outlined three challenges and touched on strategies to address them. The first challenge is about managing oneself while working from home. Naturally, there are many potential sources of distraction at home, the family being chief among them. Chris recommends coordinating activities with other family members so that they don’t overlap. For instance, his wife does meetings and calls while he works on emails and documents. Chris also fixed specific time windows each day to interact with the children so as to clearly distinguishing between work time and free time. In the same vein, he has dedicated a room to assume the role of a traditional office, thus making not only a temporal but also a spatial distinction between work and other activities. Once the door is closed, entry by other family members is forbidden (except, of course, in special cases).
Moreover, Chris noticed that he isn’t the only person having to reconcile family with work. His team members – Chris is managing 260 people in five locations and three countries – are bound to run into similar problems. He realized that only talking about work-related issues isn’t enough and that he has to address personal issues with his team as well. For this reason, there are weekly calls enquiring about the well-being and family condition of each team member. Chris puts a premium on listening and finding a solution for each individual concern. He mentioned a team member having trouble to join meetings, since this person had to look after his newborn at the same time. As a consequence, the timing for future meetings was adjusted.
Thirdly, Chris talked about how to best use the digital communication channels available. Not being able to have face-to-face meetings, the frequency of meetings via phone naturally increased – but couldn’t replace in-person interactions. Audio calls were plagued with unstable connections and people not being able to concentrate. Chris concluded that breaks during calls are necessary, since people tend to lose focus when communicating digitally. To increase the bandwidth of interactions, he decided to switch to video calls and allow people to not only hear each other but also pick up on body language and facial cues. Lastly, Chris decided to reduce the number of participants during meetings to facilitate more effective communication.
The panel discussion was moderated by André Gisiger, Chief Client Officer at GloCoach, and addressed questions by the audience. Asked which factors contribute most to successful virtual teamwork, Sarah stressed the need for predictable time off, knowing that one won’t be bothered by work-related messages after 7 o’clock for instance. Addressing another question, she warned against putting pressure on companies to reimagine themselves during this situation. After all, she pointed out, many are struggling to just survive. A big part of the discussion centered around cultural differences having to do with drawing boundaries between work and other activities.
The panelists agreed that there are tremendous differences between countries, especially when comparing Switzerland to China – Switzerland being more accepting of clear-cut boundaries between work and non-work – with the US sitting being somewhere in between. Thus, colleagues are more likely to also be friends in the US, whereas in Switzerland this isn’t necessarily the case. Moreover, in the US – and even more so in China – it isn’t quite clear when work stops and leisure starts, with people expecting email replies even after official work hours.
Chris Zheng told the audience about Chinese managers demanding immediate replies, no matter whether their WeChat messages are received at 6 pm, 8 pm, or even 11 pm. To make things more manageable, he arrived at an agreement with his boss that messages after 10 pm will be answered only the next day. Sarah remarked that what might sound crazy in Switzerland – answering emails at 10 pm – has much to do with cultural expectations. According to her, culture is the software of the mind, and determines what is perceived as normal and what isn’t.