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Beyond ‘COVID-19 Secure’: Accounting for Group Dynamics


Photo showing business teamwork
Image: Me studio -
As I suggested in my previous post, Part 1 of this two-part series, organizations need to plan smartly and progressively as they bring people back into the new normal workspace. The digital workspace does not easily support all the activities we used to perform in the physical workspace, especially as these have increasingly focused on communicating, collaborating, and cooperating with other people. However, we will also find it difficult to support all these activities in the physical workspace once people return to the office given the constraints required to keep people safe during the pandemic.
Responding to these challenges will require organizations to be sensitive to the needs of their employees, some of whom will want to work at home whereas others may need to work in the office, and many might like to work flexibly between home and office environments.
However, the use of the office becomes more complicated when we consider the varying needs of organizational groups rather than just individuals and the whole organization. As I discuss in “The Social Organization,” these groups are functions, horizontal teams, communities, and distributed networks. Organizations must respond to the need for flexibility from individual employees, but not without also accounting for the various needs of these different groups.
Functional Groups
Functional “teams” (people working at the same level for the same manager) need to get used to digital technology. There’s no real need for these groups to work together in the office or even to have regular team meetings since they are not true teams. People in functions work mainly independently and just need to coordinate their work with one another.
In particular, people in these groups need to get used to using asynchronous communication for coordinating their work and even for building levels of psychological safety. This can be achieved, for example, by having group members share what they are working on, “working out loud” with the rest of the group. Doing this creates shared vulnerability across the group and encourages group members to take risks by communicating openly, knowing that they will receive a positive response. Relevant systems can include collaborative working documents and various productivity tools as well as an intranet to share documentation.
Even synchronous communication systems probably don’t need to be used as much as they are currently — a weekly or monthly webcam meeting will probably do it, if supported by more regular one-to-ones with a line manager and particular colleagues.
While the office may play some role in providing an opportunity for pairs or small groups of people to meet up, there’s not usually going to be a requirement for the whole functional group to get together. Of course, in many situations, there won’t be a meeting room large enough anyway, and people will struggle to hear each other speak above taller partitions and over a larger floor space.
Organizationally, people working in functions will need to be supported by “trust and track” rather than “command and control.” People have gotten used to being managed less tightly while working at home and will want to hold onto this autonomy as things develop. We need to find new ways to check if things are being done that don’t get in the way of the people doing them. As an example, we don’t want to be checking if people have completed their performance assessments, but we’ll need some way of identifying if people aren’t managing their own performance.
Functional heads can help improve effectiveness through the way they organize their staff responsibilities. For example, they might pair people up on various tasks to avoid single points of failure, which could have more impact in the new, more complicated workspace environment.
Horizontal Teams
True teams have different needs than functional groups. These are groups that depend on team rather than individual performance and tend to be organized cross-functionally to focus on processes, projects, agile working, or product management, etc. These groups do need to get together in order to collaborate effectively. Daily check-ins and regular team reviews will generally be useful, as long as these aren’t too difficult to organize across time zones or for other reasons. All of this can be achieved with the same tools as for functional groups, but with more use of asynchronous and/or synchronous team chat (Slack, Microsoft Teams, etc).
Teams need to create a sense of psychological alignment and this can also be at least partly created through digital tools, such as social recognition systems. Teams also need to avoid the collaborative overload of their team leaders and this can be achieved by sharing team objectives and interfaces, or better still, by using a system that provides an organizational network analysis of internal and external communication.
There is also much more sense in a team getting together in the office than for functional groups, and more value in this happening more frequently, too. However, having people sit in spaced-out cubicles is going to be of no use at all. From a team’s perspective, organizations might need to rip out all of their workstations and repurpose a whole department’s floor area as a project room, which would obviously have to be larger than would have been provided previously.
Organizationally, teams will benefit from team-level performance management and potentially reward, which would mean an end to rewarding people for their individual performance. Psychological alignment is also helped by connecting teams with the end results of their efforts and contributions, enabling them to see the benefits of what they do on the customers of their work.
Communities are decentralized groups, like teams, but focus on bringing people together in order to do things with each other, rather than assigning work to groups of people. Many organizations don’t recognize the importance of communities, but the value of this type of group has been demonstrated during the pandemic, and communities are now being extended into new domains. For example, some organizations have recently introduced new employee resource groups focused on common issues faced in remote working.
Since communities are similar to teams, their needs for the physical and digital workspaces are similar too. However, communities need deeper personal focus and so will emphasize time together in the office and synchronous digital communication over the use of asynchronous tools. Community-oriented platforms such as Workplace by Facebook and Verint Community are also particularly useful here.
In particular, communities require psychological intimacy between community members, and this probably does need at least some face-to-face contact, even if this takes place through a transparent partition.
It may be difficult to provide opportunities for the whole community to get together face to face so just as with teams, some of this contact may need to take place through pairs or small groups. For example, people could be matched together as buddies, and these relationships change over time, in order to achieve a high level of closure across the community (to achieve a situation where most community members know most other members of the community).
However, it may be possible to do better than this with sufficient creativity. For example, could communities connect through corporate social responsibility activities, not necessarily related to their core domains? Working together to improve the natural environment, or similar activities, might provide much of the bonding that communities require.
Networks are nominal groups of people connected together around a particular domain. They are based on loose ties and are key to innovation, as well as to developing businesses beyond the pandemic. Most networks are informal, but organizations are also looking at how these can be partly formalized by being supported and resourced, too.
Networking (or really, network working) requires psychological curiosity — a deep interest in what other network members may be doing — as the basis to connect across the network. In the past, this has often been developed in the physical workspace, by large group facilitated meetings or just by encouraging people to bump into each other over coffee or in the restaurant, for example. However, this is going to be really difficult to achieve in the new normal workspace, and we will need the digital workspace (and enterprise social networking tools like Yammer and Jive, etc.) to step in more fully ensure people can navigate organizational networks effectively. However, once people have connected, it may be most useful for them to meet face to face as well.
Organizationally, networks can be supported by brokers and mentors focused on helping the right people to connect, although artificial intelligence is starting to do this too (tools like Starmind, ProFinda, Catalant, and Guild). People also need an amount of slack in their schedules to enable them to spend time on network working, and to progress opportunities that they develop with other members of a network.
In this and my previous post, I have suggested some hopefully short-lived approaches for the new normal workspace. This does not indicate the death of the office, but does point to the need for a fundamental rethink of how we use this, not just an attempt to fit as many people into the “COVID-19 secure” workspace as we can.
This new normal workspace will be very different to the temporary abnormality of extensive home working we have been living and working in recently. But it will also be very different to the new “new normal” office we may want once we have a vaccine, and of course, the old world of work of two months ago. (Things will no doubt change again, and the widespread introduction of virtual/augmented reality may be the next big disruptor to which we look forward.)
However, each of these situations are all very different to each other and it is totally appropriate, and probably necessary, that the connected workspace strategy changes over these different periods, too.