Last reviewed 5 February 2021

For many teams, Covid-19 has meant prolonged periods of virtual working during a time of heightened pressure. Lizzie Broadbent explores how this has affected team relationships, the implications for wellbeing and what leaders of teams can do.

The pandemic has fundamentally affected all aspects of our lives and will continue to do so for months to come. For those who were working in an office-based team up until last March and were used to seeing colleagues in person, regularly, this shift to remote working has had particularly marked effects. With remote working likely to be a fact of life for much of the year, now is a good time to step back and reflect on the habits you have got into, what is working and what you might want to change.

We know more about one another than ever…

From one perspective, we have never been more connected to the people we work with. Personal situations are much more visible. We have seen into another’s living spaces, we know who has patchy broadband and who has access to a garden. Geographic tiers and varying country-wide restrictions triggered conversations about where parents and siblings live. School closures lead to shared experiences of the demands of home-schooling: we know who has children, how many and what age; several of them will have made unexpected appearances in meetings.

…but have never been more physically disconnected…

However, we are mainly seeing one another from the chest up making it hard to pick up all the signs we normally get from body language. In team meetings, we each spend the vast majority of the time on mute. The casual but vital moments of connection with people outside our core working team, which used to come with bumping into others in the canteen or having a quick chat on the way to the loo, have all been lost. Even a mid-meeting coffee break now means a solitary and silent stroll to the kettle rather than milling around and discussing the latest news or who is going to win Bake Off.

…and introverts are suffering more than extroverts

This change in working and engagement patterns was hailed as an opportunity for introverts. It was thought that a move away from long face-to-face workshops to more asynchronous working would favour introverts, giving them more space to think and increasing their overall participation. It was anticipated that those who get their energy from being with others and like to think on their feet would find it harder to manage the significant reduction in interaction. However, the data suggests that introverts are struggling more — on a personal level at least. With smaller online social networks and a lower propensity to experiment with virtual socialising approaches, they are more likely to feel lonely and isolated.

What are the health, safety and wellbeing implications?

Intimacy is one of the building blocks of trust which, at a group level, manifests itself as psychological safety. It has been shown that, in teams with higher levels of psychological safety, people are more likely to speak up, share concerns, highlight risks and learn from mistakes. If levels of trust start to fall within the group, this vital human early-warning system will no longer work as effectively.

People shifting around in their chair or making small sounds of agreement or disagreement are sounds that, in physical meetings, give valuable clues about sentiment. If we only see people’s heads and they are on mute, this information is all lost. “I’ll take silence as agreement” is now a commonly used phrase. It might feel efficient but is not necessarily effective: someone scrambles to unmute themselves in time to make their point or simply feels like it is too much effort for what might feel like a small point. The conversation moves on, concerns go unstated, risks are not captured.

The counter-intuitive evidence about the impact of lockdowns on introverts shows how dangerous it can be to leave assumptions untested. New norms establish themselves quickly, biases left unchecked can quickly influence narrative and actions. For health, safety and wellbeing interventions to meet people’s needs, those needs must be properly understood.

Actions you can take

Many organisations have seen productivity gains from the increase in remote working so it is likely to be with us in some form even when lockdowns ease. Regularly reviewing and adjusting team ways of working will help ensure that it is safe and healthy for both team members and leaders.

1. Use a wide range of approaches to check in with your team

Group check-ins contribute to an ongoing culture of trust and openness, helping team members stay in touch with one another’s ups and downs, show empathy and offer practical help. Make check-in time count by keeping it fresh and meaningful.

  • Consider mixing up open questions (‘How is everyone today?’) with more specific check-ins: ask everyone to use one word or an emoji.

  • In advance, ask everyone to pick a colour or a song title to sum up how they are feeling.

  • Check in on a particular issue: ‘How is everyone feeling about…the length of your working day?’ ‘How would you rate your ability to switch off at the end of the day?’

  • Rotate responsibility across team members for coming up with a check-in approach.

2. Discuss wellbeing together

Stress and wellbeing are highly personal. However, using a common framework and language makes it easier to have discussions about individual challenges as a group. One useful model is the stress container, developed by Mental Health First Aid. This visualises three variables in managing pressure: the size and type of inflow, the options for releasing pressure and your coping capacity (which is affected by factors such a sleep, diet and uncertainty). Our normal routines have been disrupted and we are all constantly having to try new approaches to managing our physical and mental health. Sharing these challenges and getting fresh ideas can bring much-needed fresh thinking and reduce the sense of isolation.

3. Commit to group decisions explicitly

If you feel like you didn’t really participate in a decision-making process, your commitment is likely to be lower to the result. If you are leading a group in a decision-making discussion, be very clear about the decision that is being proposed. Set up virtual breakout rooms for small group discussions on concerns before re-grouping for the final decision. Use the chat or virtual whiteboards to gather opinions, so that it is easy to share the content of small group discussions in the larger group. Use online polling so that people can vote yes, no or “maybe” or ask for a show of hands (real hands, not small yellow “zoom” hands).

4. Spend time as a group recognising progress and celebrating success

In high-pressure situations, it is natural to focus on problems and issues and turn to what’s next as soon as a goal has been achieved. This can come at the expense of acknowledging what has been achieved. As a leader, write down all the different recognition options you have including a short, meaningful thank you, highlighting the work of someone in another team to their boss, putting a story on the intranet, sending a gift or giving a bonus. Stick up the list somewhere where you will see it regularly. Make sure you make time in meetings for sharing highlights and achievements and ask team members to say what they are proud of. Remember: the team that “hurrays” together, stays together.

Further information

  • “Managing teamwork in the face of pandemic: evidence-based tips”, Scott Tannenbaum, Allison Traylor, Eric Thomas and Eduardo Salas, BMJ Quality and Safety,Vol 30 Issue 1.

  • “How to Foster Psychological Safety in Virtual Meetings”, Amy C. Edmondson and Gene Daley, Harvard Business Review, August 2020.

  • “Social Distancing and Lockdown — An Introvert’s Paradise? An empirical investigation on the association between introversion and psychological impact of COVID 19-related circumstantial changes”, Maryann Wei, Frontiers in Psychology ,17 September 2020.

Lizzie Broadbent is the founder of seen.heard, applying behavioural science to design effective programmes of change and build sustainable improvements in capability.