In these uncertain times, we’re all trying to figure out what to do next. When it comes down to it, what matters is how we behave, how we organise ourselves and how we communicate with one another. And, difficult though it may be for many businesses, a crisis presents us with opportunities too. We need to adapt, but it isn’t all damage limitation. There are some positives, if we are willing to shift our perspective and return to the basics of how we work best.

1. In times of uncertainty, we fall back on what we know

In our Belbin workshops and courses, we spend a lot of time putting live teams under pressure, whether against the clock, or against one another. That’s because it’s a quick way to elicit real, unpolished behaviours. When the chips are down, any pretences fall away and we revert to what we know and how we’re used to behaving.

This can mean that we see strengths – people supporting one another (a Teamworker trait), keeping a level head and advising (like good Monitor Evaluators do) or providing key connections between people (as Resource Investigators are often well-placed to do).

It might also mean that we see the downsides of our behaviours, such as high anxiety (keep an eye on Completer Finishers), low mood from isolation (which may hit sociable Resource Investigators and Teamworkers the most) and perhaps frustration from those who are unable to work as efficiently as they’d like (Implementers) or see deadlines fall by the wayside (Shapers).

We know not everything fits into a Team Role framework, but when working through uncertainty, it’s useful to understand these tendencies, because our Team Role strengths are outward manifestations of what makes us tick, our priorities and our view on the world.

2. We need to keep things small to keep them manageable

Keeping teams small is a crucial (but often overlooked) factor in team success. The organisational chart may say one thing, but now that’s stuck to the wall of an empty office. Suddenly, we need people to work remotely, but the larger the group, the more difficult it is to arrange online meetings, achieve consensus, meet deadlines, the list goes on...

When we ask people to obtain Observer feedback from colleagues, to inform their Belbin Report, we often recommend asking 4-6 people. That’s because it’s not usually possible for one person to work closely with more than that number. Where large groups are in disguise as teams, we often find that smaller ‘sub-teams’ emerge, to help people get back to that magic number. Now that many of us are no longer in the office, where team membership was likely influenced by our physical location, we’re likely to see these ‘real teams’ more clearly, and might feel freer to form new connections where they are needed.

3. Communication changes

With many of us working from home, it’s clear that communication is going to change. On Monday, Microsoft Teams crashed when millions of Europeans began logging in from home. Whilst it’s important to get the technology right, it’s equally important to consider the human implications of these changed communications.

On the plus side, we might find that we re-evaluate the importance of meetings, limit meeting times and discover more innovative ways of sharing content, such as video conferencing, webinars and live chats. We might become more disciplined about the timeframes for meetings and use the technology to ensure that all voices are heard.

On the downside, many of us are losing the opportunity to speak face-to-face. If we’re relying more on email, that also means we might have less control over the tone of our words, and perhaps aren’t receiving cues (through facial expressions and body language) about how they are being received. It’s important to remember that the Team Role framework is not only for describing how people behave, but for offering clarity around approaches to work. For example, imagine that you want a colleague to proof-read a strategy document where the strategy has already been agreed. Using a Team Role shorthand to clarify that you want a ‘Completer Finisher eye’, but don’t want the other person to ‘ME’ (Monitor Evaluate) the work at this stage, will save time and effort on both sides.

4. We need to be together

It’s heartening to see volunteer groups and individuals popping up to offer practical support. Whilst some may enjoy working from home, and find that they are more productive with fewer distractions, it’s not the same for everyone. Some may find that the isolation interferes with their ability to work effectively, especially those for whom social interaction is a key part of their Team Role make-up. As well as ensuring that tools are available for online meetings, it’s also important to allow teams some social time together, especially when things are stressful. Apart from letting off steam, social time builds the trust that teams need to keep going.

5. We need trust and psychological safety

Coach Tammy Turner speaks eloquently about trust and psychological safety in teams. In short, trust is measured by – and exists between – individuals, with one person giving the other the benefit of the doubt. Psychological safety is a team construct, which measures if it’s OK to share and make mistakes without fear of recrimination, and gives each of us, as team members, the benefit of the doubt in making your contribution.

With teams working remotely, informal opportunities to speak to a colleague or a manager about our concerns or mistakes might be lost, and we might find ourselves having to announce those reservations or errors on a larger stage. What’s more, the stakes are higher if people don’t feel able to speak out, because it might take longer for mistakes to be identified. So, if we are to create (or preserve) an environment in which each team member feels confident in getting it wrong, there is work to do. We need to celebrate behavioural diversity and recognise the challenges where some are contributing in a different way to others. For example, a Plant providing ideas to a team of Monitor Evaluators and Implementers needs space to explore and communicate those ideas without being immediately quashed or reasoned out of it. In turn, when Shapers want to move first to implement a new responsive policy, Monitor Evaluators, need to feel able to apply the brakes.

6. We use our resources

There’s a likelihood that a team’s usual resources may be strained or unavailable, with members falling ill or dealing with changes in circumstances. Whilst the inevitable disruption may cause difficulties in the short-term, it also presents an opportunity to explore other avenues and forge new connections across teams. Who else do we know in the organisation who is good at detailed work and has been freed up from a project put on hold? Can someone with strong Resource Investigator tendencies source the widget we need, since their conference was cancelled? If we are used to delivering our product in a particular way that is no longer viable, can we draw Plant contributions from another team in the short-term to help generate new ideas?

All of this starts with knowing our strengths, individually and in our teams. Simply put, these strengths enable us to use the resources available to us more fully, organise ourselves more effectively, and communicate with fewer misunderstandings.

In moments of crisis, we need to work quickly and effectively, but with compassion for one another’s limitations and the inevitable errors that happen when time is of the essence. As organisational units, teams are uniquely powerful engines. Given a framework that helps each member articulate strengths and admit weaknesses, teams can achieve more collectively and mitigate each other’s shortcomings. Let’s get it done.

We want to do all we can to support teams who are changing the way they work at the moment. We are here for you. We are all in this together.

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