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3 strategies for rethinking team productivity

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Back in March, we found ourselves working from home, and optimistic for a “return to normal.” Firms had a few remote tools (like Zoom and Microsoft Teams), priorities felt clear, and we were making schedules flexible to manage the increasing demands at home. Fast forward to July where COVID-19 continues to require most of us to work remotely, and the future is uncertain at best. In the early days of remote work, we were doing Zoom happy hours to stay connected, but now we have new concerns about productivity (i.e., getting the work done).

We are seeing three major factors at play:

  • People are exhausted. Remote work means people are constantly balancing home-life and work-life without down-time (especially working parents). Add-in external pressures like the economy, the pandemic, and racial justice, we’re seeing stress, anxiety, and burnout show up more than ever.
  • Teams are struggling to stay in sync. Remote work requires leaders and teams to communicate and coordinate in new ways. Back in the office, people could quickly catch up, hear the latest news, ask questions, and stay on track in the hallway or around the coffeemaker. To compensate, teams and leaders are sitting in Zoom meetings all day long, and still not feeling in sync.
  • Virtual technologies aren’t being used to their potential. We’ve got great tech tools available to help with collaboration, communication, and productivity. Think, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Drive, Slack, etc. However, many firms don’t know their full capabilities, and haven’t learned how to use tech tools properly. For those who know how to use the tools, most haven’t formed agreements on how to use them in the right ways to create productive workflows and synched up communication that works for everyone.

So, what do we do? The following three strategies are easy to learn and can help your firm take big steps toward the well-being and growth you need now, and on the other side of the pandemic.

1. Support emotional wellbeing

Before the pandemic, managing partners we worked with were seeing increases in employees who were requesting support for emotional wellbeing, more schedule flexibility, and ways to reduce stress overall. Today, we’re seeing even more people feeling emotionally drained and overworked. At least when people were in the office, they could share their experiences with others over breaks, or chance encounters. There was more of a boundary between work and home. Even a commute into work was a mental break twice a day. At home, we’re “always on.”

Emotional wellbeing is about our ability to be aware of and manage feelings, emotions, behaviors and thoughts. When we lose track of these, we feel overwhelmed, drained of energy and motivation. It’s hard to be productive in a sustainable way unless we can talk about and take action to boost our wellbeing.

We are being invited to teach leaders new, simple ways of supporting their own emotional wellbeing and those of people on their team. You don’t have to become a therapist to do this work — you just need the right tools.

A managing partner came to us recently concerned about the well-being of one of his employees, who was feeling down, unfocused and overwhelmed. We created a five-day, “Do-It-Yourself Retreat Experience” for them so leaders and team members can refocus and refresh. It can be worked into a regular work week or a “rest week.” Employees need to learn to:

  • Reconnect to their strengths and to the values that matter most.
  • Use practices of gratitude and mindfulness to get grounded.
  • Develop practices of generosity and acts of kindness to connect to others.
  • Expand their focus to the future to see a bigger perspective.
  • Establish new rituals to create structure for consistent positive self-care.

The results? Decreases in anxiety, increases in productivity and motivation.

2. Get your meetings right

In the area of staying in sync to get the work done, we’re seeing three major challenges: too many Zoom/Video meetings; too much email; and not clearly understanding direction and priorities.

Managing partners we work with are reporting that video meetings taking up to 80 percent of their day. We’re also hearing from employees that they aren’t as clear as they would like to be on the direction their firm is heading, what the key priorities are, and how to work together toward those priorities. On the other hand, leaders aren't sure what to communicate and how often. It’s hard to be productive when employees aren’t aligned on what work is most important at any given moment.

One thing we have to re-examine is the way meetings are designed and used across the firm. We help clients redesign their meeting strategies to make better use of time, create alignment, and build belonging and connection on teams. We always begin our work engaging teams in conversations that ask:

  • What do you need to know and when do you need to know it?
  • What kinds of help do we each need from each other to do our work?
  • Who needs to be present?
  • What types of updates, discussions, or decisions require us to meet?
  • What types of updates, discussions, or decisions can take place outside of meetings and in what formats?
  • How much time do we have available for meetings during the week? Each day?

From there, firms can decide what their “live” meetings look like, and when they can communicate in other ways. This typically results in a mix of meetings and other communication structures that include:

  • Team visioning meetings, a couple times a year;
  • Team huddles — quick, 15-minute call-outs a few times a week for updates, and offers and asks for help;
  • Team meetings — for brainstorming, discussions and decision-making;
  • Leaders hosting one-on-ones with each employee one or two times a month; and,
  • Informal “check ins” with leaders and teammates regularly to see how people are doing in general.

3. Unlock the power of your collaboration technologies

Many firms already have a set of tools designed to support virtual collaboration, communication, and workflow. These include Microsoft Office 365, Google’s G-Suite, or a combination of applications. We often see two big issues: First, firms aren’t unlocking the full potential of these tools to see true gains in productivity, and second, teams have not developed agreements and do not experiment with practices and processes to make sure everyone is using the tools in the right ways at the right times.

For firms to be successful with virtual tech tools, they must be able to do the following:

  • Share files in a shared/cloud storage environment. Access and manage the latest versions of files from multiple devices. Using email to find and store the latest version of files is a productivity killer. (One Drive, SharePoint, Google Drive, DropBox)
  • Collaborate on documents in real time. Co-editing in real-time on a document or file can save a ton of time. (Google Docs, Office 365)
  • Real-time group messaging. This allows teams to stay in sync throughout the day by staying in touch, exchanging questions and answers, posting links to work, documents and resources and providing quick updates. (Slack, Teams)
  • Project management and workflow tracking. Quickly see what work is planned, who is working on what, and when tasks are complete. (Trello, Planner, Monday)
  • Conference. The ability to virtually hop into a meeting for training, screen sharing, discussions, etc. (Zoom, Webex, GotoMeeting)

Once teams learn what tools they have, and what they need for the basics of virtual collaboration, they must spend time discussing how, when, and why they will use certain tools. These agreements can be both firmwide and team-specific. We encourage experiments to help people find out what works, and what doesn’t. Once a team finds what works, they develop agreements that are documented and shared with everyone so that it’s clear how the team will use the tools.

How to get started

We’re living through a time that challenges us to rethink and redesign how work gets done. Work can feel like one giant experiment right now, but the good news is that we have tools and strategies to stay productive, connected and moving forward as we redraw the “maps” of our firms. The three easy-to-learn strategies above will keep you and your teams emotionally strong, connected with the right kinds of meetings, and working together with virtual technology are a great place to start and will keep you moving forward.

Evan, Jen and Jack are consultants with Winding River Consulting, serving the professional services industry in the areas of leadership, culture, and agile planning.

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