In some ways ‘how do I lead my team?’ might seem an unnecessary question for a leadership blog – after all we’ve all been working incredibly hard to lead teams over the last 14 months of lockdown and learnt a lot in the process. But as we take cautious steps along the unlocking roadmap, there are a lot of different emotions and complex challenges to manage. Multiply those by the number of people in your organisation and you can see that getting teams working effectively back in the workplace is going to require careful thought and planning from leaders.

This change cannot be underestimated. It’s like we’ve been living life in monochrome while working through a screen for months, then suddenly we are surrounded by the stimulating primary colours of life outside the home environment. So be prepared for some unexpected swings of emotion from your colleagues – and don’t expect to be immune from such things yourself!

When reflecting on how to best lead teams through this transition, it may be useful to think that you are creating a new team rather than getting the old one together again. The team development model we’ve all seen of forming, storming and norming may have a lot of relevance in this situation.

  • For a start there’ll likely be new people to be welcomed into the team for the first time and introduced properly face-to-face. And as the business world will have shifted around us to a greater or lesser extent the team will need to look hard at its purpose and priorities, in much deeper ways than it’s possible to do well on a Teams/Zoom call. The team purpose needs to be clear to ensure that it can ‘glue’ the activities of team members together.
  • Some conflicts that have been ‘bubbling under’ during screen-based conversations may surface. So be prepared for some team storming as these are worked through. And as the individual work pattern preferences from team members become clear, the need to compromise to the needs of others may also spark some difficult conversations – so lots of good listening, to the words and the emotions that may lie behind them, will pay dividends.
  • As your newly forming team works through a storming phase, new norms of behaviour, communications, operations, and decision-making process will start to emerge. However, employment is ultimately a commercial contract between the employer and their people. This is where, as a leader, you will need to communicate what you expect from your team and what future success looks like. But don’t try to define new rules too early. Setting clear guiding principles and then encouraging the team to experiment when translating these into local action will enable everyone to play their part, negotiate and learn.

Throughout all these stages of establishing ‘a new team in a new workplace’ leaders will need to navigate the tensions between specific needs of individuals and the compromises required for the team to hit joint business objectives. Working from home has given us all windows into each other’s lives as we’ve seen different facets of colleagues’ personalities and they have seen more of ours too. This greater degree of understanding and human connection has been an unexpected bonus of lockdown leadership, but it comes with a challenge. We’ve built expectations of being able to tailor work patterns to best suit individual needs. But now we need to create new teams that are more than collections of individuals, and where people will have to be prepared to make personal sacrifices to get more performance from the team as a collective whole.

In our next two blog posts we’ll look more directly at this question of how to manage team performance as we move through the next stage of unlocking, and also at how to ensure that in focusing on the creation of your own team we don’t all look inward so much that stakeholder communication and cross-team collaboration suffers.