From Forming to Performing: How to Overcome Remote Work Challenges in Tuckman's Stages of Team Development.
As some of you may know, I am currently studying for my level seven qualification in senior leadership and management. Today’s coaching session was to look over the work I had submitted for my most recent unit, ‘developing business strategies’, and to look at what I can expect for the next unit, ‘strategic resource management’. As ever, we strayed from the topic during the course of our conversation, and ended up discussing team development.
By now almost all of us are familiar with Tuckman’s four stages of group development - ‘forming’, ‘storming’, norming’, performing’, with ‘adjourning’ being added to a later revision of his theory.
Soon I began to reflect on two things: my experiences managing what was an established team with a few significant new members before, during and after lockdown with my previous employers; and my experience post-pandemic of joining a largely reconstituted team last summer, with a hybrid working style. In the former I was the manager of the team concerned, whereas latterly I have been a member of the SMT.
The experiences of these two situations differ greatly from my previous experiences in building and managing teams, where I was doing so face-to-face.
What I found is that Tuckman's model is still relevant in the age of remote working. In fact, it may be even more important in this context, as remote teams face unique challenges that can make it difficult to progress through the stages of team development. For example, remote teams may struggle with communication, trust, and collaboration, which are all critical components of team development.
In the forming stage, team members are getting to know each other and figuring out their roles and responsibilities. In a remote context, this can be challenging because team members may not have the opportunity to meet face-to-face, which can make it harder to build relationships and establish trust. With my previous employers, where I was the home manager, the staff team were still going in to theme to complete their shifts, whereas I was managing remotely. I found I had to rely on the induction process to do a lot of the heavy lifting in this area. My contribution was to take on as much of the administrative work as possible, allowing the team to build form their relationships with each other and the children. Not that I was entirely passive in this. I still established clear goals and expectations for the team. This helped team members understand what they were working towards and stay focused on the task at hand. Remote work can make it difficult for team members to get to know each other and establish relationships, which can slow down the forming stage. I had established good relationships with the majority of the residential team, which helped. In my current role I was the newest addition to the SMT, some of which was well-established and some of which wasn’t. This was a different dynamic for me, and even now we are still occasionally ironing out our roles and responsibilities as the company grows. As I work across Wales and our head office is in England, I do not get to spend as much time face-to-face with the Telford team as I’d like - especially those team members who aren’t part of the SMT. The second consideration in the ‘forming’ stage when hybrid working is how best to encourage open communication and collaboration. This can help team members build relationships and establish trust, which is critical for effective teamwork. There is a growing reliance on Teams, WhatsApp, Zoom, text messages, Basecamp, etc in this area; and whilst electronic communication is fast and accessible, what it lacks is depth. It’s difficult to read body language via text or Teams, especially with glitchy virtual backgrounds. Despite this, Teams/Zoom was essential in my previous role for ensuring I could spend 1:1 time with each member of staff for catch-ups, supervisions, and the like. I also found it useful for team meetings, in which I could reiterate my expectations regarding practice, communication and collaboration. It wasn’t as effective as being there in person; but it was harder for people to miss those meetings since they could join form home if they weren’t on shift that day. In fact, I recall several people joining meeting whilst isolating as they missed that social interaction. In my current role we (the SMT) do spend time with each other when we can, and electronic communication can be used to supplement this. Text messages and emails can be taken out of context, but when you know the person well who has written to you, this is harder to do.
In the storming stage, team members may experience conflict as they work through differences in opinion and approach. In a remote context, this can be exacerbated by communication challenges and the lack of nonverbal cues, as described above. Communication challenges in remote work can exacerbate conflicts and make it harder for team members to work through differences in opinion and approach. Wherever I detected or suspected this in my previous role, I would always contact one or both of the people involved separately, to act as a mediator, identifying and remedying misunderstandings.
In the norming stage, team members begin to work together more effectively and establish norms and expectations. In a remote context, this can be challenging because team members may have different working styles and preferences. Frequent team meetings when managing the home remotely were extremely helpful in this, as was a string company culture. I found that I had to be a lot clearer in my explanations of how I wanted the staff to work, since I couldn’t be there to role model my expectations. What I have noticed in my current role is that expectations can be greatly affected by the professional backgrounds of the different members of the SMT. Some of us have a care background, some NHS, some property.
Finally, in the performing stage, the team is working together effectively and achieving its goals. Remote work can make it difficult to coordinate and collaborate effectively, which can impact the performing stage. This can be especially true in teams that have a rapid turnover. Thankfully this was not a hurdle I had to consider during the time of lockdown, though once those restrictions were lifted we saw several staff members leave for other sectors (such as to return to outdoors education or the hospitality industry). In both that role and my current hybrid working patter, the importance of frequent and clear communication cannot be overstated. As a home manager it was essential to provide feedback and support to my staff to help them understand how they were performing and identify areas for improvement. As part of the SMT the considerations are more about ensuring we know what to expect of each other and holding each other to account.
Both working remotely during lockdown and my current hybrid pattern of work have served to deepen and broaden my appreciation for Tuckman’s theory. I have had to reconsider my approach to team building and managing as a result of both styles of working. Perhaps in the future I will end up in a role that is almost 100% office-based; it will be interesting to see how I rework my understanding of this theory as a result of that change.
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