Teamwork: the analogue and digital we.

By Wojciech Czaja, 02.06.2020

How do teamwork and team leadership work in times of corona? What are the main differences between analogue and digital communication? And which findings from the current crisis, but also from labour research in the past can we preserve for the future? A story about slack, commitment and online after-work beers.


“We can talk on the phone tomorrow, sometime between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., and then you can ask me your questions”, says Jens Kapitzky, “but unfortunately, we can’t do that today. It’s just after 5 p.m., and my team and I are already in the middle of our online after-work beers. We’re calling it a day”. All right, cheers and goodbye! See you tomorrow! The phone call is over.


Kapitzky is an organisational and strategic consultant and heads the Metaplan Leadership & Organization Academy in Quickborn near Hamburg. As with most companies in April, the German head office and the branches in Zurich, Princeton, Versailles, Singapore and Shanghai are currently closed, and most of the approximately 65 employees are working from home. Every day at 5 p.m. Central European Time, they meet virtually and treat themselves to a glass of beer or pint or panaché – or even a Far Eastern midnight drink. “Teleworking has been on our agenda for several weeks now”, says Kapitzky the next morning, “and although we have been used to remote working for years, there is a significant difference between communicating with each other virtually, or in fact exclusively, as is currently the case. If there are no other possibilities for informal meetings, chatting at the coffee machine or having lunch together in the cafeteria or canteen, then you have to react flexibly to the situation and proactively introduce substitute rituals”. Top priority: professional matters are only spoken about in a rudimentary way during online after-work beers, and if so, then only funny stories and anecdotes.


“For weeks the phone has been ringing off the hook, one video conference after another, hundreds of emails a day, as companies from all sectors find out how they can manage their teams efficiently and facilitate collaboration in times of the corona crisis and teleworking”. Kapitzky explains that customers include trade fair and event organisers, machine builders, pharmaceutical companies and educational institutions – both large companies and SMEs and individual entrepreneurs who are considering how best to take their services online in this era of social distancing. Kapitzky also heads brand eins safari, where he teaches the differences between analogue and digital leadership management in the form of Learning Nuggets webinars on behalf of the German business magazine.


Clear rules for meeting – analogue and digital.

“May I be completely honest? The world is full of crap meetings that take up a lot of time, have no measurable results and make you feel like you are falling into a black hole as life rushes by. And these meetings that are so crap when you attend them in person, are just as crap in remote mode”. Kapitzky demands: “Clear rules of the game are required as to what a meeting is for, how long it should last, who is going to lead the discussion, what result is to be achieved and who is going to implement and carry out the agreed points, to what extent and by when. If this distribution of roles is not clear, then the consequences in remote working are even more tremendous than in everyday work when you are actually physically present, because the management role becomes more complex with distance”. What helps: training sessions for meeting hosts, ideally also the introduction of a separate moderator role.


A study conducted in 2019 by the globally active ADP Research Institute (ADPRI) proves that such orchestrated teamwork in teleworking is not necessarily a disadvantage compared to the traditional office with physical presence. The study analysed the involvement of a total of 19,000 workers around the world, with a representative sample of 1,000 workers in 19 countries. The result is surprising, if not positively shocking. Firstly: the commitment increases exponentially with the ability to work in a team and the trust in the team leader. While only eight percent of all the employees surveyed working without a team said that they feel fully committed, the commitment in a team already rises to 17 percent. At the top with 45 percent commitment are all those who work in a team with good confidence in the team leader. And secondly: the more often and more intensively employees work away from home or on business trips, the more committed they are to their work. While employees with a permanent physical presence in the office are only 12 percent fully committed, the commitment increases to twice that with four or even five days of teleworking per week.


“The rise of the gig economy has raised concerns about the social isolation of gig workers”, write Marcus Buckingham, research director and co-managing director at the ADP Research Institute, and Ashley Goodall, senior vice president at U.S. telecom company Cisco, in a recent article in Harvard Business Manager. “However, the ADPRI study shows that this way of working actually encourages commitment more than the traditional model. The results show that gig-work can not only be very appealing, but also contains elements that we can integrate into our traditional work”.


Belbin’s role model for teamwork is still relevant today.

In plain language, Buckingham and Goodall continue in their documentation, this means: ”Employees should be able to exercise more control over their work and have more opportunities to do things that inspire them. They should be able to combine the best of both worlds – a predictable, stable role in a home team and a part-time job in the form of various opportunities to join dynamic teams within the same company”. For this communication and leadership culture to gain a foothold, it is not only necessary to have good, empathic team leadership, but also a clear allocation of roles in the team and equally clear feedback rules with attention and appropriate appreciation. Anachronistically, a role model that was developed almost five decades ago and that deals with the question of how to put together a perfect team comes into play here. The British researcher and management consultant Raymond Meredith Belbin, who has been researching this topic since the 1970s, assumes that people behave differently depending on their personality traits and take on a typical role according to their abilities and habitus. Belbin defines three categories, each with three matching team roles: The action oriented roles include shaper, implementer and perfectionist. The people oriented roles include coordinator, team worker and resource investigator. And the cerebral roles are made up of deviser, monitor evaluator and specialist.


“Belbin’s role model is still relevant today”, says Viennese industrial and organisational psychologist Bettina Wegleiter. “And I find it fascinating that his model continues to be used as an important basis, even with disruptive upheaval such as digitalisation, the corona crisis and changes in usual work and communication processes. Especially in times of teleworking, digital communication and disembodied team leadership using Zoom, Moodle, Slack, Webex and MS Teams, Belbin’s model is a very useful and helpful orientation for putting together harmonious, efficient and productive work and project teams”. But Wegleiter does see a change to the seventies: “In contrast to the past, it is not the constants who win today, but all those who are able to swap roles and switch back and forth between different team roles, like in holacracy”. This flexibility and elasticity is indispensable, particularly in the new working world, says the psychologist, because it makes a difference whether you are physically on site, whether you are contributing to a video conference with a show of hands or whether you are expressing a creative idea during an informal meeting in the corridor. “Virtual space demands and promotes self-organised work. The bigger and more extensive your role repertoire, the faster you can integrate into the team, the better prepared you are for the work of the future”.


Virtual space demands and promotes self-organised work.

The Viennese furniture and product designer Thomas Feichtner is looking at how the previous findings and achievements in the field of team play and team leadership, as well as the current corona crisis, will be reflected on the job market. “The way teams function and how they are managed in the best possible way is currently involuntarily undergoing a complete upheaval. We are working differently, communicating differently, moving differently, and our attitude towards the classic office is changing as a result. This will have an impact on furniture, on office design and most likely even on the residential and office real estate market post-corona”.


We are able to work efficiently and productively from home. As the ADP Research Institute has emphatically demonstrated, we are doing this with a comparatively high level of commitment. And indispensable work qualities such as team spirit and the ability to work in a team can be surprisingly maintained even without a permanent physical presence, assuming good leadership. “So perhaps the office of the future will be an office base with a lounge, coffee house and a few work cells for concentrated work, if someone is going stir-crazy working from home with their children and partners around”, says Feichtner. “Perhaps the office of tomorrow will serve less as a workplace and more as a social meeting place to discuss work tasks and personal anecdotes – and perhaps just to celebrate a real evening together once a week with a real beer”.


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