It’s official: 11 months of working online is changing the way our brains function and our ability to work in teams. Neuroscientist David Eagleman tells us that due to our model of the world breaking down, our brains have been in a state of reconfiguration, forging new neural pathways to cope with our changed circumstances. Naturally, this affects how we function as teams. At its best, teamwork bonds us together, fosters innovation and improves efficiency. However, every driver of what makes a successful team, as defined by Tannenbaum and Salas in ‘Teams That Work’ (2020), has been challenged by the pandemic, affecting, for example, how we communicate and collaborate to how we coach one another and how motivated we feel as a result of our working conditions.
Our lives have become ‘dull, samey and screen-filled’, according to memory expert Professor Catherine Loveday, with an ‘impoverished level of sensory input’, which is weakening our memory, making time much harder to mark and impacting our engagement and motivation at work for the worse; research carried out by software firm Atlassian of thousands of workers across the globe has found that many employees go as far as to say that their work has become ‘invisible’ while their team has been permanently distributed outside of an office. The fallout continues: with our brains occupied by making sense of the new world, we are not as articulate as we used to be, our attentions spans are shorter and our sleep cycles confused. Dr Larry Rosen of California State University has observed that our average daily screen time has doubled from 300 to 600 minutes, and that in the future it is only likely to come back down to 500, presenting a host of issues, ‘making us less good at making executive decisions, not multitasking (and) not being impulsive’. Altogether a miserable context for teamwork to thrive.
Companies are, however, trialling innovations to support teamwork in the world of virtual working. With our brains missing informal office chit chat, the Watercooler app on Slack has been launched and WeTransfer has created a digital version of its HQ, allowing employees to roam about using avatars, attend meetings and enjoy happy hour together. Google’s Project Aristotle researched the secrets of effective teams years before the pandemic and found the answer lay in five key traits: psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact. These act as the springboard for how teams are managed and supported at Google and the importance of these emotionally intelligent traits are even more relevant today. DropBox, for example, recently shared that they encourage virtual team meetings with children, pets and plants to support community bonding, the team at Headspace foster community with a 10am daily meditation, and here at The Argyll Club we hold bi-weekly Stretch & Breathe sessions to support our staff in releasing tension and calming the mind.
The value of teamwork is priceless. As put by Reid Hoffman, Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of LinkedIn, ‘no matter how brilliant your mind or strategy, if you’re playing a solo game, you’ll always lose out to a team’. While innovative virtual teamwork solutions will continue to emerge, the reality is that the hybrid workplace combining remote and face-to-face collaboration is key to unlocking the creative potential, sense of solidarity and satisfaction of our people.