Promoting remote team cohesion through value-based collaboration

by Alena Diduch
urban sports office

Over the past year more and more companies have been working either remotely or in hybrid mode, including Urban Sports Club. We’re a tech-driven company so digitalization was already part of our DNA. So it wasn’t too difficult to switch to remote working from a tooling perspective – but from a team and leadership perspective it was.

In this keynote, Dr. Stefan Manns, Head of HR Business Partner for Berlin HQ and Germany, shares the lessons he’s learned from observing the Urban Sports Club team. Here’s one of his key findings:

The more decentralized our work, the more important it is to establish clarity surrounding identity, trust and structure in our approach to collaboration. This has a major impact on leadership roles, which must change and adapt accordingly. Follow Stefan’s report from the Urban Sports Club workbench.

stefan manns

As Head of HR Business Partner for Germany, Stefan’s responsible for supporting our leaders and teams in all matters concerning collaboration as well as promoting cultural development within the Urban Sports Group. Today his team shares their learnings from observing all corners of the Urban Sports Club organization over the last year.

Stefan, from your perspective as a leader, what’s changed since the pandemic?

When the pandemic hit in 2020, our entire office switched to hybrid mode. Since then every team has worked remotely, but we still offer employees the opportunity to come into the office, with a limited number of workstations available in accordance with regulations. As a manager, the New Normal has taught me to prioritise my time differently. Before I was primarily focused on technical issues and supporting employees, but now my focus is on orchestrating communication processes within teams to keep them motivated while working remotely. And now more than ever I must keep an eye on the mental health of employees.

As a result, a large part of leadership activity has shifted to moderating and streamlining processes within teams – i.e. who needs to receive what information from whom, by when, in order to continue their work. As a manager, I have to find ways to support self-organization within the team in the best possible way.

What new challenges do managers face in the New Normal?

Leaders will and must continually adapt their skillset. Focus less on output and control and more on the team and the individual team members. Focus more on building structure, identity and trust within the team. In this way managers act as moderators, coaches and designers of the communication process. We’ve noticed this development taking shape within the Urban Sports Club team. Often managers are in their role as experts in their field, so they must be introduced to the new facets of their roles and shown how to coach individual employees, moderate decision-making processes within the team and change or optimize processes together with the team.

As a business partner, we need to be close to our teams and leaders. This pandemic has shown us that each team must find its own solutions to these central aspects:

  • How do we build trust at a distance when working together, and how can we maintain this trust and build on it? What is our identity as a team? 
  • What problems do we solve as a team, for whom, and what is important to us?
  • What would be missing at Urban Sports Club if our team did not exist? 
  • Does our team structure help us achieve our goals? 
  • What do we need to change to maintain trust and identity?

It’s important to note these three aspects of collaboration cannot be considered independently. If one of the areas changes, it will have an immediate impact on the other two. For example, if there are changes in the structures and processes affecting the team, the team must discuss what influence this has on the identity and self-image of the team, and possibly also on trust.

This triangle of collaboration applies in all contexts – but within the remote setup in particular balancing the three pillars is crucial. This requires leadership and this leadership requires time. HR Business Partners support Urban Sports Club on the process level until managers can create this balance within their team independently.

The fact is, managers are rarely hired or promoted into the role because they are excellent coaches, moderators or process facilitators. Most of the time, they’re progression is a result of professional successes and years of expertise in their field.

As a thought leader in the New Normal, we’ve observed that the secret to successful collaboration lies in balancing the three pillars of trust, identity, and structure unique to the setup of the company and/or team.

All three pillars are crucial for successful collaboration and each needs fresh consideration in a remote setup. Developing these new solutions with leaders and translating them into an effective collaboration tool is therefore an important task for HR.

What have you and your team struggled with most during the pandemic?

Two issues have become most pressing for me in the pandemic: 

Role clarity in the team

After we got used to the new set up, it became clear that role clarity was the most important factor for smooth communication and understanding. Questions like: 

  • What can we expect from each other? 
  • Who is responsible for what?
  • How do we deal with specific issues?
  • How do we communicate with each other?

We use these questions as a tool every time we introduce a new project.

I soon came to the understanding that there’s no conclusive or generic answer to these questions – the clarification process is ongoing which can be exhausting at times. But it’s fundamental for mutual trust in the team, so they can rely on each other safe in the knowledge each task will be tackled and completed. The physical separation makes this all the more important. It’s just not possible to go to your colleague’s desk to discuss details. All these factors accumulate to create a challenge that managers have to cope with and solve creatively.

Time management

The second and perhaps more significant challenge that we continue to face is regaining sovereignty over our own calendars. 

Working at a distance requires an increased need for coordination and communication, which means it’s easy for extreme workload compression to set in. It means our work isn’t broken up by walks to meeting rooms or coffee breaks or transitioning from one task to the next. Now we sit at our desks regardless, with no break in between. Context changes happen in a fraction of a second without physically moving to another space. Because the setting remains the same, important sensory channels that are crucial to the learning process are no longer served. 

Working in isolation also leads to increased virtual exchanges, as it helps us feel more connected. It therefore makes sense to create fixed structures within the team that help us stay in contact while allowing self-determination over our calendars. To do this, implement rules such as:

  • Clear online and offline times. We’re available online between 10am and 4pm, including the lunch break. Meetings can be scheduled at short notice. Time is used for exchanging information. The time around it, on the other hand, is for focused and, if possible, undisturbed work.
  • Plan times for informal exchanges. Create coffee breaks.
  • Don’t start meetings directly with the content, but rather with asking “what’s on your mind?” That way each participant can describe where they’re at in terms of thoughts and emotions. People usually share two or three short sentences, without comments or replies from the team. This format helps “clear the head” and supports active listening.

In general, we’ve noticed how important it is to create space for informal exchange. Informal exchange is important because it’s unplanned, spontaneous and associative. It’s therefore a driver for new ideas, initiatives and creativity. In virtual collaboration, I think the biggest challenge is to create such informal spaces, so if anyone reading has a recipe for this, please let me know! 

How has Urban Sports responded to these challenges and what practices can you share on this?

We support our employees in setting themselves up to work from home. In addition to their laptops, each employee can use their monitor as a second screen and their office chair if needed. Parents who struggle with the triple burden of home office and distance learning as well as everyday organization can borrow additional computers for their children. We’ve also increased the amount of childcare days available to Urban Sports Club parents. Our employees can now decide together with their supervisors where they work from. Some choose to work from home, others choose to spend time with their families in Egypt, India or Brazil and work from there.

Of course, we’re also using our own product to address the lack of exercise due to the lockdown of the fitness industry. Many people now stream their workouts directly into their living and work rooms using our live online classes. Regular team events and monthly updates with exercise are now standard in our organization.

Since May 2020, we’ve been cooperating with the nation-wide initiative REDEZEIT für dich. Here, professional coaches offer their ear and donate time to listen to people in difficult life situations. 

From March 1st to 5th, we held a Health Week in cooperation with Techniker Krankenkasse and Barmenia, giving all employees the opportunity to receive training and information during working hours. Some of the topics included:

  • Motivation in digital times
  • Mindfulness in turbulent times
  • Stress reduction exercises
  • Resilience / work-life balance

We communicated all these measures in a specially-made, company-wide Slack channel.

What lessons have you learned after one year of the pandemic?

VUCA is true!

VUCA is a term describing difficult business management conditions and stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

The decisive factor is your mindset: Growth or preserving the status quo?

Do I hold on to the structures I already know or do I look for new structures and adapt to the New Normal? After a year of restrictions, I’ve learned how to counter the increased complexity with better organization. However this takes time and mistakes have to be made in order to develop trust among each other and within identity and structures.

What new skill set should management possess as a result of the pandemic?

From my experience and that of my team, I can say that mental stress has definitely increased. An effective way to counter this is to encourage leadership to balance the three levels of trust, identity and structure. This takes a lot of emotional intelligence, dialogue, communication and positivity. It’s a lot to take on and it takes time to build these skills. 

Many thanks to Dr. Stefan Manns for the interview

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