Covering Coronavirus: Tips, best practices and programs

What phase has your remote team entered?

Advice from Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership

There’s a classic theory about the life cycle of teams. The late psychology professor Bruce Tuckman coined these memorable terms for team development way back in 1965, and they’re taught to this day:

  • Forming – the group gets going, identifies roles, goals and responsibilities; there’s lots of energy
  • Storming – reality hits; not everything works, people get frustrated with each other and become skeptical of goals; without good leadership the team can flounder
  • Norming – things are sorted out, systems are fine-tuned, people settle into habits and feel comfortable with the work and with each other
  • Performing – the team hits its stride, people are competent and confident; there’s pride in accomplishment

Consider those four steps as they apply to your colleagues who made a near-overnight jump from working in a newsroom to working from home. Remote teams are a different breed, using new tools, communication and workflows. 

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For your newborn remote team, the initial “forming” phase probably involved an emphasis on being hardy, adaptable, and mission-driven. “We’re all in this together as we work it out” was a common theme. Everyone improvised, shared tips and cut each other some slack as they did the best with what they had.

Now, weeks into the new reality, it’s time for leaders to check on the status of their teams. Have they started storming? Are people getting discouraged or burned out? Are some people carrying too much of a load? Do they feel they’re being supported? Ignored? Exploited?

Or are they norming? Have they settled into a good rhythm that allows them to be self-directed with your support? 

Are they performing? How do you know? If they’re rock stars, have you told them how well they’re doing? Your words matter.

Later in his career, Tuckman added one more phase to team development: adjourning. It’s the time when teams wrap up a project or program and need to move on. It’s  a moment that needs to be managed well, because people feel bad about letting go of a successful operation.

At some point, today’s displaced teams will return to their communal work spaces. They’ll bring with them memories of problems they hated and quite possibly, new ideas and habits they don’t want to lose. 

Smart leaders are preparing now for that important moment: the day their teams will be re-forming into an even stronger, smarter, more tightly-knit force.

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