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Reflection on Teaching Teamwork During the Pandemic

Updated: Jun 9, 2021

I teach teamwork! More specifically, I teach emerging professionals how to own their strengths, recognize and enable other voices, and connect meaningfully with teammates through trust and shared vulnerability. I teach how to motivate yourself and others, communicate effectively, use resources, gather and maintain connections and innovate. In others words, I create teams that thrive and enjoy each other.

I remember March 12, 2020 as I collected my laptop and a few other belonging to go home, you know, for a 'lil stint. We were on day one of what would become the shut down. I turned off the lights, closed the doors and thought to myself, how I am going to teach teamwork on Zoom? It was relatively easy for me to imagine how you might teach history, English, sociology (not that it wouldn't be hard, but I could imagine it). How was this going to look? My class was a series of challenges with students interacting, face-to-face, often running around to accomplish a goal, writing on large papers that I had hung from the ceiling that showcased what each of them found rewarding or frustrating and many more unusual, completely interactive activities that allowed us to coalesce into a dynamic team within a few weeks.

Well, it was hard. And, it got harder the longer we were on Zoom. The irony is that leadership has to do with the ability to understand yourself well enough to use your strengths to influence others - in other words - motivation. Yet, motivation was at an all time low for most students during the pandemic. How was I going to motivate my normally motivated students to learn how to motivate? I had to shift around some of my challenges to accommodate our boxed in Zoom world, but there was only one challenge that I had to abandon completely. Other student challenges, became challenges for me to innovate around while still ensuring participants got the same opportunity for learning and growth. To grow teams you must really deeply understand your own strengths and those of your teammates'. With this understanding, you can think about how you are going to use it make everyone better, happier - basically, we are doing cognitive empathy, every class. Some of my workshops revolved around students doing personality tests and other assessments. Those work well enough online. But, how about the day when I just give them puzzle pieces in a zip lock bag and say nothing, at all? (This challenge is used very early on to get an initial look at who will want to organize the team? Who will be most concerned that some people can't get their hands on the puzzle? There is never enough room for 15 people to gather around one puzzle simultaneously. Who will want to strategize before they move their puzzle pieces to large table where most people have spilled their pieces moments after receiving their baggies? Who will dare to ask for the puzzle box to know what the puzzle looks like? Who considers themselves a puzzle expert, but never asserts themselves enough to get their hands on the puzzle?) Near the end of the empathy workshop series, how will I replicate the experience of students hanging large easel sized white papers hung up around the room while I play music and they walk around with magic markers in hand and thoughtfully (with some trepidation for fear of being wrong) try to comment on what makes their peers frustrated, happy, rewarded, acknowledged?

So, instead of the puzzle, each student got an email with one line from a logic puzzle - no explanation (it is interesting to see who handles ambiguity best) and one student had the grid that had to be filled in. And, for the white paper challenge, we used Jamboard. Holding my breath at the end of the unit, I wondered if the students had learned enough about each other over zoom to write with accuracy about their new friends' inclinations. Did they grow in empathy like the students who had taken these workshops in person? I would soon see. The difference was undetectable. Students read their Jamboard's comments and found that their peers knew them with amazing accuracy.

They all remarked that this class was a place where they actually made new friends in a year were people often felt isolated. They felt like they knew and appreciated their classmates. They learned who was a perfectionist, and who likes to be observe before offering their ideas. They learned who prefers to be supportive from the sidelines, and who likes to make plans before getting off the starting block. They learned who feared the unknown, and who embraced it. Through fun, but also important activities they learned to dig deep into cognitive empathy to learn what each of their classmates bought to the team. Now, could they use that knowledge in the teamwork challenges that came next to ensure everyone felt seen, heard, and their strengths valued? They came to recognize that it was everyone's job to lift the team by giving people opportunities to do what they love, while also being cognizant of what was going to frustrate their teammates, and finding ways to support each other through those times. They learned that teamwork is joyful when you like and can be vulnerable with your team. They learned that real leaders enable others' voices, and they learned that when everyone's voice is included, the outcomes and the process are so much better. They learned the same things the class learned when they were in person, but it was all the more poignant, because they needed the connection so much more.

Why is this important? Remote work isn't going away. It existed prior to COVID forcing us all into our homes. With technology it isn't odd to find people working across the globe from their teammates. During COVID, lots of people found that they were not only productive from home, but enjoyed the freedom it created. Adam Grant recently stated: To the leaders trying to cancel all remote work: did you forget when we made it work during a pandemic? Productivity is about purpose and process, not place. It's driven by why and how we work—not where we work. Flexibility is here to stay. Those who reject it may not be." So, remote teams are here to stay, but what people don't like is feeling disconnected from their teammates. Everyone wants to feel part of something. Everyone wants to be seen, known and appreciated. Ten people on a field or in a department, may technically be called a team, but not all teams are winners, and not all teams keep their players. And, turnover is a major disrupter to a team's fluidity and outcomes. It is possible to create remote teams that not only accomplish objectives, but enjoy and trust one another - feel seen and known. These teams are going to be more motivated and successful. It is easy to focus on the outcome, winning the game, producing a proposal, creating the widget, but if you focus on growing a team, not only will you accomplish your goals with more frequency, but you will have teammates who have the intrinsic reward of loving the work they are doing and the people they are doing it with.

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