Reflections on Team Development During the COVID-19 Era, by Roger Jenkins, SVS Vice President and Technical Director

2020 has been a remarkable year thus far, presenting new challenges to businesses around the world, not only incurring significant impacts, but opportunities to change established paradigms as well. The COVID-19 outbreak has dramatically changed how businesses operate (or in some unfortunate situations, do not operate), and how employees engage.

In the past five months, many employees have begun working outside the traditional office. Some are working remotely full-time, and others on rotating schedules, splitting their time between the office and their home environments. This dramatic shift has had many consequences, but one of those that I find most interesting, personally, is that it has changed the fundamental meaning of being ‘present’ in the workplace, as well as how it affects the formation and development of teams working together to accomplish a goal.

Over the past two weeks, I have had the pleasure of forming a new team comprised of both organic Semper Valens employees, as well as employees provided by our trusted partners, to engage in a short-duration, high-intensity, software development effort. Pre-COVID, this effort would have likely included travel to a central location, including all the attendant costs and logistics associated with undertaking pulling a team together. We would have then huddled in a room and got to know each other and addressed the task at hand. Not all that unusual of a situation six months ago – completely normal.

In the COVID era, the paradigm has shifted; the team members work remotely, most geographically separated by several time zones. We interact via Microsoft Teams, Slack, email, collaboration in Azure DevOps, and via text messages and phone calls.

Having formed many teams over the years, I know that it can be challenging even under ideal conditions. I am sure that many of you are familiar with Bruce Tuckman’s five-stage team development process: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Adjourning (if not, a web search is in order).

It was with some trepidation (and a large amount of excitement, I love creating software!), that I started this project a couple of weeks ago. I was fully anticipating working my way through the five stages of team development, complicated by not being able to talk face-to-face with the team, and concerned about what that may do to my team’s rapport, productivity, and the project schedule.

Two weeks in, everything is going well, and the team is incredibly productive. The typical conflict that arises during the Storming stage was completely skipped. We went directly from Forming to Norming, then Performing, and the team – though spread all over the country – works very closely and their productivity is phenomenal.

The other side-effects are also interesting. We didn’t have to disrupt the team’s lives too much (it is an intense project that does require some dedicated effort), but we didn’t have to pull the team members from their families, we didn’t have to spend a significant amount of money on travel, and we didn’t have to establish a team work area.

Obviously, forming one project team does not provide a decent sample size to understand whether this very pleasant team development/formation result should be directly attributed to an all-remote team. But it certainly is enjoyable to skip the Storming stage and get down to what we all enjoy, creating software for great customers. Rest assured, my outlook on an all-remote team has changed significantly, and I’ll definitely entertain forming a team in such a fashion in the future.

I’ll be sad when it comes time to Adjourn the team, but as many of you know, doing quality work often results in a greater demand for more great work, and I’ll almost assuredly work with this team again on other projects in the future.