Workplaces and the way we function within them have been altered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but to what extent? A university study looks at the way life changed for employees, as well as what a post-pandemic work environment may look like.
The study, “Student Teamwork During COVID-19: Challenges, Changes, and Consequences,” was conducted by a team of researchers at Florida Tech’s Institute for Cross Cultural Management led by psychology associate professor Jessica Wildman. The paper, published in the journal Small Group Research in April, examined the impact of the pandemic on collaborative project teams, given that team-based work structures are more prominent in today’s organizations.
The research consisted of soliciting responses from student team members working in project teams 16 weeks or longer in upper-level undergraduate courses. Projects included capstone engineering design projects that involved multiple phases including development, design review, system fabrication and testing, and psychological research projects. The team members were asked how their team interactions and work processes changed during the pandemic, including when and how they met and communicated.
Using a final dataset of 90 responses from 65 participants, the research team discovered three key points from the work. The first was that team members experienced various challenges and specific obstacles due to the shift to online teamwork, as well as changes to the team’s tasks, roles, and communication, either forced or discretionary, that the members experienced either because of the shift online or due to the challenges encountered.
Secondly, the research saw consequences from the shift online to the overall progress and outcomes of the team. Many team members reported a variety of problems that made it difficult for effective teamwork during the pandemic. One student noted that they were sharing their computer with multiple other family members that also needed to complete work and school duties from home. Lastly, team members also reported logistical challenges created by being in different regions across the globe, which resulted in some team members being unable to travel back to campus due to stay-in-place orders. This caused challenges, as one team member noted, as their group had to change meeting times because team members were now spread across multiple time zones.
Wildman said the quicker these teams were able to identify and grapple with these challenges, the quicker they found success with their work.
While there were high-stress situations and ambiguity brought on by the new work environment and the uncertainty of the pandemic, the different setting unexpectedly brought along some positive work situations for some.
“We noticed some interesting dynamics, both positive and negative, in terms of teams having to shift their entire task and reorient their project around a new goal,” Wildman said “Also, sometimes teams were losing contact with some members but actually gaining better contact with others because those individuals were initially having a hard time with making face-to-face meetings work and now it was easier to connect now that they were online.”
As an organizational psychologist, Wildman consults with various businesses and has seen her students go on to work with consulting firms and other organizations. She noted that jobs that were once seen as unable to be done online were now being done quite successful remotely. While there are some elements of organizational life that are missing from telework, a blend of two may be beneficial for employers and employees.
“As a teamwork researcher, a good chunk of what happens in a team is about the actual tasks being done, but there is also a heavy social component,” Wildman said. “To enable a high performing team, team members need to know each other as people for those interpersonal dynamics to work. It’s that social piece that builds cohesion and shared understanding that is missing in remote work settings, so I think what’s going to stick will be more flexible, hybrid teleworking kinds of situations. In fact, the students I’ve had going out into the consulting workforce recently are seeing more and more job postings where hybrid, and even fully remote, options are on the table.”