Working in grassroots organizations or freelance activities are not always our primary business. Many people, including us, the authors of this article, want to do more for the world than just do a full-time job – we work after hours. We’ve had plenty of after-hours teamwork experiences, so we want to share today what we’ve learned along the way.
A grant-funded project? Social campaign? A guided process for incubating and developing an idea? Or a start-up we believe will be successful? We very often develop such initiatives in teams. Such was our case as well: we cooperated as part of the Sector 3.0 Fund, under which we were developing an idea for an app. We operated remotely, as a dispersed team, in between our other side activities, facing many challenges along the way.
In this article you will learn
- about the project team development stages,
- what to pay attention to at each stage of your work
- and you will find some useful tips on how to manage after-hours cooperation.
Team work dynamics
The team may be made up of people we already know and have worked with, and sometimes new members join who want to get involved in a particular initiative. The clash of different needs, availability, or motivations can present quite a challenge for good cooperation. As you have surely noticed, working in a team is far from being linear, it goes through distinct stages – we behave differently at the beginning of the group process, differently in the middle, and still differently at the end. This was highlighted in the 1960s by Bruce Tuckman, who defined 5 stages in the “life” of teams:
Several other researchers have noted that not all stages must or will always occur in the order listed. However, it is worthwhile to have a point of reference.
What should you pay attention to when working together as a team at different stages of work so that you can successfully and smoothly achieve your common goal? Here are a handful of handy tips.
FORMING – first steps of a new team
Teams can be formed due to various reasons: a grant received and the need to select specialists, new people wanting to get involved in the organization, or taking part in a training course where teams are selected according to a fixed set of rules.
According to Tuckman’s model, the forming stage is characterized by: caution, uncertainty, seeking direction, and apparent conflict avoidance. Team members often test their limits, their messages are not always direct, and they analyze their role and the tasks to be done. During this stage, a leader is often relied upon and the main messages are directed to him or her. Team members strive to get to know each other and establish initial rules for cooperation.
While seeking specialists to join the team, it is worth paying attention not only to their knowledge, but also soft skills and ability to cooperate and communicate properly.
You can catch up with knowledge very quickly, while with soft skills sometimes it can be harder. Regardless of whether you decide on the make-up of the team or the decision was made by someone from outside, it is a good idea to organize an ice-breaking meeting at the very beginning of the cooperation, during which you will talk about:
- your motivation to participate in a specific activity,
- time availability to complete tasks,
- the role assigned to each of you,
- individual needs in cooperation and communication,
- types of activities you are comfortable with,
- what is important to you when working together,
- potential challenges and obstacles,
- what may annoy you and what you may annoy others with.
At such a meeting, we recommend that you use the tool Team canvas, developed by Alex Ivanov and Mitya Voloshchuk as a response to the need to reflect on the topic of teamwork and team culture. The canvas is based on team values and goals: people and roles, shared goals, personal goals, team purpose, values, strength and resources, vulnerability and risk, needs and expectations, rules and actions.
How to use Team Canvas?
Whether you are forming a new team, starting a short project, or welcoming a new group member, choose Team Canvas Basic. It includes questions about goals, values, roles and skills, as well as rules governing the team work. It takes about 25-30 minutes to complete. The second option is the more elaborate Team Canvas model, recommended for longer projects. It enables you to make sure your team performs well, team members are satisfied and free of stress and conflict. This exercise takes about 2 hours.
We suggest starting with the basic version, preparing the necessary tools to fill the canvas (template printout, cards, pens). While working remotely, you can place the template file e.g. on Miro and share the link for the entire team. Keep in mind a stopwatch to measure time. A sample workshop scenario can be found here.
During the session, it is a good idea to choose a meeting moderator who will ensure that the rules and the discussion are followed. Recap your work and lessons learned at the end of the session, and then have each of you say the single most important thing you take away from doing this exercise. It is valuable for everyone to leave the meeting convinced of a better understanding of other team members and how the team functions as a whole. It may be helpful to place the completed canvas in a place freely accessible to group members.
We also recommend that you determine from the very beginning which tools you will use during the on-line cooperation, where the most important information and documents for the project will be located and what channels will be used for the primary communication. For us, during the incubation process, very useful instrument was the Asana platform, where we shared tasks and added comments to them, set deadlines for tasks and compiled the key files and links.
The forming stage doesn’t end right after the first meeting and initial agreement on the rules of cooperation. Only when members feel more confident with each other enough to allow themselves to be more honest and open in their statements will there be a shift from “me” to “we”-based thinking. When team members feel that they share a common purpose, the stage one is completed.
STORMING – time of crisis
As the group evolves comes a stage that resembles a teenage storm, with various task and interpersonal conflicts. You can tell the storming stage by the way people start to show and explore differences between them. They begin to talk frankly about various topics instead of limiting themselves to “nodding off.” The initial excitement that accompanies the launch of a project and cooperation may escalate into frustration, for example. Conflicts and attacks can be directed at the team leader, at each other, or at the project itself. At times, team members compete with each other. Demonstrating the ability to communicate and respond to conflicts early on is crucial at this stage.
It’s worth paying attention to whether the issues team members are arguing about are the true source of the conflict. Therefore, it is important to allow space for honesty and constructive criticism during the dialogue. Certainly “face to-face” meetings between the leader and individual team members will be useful, as not everyone may feel comfortable enough to discuss things they don’t like in the presence of other team members.
Sometimes roles and responsibilities within the team are not yet clear, which can lead to work overload or frustration over the lack of progress. It is then advisable to use the expanded Team Canvas template to jointly remind yourself of the goals you have set. When organizing team meetings, be sure to ask about the vibes and attitudes. If it turns out that something is wrong, seek a solution together right away so that conflict doesn’t escalate and team members feel like they are being listened to.
NORMING – we define the rules of cooperation
We move on to the next stage – norming. Over time and as the team advances toward its self-defined goal, a formative stage emerges, reminiscent of a young adult, in which members begin to learn how to work together effectively. At the norming stage, one can observe smoother, calmer communication and the team’s focus on the task.
This stage is free from sudden outbursts of emotion since the differences between individuals have been resolved or they no longer pose a problem since they have been accepted as such. Group members are able to find meaningful, productive compromises and establish rules for cooperation. Team roles have been clearly defined and related expectations are known. As the team begins to really work together, the general team spirit improves.
At this stage, there is a growing sense of responsibility for the outcome of the entire group, so the leader may slowly transfer responsibility for the project to team members by becoming a facilitator. However, one must be careful that the team does not return to the storming stage, which would necessitate intervention.
If that doesn’t happen, which we wish for all of you, there comes the performing stage, i.e. the Holy Grail of teamwork.
PERFORMING – effective teamwork
This is a time when the team already knows a lot about each other, and the first crisis has probably already been resolved. You already know more or less what to expect from each other. Organizational matters have also been mostly settled. Many of the tasks no longer need to be supervised, controlled, or scheduled – they happen on their own, based on what team members agreed on at earlier stages.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? Remember, though, not to be fooled by the appearance of control and organization. While the team may already be somehow consolidated, you may still happen to be climbing uphill. As a team, you are still exposed to threats and risks you have already faced before. You don’t know for sure how your project will develop. Keep an eye on the rhythm you have developed so far. Get feedback on your activities on a regular basis. Meet up, set tasks, and discuss them so that all the time you feel like a team that knows where it’s going. For us, more frequent, yet shorter meetings have worked well at this stage. We found that it was easier to call each other every other day for half an hour than once a week for 3 hours.
It’s also a good idea to ask each other about their mood/attitude and energy levels. Discuss together what works well and what could work better. What you have in abundance and what is missing. For this purpose, you may want to use the retrospective methods used in agile working methodologies. If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, don’t worry. Just use the ready-made prompts. You can read more on how to conduct such meetings here.
ADJOURNING – time for goodbyes and recaps/feedbacks
Have you reached a set goal? Or have you decided it’s not for you? Completing cooperation is a stage that can involve a lot of emotions. If you have reached a common goal, team members may, on one hand, feel satisfied, fulfilled, or relieved, while on the other hand, there may be sadness followed by a sense of longing for the shared activity. Use this time to recap the cooperation with your team, reflect on what went well and what you would do differently next time.
We recommend that you write down the lessons learned and put them in a shared folder, which may be useful for future projects.
If you’ve been working well together, this might also be the right time to think about the future and talk about the next activities you’d like to do together. Even if the collaboration was difficult at times, it is worth parting with positive emotions. You never know if your career paths might cross again one day.
How to successfully complete a project after hours – our 5 tips
1. Know and understand your team
What motivates team members? Changing the world, or perhaps a desire to share an interesting solution with the general public? What work rhythm works best for you? Late at night, after dealing with household chores, or maybe you’ve been working full-time since dawn and have no energy left in the evening? Make sure you figure all this out as soon as possible, as it makes working together much easier.
2. Take advantage of technology solutions that make your work easier
We suggest you look at it this way: you have a lot of work ahead of you, so use technology (in meetings, sharing tasks, getting feedback, etc.) as a a means to achieve your goal.
3. Debrief your team and monitor the team spirit from time to time
The peace can be the calm before the storm. To prevent this from happening, talk honestly about your needs, joys and frustrations, listen to yourself and ask lots of questions.
4. Speak honestly – praise, criticize, and just step back when necessary
Celebrate both small and bigger successes. Address any potential conflicts and frustrations to nip them in the bud. If you no longer feel the excitement, the team’s vision has drifted away from your motivations, or you simply don’t have the time, allow yourself to step back. Sometimes the sooner you do it, the better.
5. End the cooperation in a relaxed yet reflective mood
Time to say goodbye? Make sure that your hard work will not be just a memory. You will certainly collect a lot of material, notes, photos, slides. Agree where and on what terms they will be available for the future. Summarize what you have accomplished together and talk about what could have been done better.
Thank you for reading and we keep our fingers crossed for your teams’ effective performance!