Is the crisis encouraging teamwork or competition?

May 06, 2020

6 mins

Is the crisis encouraging teamwork or competition?
Coline de Silans

Journaliste indépendante

Since mid-March 2020, many of us have been working in a whole new way. How and where we work has been redefined as we set up offices at home, isolated from the wider world. Our professional relationships have had to evolve and develop too. Not everyone is handling this new solitude in the same way, regardless of whether they work full- or part-time. Some want to communicate more than ever before and stick together during this ordeal. Others find it difficult to manage the stress of feeling isolated. How is the crisis remodeling our social behavior? Is it creating goodwill among staff? Or is it increasing tensions? We checked in with a few people who are working from home and are trying to maintain a connection.

Time management is an issue

For those of us teleworking for the first time, managing the workload and time management, in general, may be an issue. If you usually work in an office, you will be used to having a structure to your days and colleagues to interact with who are physically present. Telework confers quite a lot of autonomy—and it means having to deal with your doubts and questions on your own.

Kevin, an engineer, is putting himself under a lot of pressure. “I am often afraid of not being productive enough while working remotely. It’s different at the office because even if you have a coffee break, you are still “on the clock” and on-site. Working from home makes it hard to see how productive everyone else is being. I have only been in contact with a small number of people. So whenever I feel insecure, I work even harder so I won’t get accused of ‘taking advantage’ of teleworking,” he said. Because of the physical distance, ties between colleagues can become a little weaker, and conversations less frequent. This makes it more difficult to figure out how efficient you are being in comparison to your colleagues. Some people, such as Kevin, “overcompensate”, putting even more pressure on themselves, which they then transfer on to their colleagues.

For Lea, a lawyer, this is her first time teleworking and she is finding it complicated to manage. Although her colleagues are showing a lot of goodwill, it doesn’t seem to help. “As lawyers, we work long hours and hardly ever work from home. So I feel like I have to be available all the time. As soon as I walk away from my computer for two minutes, I feel guilty. We are pulling together as colleagues because this is a new state of affairs for us. So we make a point of keeping in touch with each other or going over things every evening. Nonetheless, I still feel under more pressure than usual because of the constant flow of emails. As soon as I allow myself to take a break, I think that everyone else is probably still working and I feel guilty,” she said.

When you are based in an office, you can see how productive everyone around you is being and position yourself on the scale. When working remotely, you have to decide for yourself if you might be doing too much or not enough. It can also be more difficult to prove that you are working when you should be. That’s why some people can’t help “over-communicating”, which can cause tension among team members.

Feeling inessential creates tension

Caroline, a salesperson at an advertising agency, noticed this happening relatively quickly. “Some colleagues reply to the slightest email, even when they don’t need to, just to prove that they are in front of their computer,” she said. “I think this has created a rather harmful atmosphere, because all of a sudden, we all feel like we have to follow suit in order to show that we are working too. Not only is it time-consuming, but it is also generating a bit of an unhealthy atmosphere, where everyone feels like they are being watched.”

Not everyone handles the loneliness they face while teleworking in the same way. Those who think their job is under threat due to the crisis often try to justify their position in the company by being more responsive. This can be even more the case if they are in a position of power as Charlotte, a social media content manager at an advertising agency, has found. “I don’t really have a direct manager at my company, I have always worked on my own. However, since the lockdown, I have noticed that some of my colleagues, who occupy senior positions are interfering with my work, though they haven’t got a clue about it. The ones doing it seem to be those who always feel the need to make everyone aware of their existence – and they don’t seem to be dealing well with the fact that they can no longer do it physically. So now, they have an opinion all the time, about everything, to prove that they still exist and are still relevant. It is creating a certain amount of tension, which, unfortunately, won’t just disappear after the lockdown ends.”

Claire, an editor at a publishing house, has observed something similar happen. “I have always got on well with my boss, but she has suddenly found herself with a much lighter workload. So she decided to take on some of my work, without actually telling me. It really knocked me back because I felt superfluous—and I thought it was really not on,” she said.

For some people, their job is a big part of their identity and they feel alive only when faced with a heavy workload. The lockdown has shaken things up, however, leaving them feeling helpless. They now have free time but have no idea what to do with it. So they try to make up for it by proving to their colleagues how useful they really are.

Some departments are under more pressure than others

It’s not just the personality that affects how professional relationships are evolving, the type of role those involved hold can be also a major factor. Most of those experiencing an increase in competitiveness during the lockdown seem to have positions directly linked to the financial health of the company.

“My boss is blaming us for the company’s loss of turnover, but it’s not our fault,” said Caroline. “All of a sudden, everyone is feeling under pressure and reporting back as much as possible to prove that they are not the one responsible for what’s going on. Rather than the crisis creating a level of kindness among colleagues, everyone seems to be trying to cover their own backs.”

Laure, a project manager at an advertising agency, has experience of this. “I’ve got a colleague who keeps bombarding me with emails and cc-ing everyone else because we are currently negotiating a new contract with our biggest customer and we know that if this contract doesn’t get signed, some people are going to be laid off. As a result, everyone is trying to save their own skin, and sticking together is clearly no longer a priority,” said Laure.

It can be even more difficult for staff who have no job security to remain supportive, but some are managing it. Some teams remain united despite facing uncertainty, thanks to a company culture that was already based on goodwill and teamwork before the crisis emerged.

Relationships reveal corporate culture

For Camille, who works in HR, her ties to her colleagues have been strengthened. “When the lockdown was announced, we created a WhatsApp group where we check in on each other and send each other videos. We talk about everything except work. Personally, I feel like it has allowed me to get to know some of my colleagues a lot better and feel closer to them than before, because we didn’t work in the same department, and I think that those connections will transcend the lockdown period,” she said.

For Nathalie, a head of public relations, the lockdown has reinforced the company culture that promotes goodwill and teamwork. “I am finding it great because this experience has made us realize that the atmosphere at work wasn’t fake and everyone does really care about each other. For example, we have set up Friday night drinks online with everyone who is currently technically unemployed, because that’s what we did before the lockdown, and it means we are all still spending that time together. We also take account of all the children’s nap times so nobody gets left out.”

However, Elodie, a therapist and a specialist in communication and stress management, says that we should be wary of “fake” kindness. In her opinion, if it was not part of your company’s culture before, why would it be now? That wouldn’t make sense. “Beware of false goodwill,” she said. “Some companies are trying to get through the crisis by giving themselves a ‘veneer’ of kindness in which everyone is talking to each other and making sure that everyone else is okay, but if this concern is not genuine, a lot of people might get a bit of a shock when they get back to the office.”

Whether it has given birth to genuine kindness or has raised tension levels, this crisis will have helped to reveal people’s true personalities and unveil how they really behave when faced with tough circumstances. “I feel like the lockdown has accentuated personality traits that we had already had a glimpse of,” said Charlotte “Personally, credit where credit is due, it’s made me think about where my career is heading at this company. So in the end, I have still managed to gain something from all of this!”

Translated by Mildred Dauvin

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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