Starting up or changing up — we’ve talked about the importance of teams before. It’s a truism that much of our success, enjoyment and satisfaction at work comes from those we work with.
Sharing the adventure of something that matters with engaged teammates is the holy grail for many businesses, especially startups. But holier yet? The flexible team. Building that dynamic group of individuals to join you on the journey in today’s shifting workplace isn’t so straightforward.
You may have guessed that there is no one formula; indeed, our understanding of what a team is has to be flexible too.
You’ll read about ‘scrum’ teams that learn together by reflecting on the road’s twists and turns. Or Kanban Post-it process boards to chart every step and pitch. Are great teams marching together or Slack-happy nomads?
The truth is, any of these styles and techniques can work, we just need the right route plan, supplies and rest breaks.
So, what are the essential elements of building flexible teams?
It all starts with the people or rather, the personalities. The saying “there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’” is hackneyed for a reason. This is especially true with the changing nature of flexible teams. Provide a clear guideline and requirements familiar to everyone in the company — but the rules stop there.
Your travellers should be able to handle the ambiguity that comes with flexibility, underpinned by a vision of the destination. Your brand values will provide boundaries. They’ll add to this their pride in everyone’s contributions and successful outcomes; all empowered by being in control of their own path.
Team members should be capable collaborators and ‘managers’ should be trusting leaders. Whether you choose to walk in front or beside your team is often based on those you’ve hired.
2. Lead by example
As we’ve hinted at, however agile and able your team members, someone’s got to steer the ship. Even the most hands-off, democratic captain needs to set goals that inspire — the most effective for team-building being ones that require all hands on deck.
Furthermore, you should lead flexible by being flexible. It sets a tone and example, as well as helping you understand people’s varying pressures and priorities. They chose to freelance to live a certain lifestyle and leaders will do well to embrace that, not fight it. Seeking and responding to feedback builds trust, which emanates among the team. ‘Trust’ being the operative word. Without regular face to face interaction, a new type of trust must be nurtured. Trust that your team is putting in the work. Trust that they reach out to you when they require help. At the heart of this trust is open and honest — often online — communication.
A leader should see their successes reflected along with their lessons.
3. Open all hours?
Whether it’s preferable or not, physical proximity just isn’t a given — or even possible — in today’s workplace. And there’s certainly a case to be made for letting talent take the lead rather than geography.
Playing timezone match-up, hurdling language barriers and building rapport without those “catch you on the stairs” moments are all challenges for the flexible team. Suggested solutions here are mainly practical but often drop off the map to save time and money.
- Invest in software that includes video functionality. Whether that’s Slack, Zoom or WhatsApp, get comfortable with video calls — they’re the closest thing we have to in-person communication. Most freelancers under the age of 30 have zero hangups about video calls; it’s an essential soft skill for leaders.
- Maximise the ‘golden hours’ when working hours overlap across time zones.
- Blogs and newsletters strictly for team (not wider business or industry) updates.
- Schedule catch-ups that go ahead without fail, even if it’s just to chat.
- Never underestimate how many times you need to communicate a message.
- A space for casual chat that isn’t about business. Nurture a digital watercooler culture so your team can have a bit of fun, inspire or share experiences with fellow nomads.
All locations are at least one team member’s primary workplace.
4. Skill and be skilled
Teams will always have specialists and generalists; mechanics and mappers on the journey. And that needn’t change. However, the level-up for flexible teams is to make everyone a bit of both. By sharing skills and mentoring, teams bond and find new routes more effectively.
It’s not just about productivity and empowerment. Pooling skills and responsibilities stops any one member becoming a weak bridge and single point of failure: the brittle enemy of flexible teams.
Knowledge is a shared commodity, not a precious keepsake.
5. Time to grow
Patience is perhaps the hardest pill to swallow on the agile, business-first race to the top of the mountain. Much like individuals, teams need to put in the hard yards over time — which might also seem incompatible with flexibility.
However, Bruce Tuckman, the American psychological researcher and author, probably said it best and with the most hope for flexible teams. According to Tuckman, all groups go through four development stages:
- Forming: a lot of input and direction from the leader; roles are unclear
- Storming: movement and shake-ups as blurry relationships settle
- Norming: beginning to understand, commit and optimise
- Performing: flowing between creativity and strategy with little supervision
Avoiding an unfavourable comparison with a wind-up toy, reversion can occur with twists in the road. However, it’s actually this dynamism which allows for flexibility and those essential lessons.
Growth occurs when you allow the core to get strong while you make changes at the edges.
Taking the road less travelled
Whether you’re at a fork or just setting off, the path to success can be unpredictable. Before you make tracks, seek out the right travel companions.
There might not be obvious shortcuts and Roman roads in your future. However, trusting, investing in and showing your team the way will make for a much smoother — and more enjoyable — journey. Get in touch with our team at Freelancer Club to see how we can help you develop your flexible freelance team.