Supporting teams through testing times

Steve Macaulay and David Buchanan tell TJ why team work is the best way through difficult times.

As the covid-19 pandemic continues to ravage the globe, key workers such as in the NHS and care workers, plus those in essential services such as medical, pharmaceutical and logistical sectors have been praised for their steadfast and dutiful approach. As lockdown eases, employees in all organisations are working hard to meet the challenges of these testing times.

What lies behind their work is often teamworking within a focused working structure, practices and skills that are necessary to deliver sometimes extraordinary acts in these times. In such circumstances, team working and team leadership skills can be stretched to their limits. This is where HR and L&D can make a valuable contribution to their organisation right now.

Importantly, strong teams are being tasked with picking up and responding to many of the issues in this dynamic environment. The flexibility and skills of those involved are critical, but also strains and weaknesses in the organisation are likely to come to the fore and need to be addressed.

This article focuses on team working during these difficult times, which is often taking a visible and prominent role, either through operational teams or newly installed task teams.

Why team working is critical

Teams are an effective means to problem solve, create solutions, motivate their members and deliver results. This has been well-proven over many years and today is being amply demonstrated, as many organisations address a wide range of challenging problems and situations.

Experienced team leaders also know that some team work can go off track, with unclear goals, with roles and responsibilities overlapping or unfulfilled and insufficient scope and authority given to team members.

Teams are an effective means to problem solve, create solutions, motivate their members and deliver results.

At its worst teams can fall apart, with low morale and infighting. HR and L&D can provide an effective resource to teams by offering their skills and guidance so that teams step up to work well, with positive outcomes.

Selecting and integrating new team members

In some sectors, particularly the NHS and retail sectors, new staff have typically had to be drafted in, either externally or internally, to reinforce existing numbers or to meet new demands. For example, in the NHS, people from other wards have been redeployed and teams set up to test and implement aspects of covid-19.

This places an immediate requirement for new employees to quickly get up to speed and to gel and work together. Working alongside line management, HR and L&D can be invaluable in identifying key team skills and knowledge requirements and devising means to achieve team proficiency in short order.

Effective team working

The ability to solve problems in a team context and share information in a supportive way becomes essential. Teams are well placed to work in a concerted manner, as individuals and across teams. In more settled times, there is space to work through issues. However, where time is of the essence, new situations can easily provoke conflict and pressure and lead to mistakes.

HR and L&D can help support teams, for example by facilitating team meetings to work through issues in a constructive and pragmatic way and to assist the team to develop ways which work will work for them in carrying out their enlarged or changed roles.


Often teams are now working in a dispersed way working from home which considerably adds to the difficulties in working in a concerted and smooth manner. HR and L&D can help advise and coach team members on how to make the most of what may well be an unfamiliar means of communication.

Leading the team

In this time of change and disruption, leaders of teams are a key part of often heightened activity. Leaders need to draw on multiple skills. For example, resource management is vital in developing necessary infrastructure, IT, equipment and physical facilities.

In pressured times, maintaining improvements, meeting targets, monitoring dashboards will also be important. L&D can do much to underpin and enhance their work in a supportive manner.

In particular, the people and team components are highly important, with the need to foster working relationships, maintain motivation and morale, promote communications and encourage new learning.

Relationships beyond the team must also be considered, managing external partnerships and relationships, across the wider community and maintaining the quality of the customer or patient experience, even as the day-to-day task seems overwhelming.

Setting up task forces to tackle the crisis

Some organisations are successfully setting up focused task forces with wide discretion to tackle issues arising from the impact of coronavirus. Below are some cases which illustrate how effective this can be:

Team case study: Liberia Ebola team network

In Liberia in July 2014, Ebola was spiralling out of control, with the highest number of cases in West Africa. An empowered specialist team network, called an Incident Management System network, was set up with small focused task teams dealing with such issues as case management, epidemiology, and safe burials.

It proved highly successful, cutting through bureaucracy and traditional organisations and reporting directly to the President. Setting up and operating such teams cuts through traditional structures. It required a network of leaders and people working with wide discretion and communicating regularly throughout the network.

These networks were co-ordinated but not heavily centrally controlled. Special qualities were required for such leaders and teams, such as the ability to learn quickly and respond; taking action and not getting diverted by making the odd mistake; listening to others and working co-operatively across boundaries.

Team case study: Formula 1 teams build ventilator prototypes

In the early days of rapidly scaling up the acquisition of new ventilators for patients suffering seriously from covid-19, the UK government asked teams who normally build and develop Formula One racing cars to build prototype ventilators. Teams worked in a fast and concerted fashion in close cooperation, using their unique skills to source materials globally, re-engineer and build rapid prototypes. Whilst their design proposals were later stood down, it is a testament to the team skills displayed that they were able to respond in such an agile way.

One of the key aspects of a successful Formula 1 team is the way they all work together. Professor Mark Jenkins at Cranfield School of Management sees the links with business teams: ‘Successful Formula 1 organisations are true teams’. He observes that the pit stop teams display the best in teamwork: a common purpose, mutually accountable and sharing, supporting and learning together.

Team Case Study: Teamwork and Leadership in the British Army

The British Army is heavily involved in many aspects of the current crisis, building hospitals, transporting equipment and contributing medically such as through testing. This requires working in unfamiliar situations and co-operating with many agencies. Army teams are often well-trained, benefiting from a stable workforce and able to work with other organisations.

Gone are old-style, detailed one-way orders from HQ, with little explanation, now Army teams operate against common principles with only the end clearly defined and the necessary rationale described. Army teams now decide how best to proceed with the agreed aim in mind. Leadership is through building trust, not keeping distance from troops.

What does this crisis mean for L&D?

In today’s upheaval, HR and L&D can contribute much by getting close to both operational and task force teams who need support to deliver results to help them make sense of the new and unfamiliar environment and undertake new tasks.

This will often mean L&D working in a coaching and facilitating way with individuals and their teams, using their skills and experience of facilitating change to help the organisation work through the challenges which crop up.

Concise reviews for team effectiveness

L&D can play a significant role in assisting teams to set up and review some key aspects how they can be effective in changed times. The reviews need not be lengthy, but they should systematically consider how the team works and how it can improve and change, perhaps, for example, working through a short checklist addressing a series of critical questions, for example:

  • Are we all clear on our new purpose and roles?
  • What are our strengths that we can build upon?
  • What are our weaknesses that we should address?
  • What do we now need to be successful?
  • What might hinder us or derail us-and how do we tackle these?
  • What are our timescales?


As the covid-19 crisis continues, teams will often be central to dealing effectively with many of the pressing issues facing their organisations. L&D will recognise that they can do much to support the work of these teams as they try to understand the new context and to operate effectively as they adopt new and relevant approaches.  


About the authors

Steve Macaulay is an associate at Cranfield University’s centre for executive development. David Buchanan is emeritus professor of organisational behaviour at Cranfield University



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