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How to Support Your Colleagues Right Now: Approaches for Healthier Research Team Dynamics

Breaking through burnout is a team sport. Internal surveys and "venting sessions" can help. 

Words by Nikki Anderson, Visuals by Allison Corr

The physical and mental health of your team is critical. With the entire world feeling burnt out (see my thoughts on this here), many people aren't operating at 100%.

On a good day, I am running at about 60%. The other day, I had some coveted heads down time but was so frazzled I barely made good use of it.

As a research team lead, I acknowledge that if I am feeling this, my team is likely in a similar space.

Recently, I noticed a shift in the people I work with, both inside and outside my full-time job. There is little enthusiasm during meetings, chit-chat is down to a minimum, a let's-just-get-this-done mentality is spreading, and work that used to be stimulating is draining. Even if you try to host a fun team event, teammates might meet it with resistance; no one wants extra screen time.

This feeling of overwhelm and negativity creates tension. People who can typically move past difficulty are struggling, no one wants to take on extra work, and situations get heightened much more quickly than usual.

When these circumstances arise, you have to assess and act quickly. It is challenging to juggle your mental health and your team's mental health and make sure everyone is on track. However, facing this challenge and knowing how your team is feeling is necessary.

Recently, I felt our team falling into a rut. I knew we had to go above and beyond what we were doing to monitor our team's health. We started with the basics and experimented on how to ease the strain.

First, what is team health, and why is it important?

Team health is understanding how a collective group of people is operating and feeling. Google has done extensive research on what makes the team healthy and successful and has highlighted these five main areas:

  1. Psychological safety
  2. Dependability
  3. Structure & clarity
  4. Meaning of work
  5. Impact of work

If you are familiar with team health metrics, you probably recognize these areas already. To measure team health, you typically send out a quarterly survey asking questions around the dimensions above. You can ask questions surrounding:

  • Do team members find a purpose in their work?
  • Does the team understand the team and company goals?
  • How do they view leadership?
  • How is collaboration?
  • Do team members feel autonomous?
  • How are processes impacting the team's work?
  • Are team members having fun?

With this survey, you can get a quick indication of what aspects are going well for the team and which are not. After this survey is complete, you share the results with your team and, ideally, run a workshop. During this workshop, you bring up the lowlights and pinpoint action items to solve them. For instance, if teams feel autonomous but don't have a chance to collaborate, you would sit with the team and brainstorm ideas on how to increase collaboration. This workshop is also a place to understand better why that aspect is low - do some qualitative research!

These metrics and changes are tracked over time so that the team can see progress and improvement or areas for opportunities.

Tracking the team's health in this way is extremely important because a healthy and strong team is the gateway to success. By doing regular checks, teams should be able to:

  • Raise issues and fix them quickly
  • Increase trust and psychological safety within the team
  • Have better relationships between teammates
  • Create a culture of constructive criticism and feedback
  • Share their feelings more easily and frequently

When teammates are in a healthy environment, they can thrive. The teams can work on things that are important to them and also have an impact. They leave work feeling more fulfilled, empowered, and excited for what lays ahead.

If these metrics repeatedly fall to low health or aren't considered, people leave the organization. When you are unclear about goals and expectations, cannot connect with your work, or don't feel psychologically safe, going to work is challenging. Not only does this lead to lower productivity and output, but it can amount to a higher rate of attrition on your team.

Where this starts to break down

If only it were that easy! And sometimes it is! However, during this time (and maybe even in the future), a team health survey and workshop might not be enough.

Recently, we had to tackle this exact scenario. We have a quarterly team health survey that tracks the team health metrics above. After the survey, we have a workshop to identify action items. There are two problems I encountered with this approach:

  1. While the survey questions are valid and sound, they can't get at the root of the issue of why people are feeling a certain way
  2. No one has the capacity for more action items or to-dos, so the workshops felt overwhelming

Our standard plan indicated that people were having a hard time, but trying to take those struggles and turn them into shiny ideas and to-dos was not high on anyone's list. We would have loved to take the numbers and not run a workshop, but that wouldn't solve the problem. There was a lot to tackle and improve, but we didn't know where to begin and how.

What did we do?

We took a new approach. In addition to the survey, which we wanted to measure for quantitative data, we put our user research brains together. While we saw in the numbers that the team was stumbling, we didn't know why. We knew we had to understand correctly what the team was feeling and why.

With this, the idea of the venting session was born.

What is a venting session?

A venting session goes beyond the quantitative survey data and action item workshop. During this session, you allow the team to talk through all their frustrations, obstacles, and problems they have been facing. The point of this session is to give the team breathing room. With remote work, there are fewer instances for people to let out emotions. This venting session is the perfect opportunity to let the team air out anything that comes to mind.

How to set a venting session up

We covered several different areas within our venting session. Since this is the first time I have done something exactly like this, I will offer my experience. However, I encourage you to try it and iterate to make it work for your team!

The venting session was about 90-minutes. We ran our venting session on a remote tool (ex: Miro, Mural) to document the findings and have divergent and convergent working. The workshop included the following topics:

  • How are you feeling? (5-10 minutes) Everyone rated how they were feeling from calm to SOS-status. Give everyone a chance to share - just because people feel calm does not mean they aren't stressed or struggling. Each person talked through their rating. Starting with this rating helped the team understand where everyone was and that they are not alone.
  • Venting session (40 minutes). This part is the central portion of the workshop. For the first 10 minutes, the team worked independently and wrote all of the problems and frustrations they felt regarding work. We spent the remaining 30 minutes with people sharing what they wrote. We made sure everyone had a chance to speak and that there was no "solutionzing" at this point. We asked that everyone actively listen and use the "yes, and" mentality.
  • Discuss 1-2 lowlights from the team health survey (30 minutes). During this time, we focused on one particular lowlight from our team health survey. We asked the team to elaborate on why that was a lowlight. There was some overlap with the venting session, but people did not mind.
  • Highlight some team love (5-10 minutes). We ended the session with everyone writing 1-2 positive aspects of the team so that people left feeling slightly more upbeat.

We probably could have extended the session to two hours, and I will do so the next time. Based on the outcome, I would recommend running this venting session quarterly, along with your standard team health survey. The only time I would consider not running it would be if the team health survey showed glowing results. However, even then, I would open up the decision up to the team.

Our team is fortunate to have the space to talk through these things. This situation might not be applicable at your company, depending on the culture. If you aren't at a company that allows this kind of work, consider moving these sessions to 1x1 talks or other mediums. Regardless of how you do it, it is vital to understand how people feel and why.

The outcomes

I can confidently say this is the first time I have understood team dynamics and problems in-depth. We uncovered so much valuable information in this session. We understood the frustrations the team had been feeling outside of what a survey captures.

With this information, we were able to take away action items that could support the team. For instance, having shared heads down space as a team, creating an out-of-office calendar invite for lunchtime (auto-declining meetings!), and reducing the number of small tasks that add up. The best part? No one wanted to leave the call. The team was vulnerable, and it bonded us in a way that felt like we could tackle the problems together.

We are still working through the list of action items, but there is progress happening, which is most important—letting the team see that we can talk through issues and have resolutions keeps us working through the hard parts together.

Nikki Anderson is a qualitative user experience researcher with about 5 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. Read more of her work on Medium.

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