Together apart

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Case study

6 May 2020

The ‘good’ kind of team culture can bring people together. Common interests, insights, and in-jokes pull different people into a cohesive group.

(The ‘bad’ kind of team culture starts growing in George’s forgotten coleslaw at the back of the fridge. It soon spreads to the front of the fridge with other-George’s note about how they’re not anyone’s fairy godmother…)

But as teams move out of offices and into home kitchens/living rooms/studies-for-those-of-us-lucky-enough, team culture has also shifted.  

‘Be kind to yourself and others’ is the new mantra across the globe. We asked public servants how they’re putting this into practice in their virtual workplaces.

Key innovation principles

  • small but thoughtful efforts reap major rewards
  • don’t wait, do it now and see what happens

Bite-sized yoga

Oiyu Yeung has been practicing yoga for more than a decade and is now remotely sharing her poses with colleagues in our department.

For 10 minutes during a lunch break every day, Oiyu invites us to down tools, take a breath and stretch under her gentle command over Skype for Business.

‘It’s a time to take a brief moment that’s just for ourselves in what’s often a hectic day,’ says Oiyu. ‘Yoga teaches us to respect how we’re feeling, and to move forward in a gentle and considerate way. It also serves to iron out any physical niggles and doing it together helps us to feel supported.’

Oiyu says the feedback to her sessions has been overwhelmingly positive. ‘I get a lot of thank you mail,’ she says. ‘I find it rewarding to do something small to help.’

Oiyu’s tips for others wanting to be a remote yoga guide are:

  • teach others safely
  • experiment with your technology so you can be seen and heard while stretching
  • find a time that works best for the majority

Namaste Oiyu!

Little acts of kindness

It’s not just a time to be kind to ourselves but also to others. The communication team at the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources collects and shares the kind actions of staff – like Andy who keeps a stash of ice creams for people still working on level 8, and Karen who customises PowerPoints for birthdays.

Mike Holberton and Louise Cowie tell us that ‘Be Kind’ is part of a bigger internal COVID-19 communication campaign, but it was really borne out of the need to remind people that ‘we’re all in this together’, as the tag line goes.

‘Everyone reacts differently to change. We knew some staff were feeling really isolated and we wanted to make sure they felt supported when we had to transition to remote working so quickly,’ says Louise.

‘We wanted to remind people that we’re all human and that little acts of kindness go a long way.’

The rapid engagement with the weekly Be Kind series has surprised the team.

‘Normally, it would take a while for contributions to start flowing but we got an instant response,’ says Louise.

Mike believes that it has to do with the natural feel of the campaign. ‘Nominating someone for a nice deed makes people feel good,’ he says. ‘And we invite people to share a short story in their own voice. It’s personal.’

Their simple advice for anyone wanting to do something similar is ‘just give it a go’.

Witty words

Over at the Australian Tax Office, Susie Ellis is testing out her comedic and writing skills with a daily blog for her geographically dispersed branch, delivered through Microsoft Teams.

Her Fun Factory blog comprises a daily pun (for example, ‘Never make plans with a croissant. They’re flaky…’), a 20 second song to wash your hands to, and a special segment ranging from a make-the-most-outrageous-moustache challenge, to mid-week mindfulness suggestions and TED talks.

As the Executive Assistant to the Branch Head, Susie wants to contribute to keeping their very sociable branch connected. ‘I want to brighten people’s day and help them stay sane while working remotely and looking after kids and pets as well,’ says Susie.

‘My inspiration came from the Taskmaster show in the UK where comedians are set a crazy challenge, and from my own need for a bit of inspiration and entertainment each day,’ she claims.

‘My advice for similar blogs is to make it as fun as possible.’

Having read a couple, we’re slightly envious we’re not on the newsletter (and we know something of funny newsletters…)

Buddy up

Janet Pritchard from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority was inspired to set up a new Buddy System for directors when social distancing measures were introduced.

‘Our organisation was already spread out across the country so we transitioned pretty smoothly to working remotely,’ says Janet. ‘But I found there was a need for managers to support each other and share tips about how to keep their teams motivated.

‘Our new Buddy System grew organically and has remained informal—that way, it’s more human and real,’ Janet adds.

‘We’re trialling it for six months. Directors self-nominate and are paired with a buddy. They then get together and decide how and when they’re going to meet, share and support each other.

‘They are accountable for making the relationship work – we are simply the match-makers.’

But buddying up doesn’t stop there at the MDBA. Janet’s colleague, Vicki Woodburn, has been encouraging a different type of matching – the bouncing baby photo to the serious senior executives (and others).

It’s as simple as asking people to submit a baby photo, compiling them into an email and sending out together with a list of names. Then it’s up to the recipient to match the photo to the person.  

‘It’s a bit of fun and people love it,’ says Vicki. ‘It’s about humanising our colleagues, connecting us on a level beyond the work we do. It’s been really popular.’

Vicki’s advice to driving a baby photo challenge is to give it a try and see where it leads.

Take care

Google has put together research on what contributes to whether or not a team is high performing. The number one factor was psychological safety. So while some of these ideas can feel a little odd, or off-to-the-side, taking care of your team’s culture is important.

And more importantly, it’s fun. Which is something we all need a bit more of right now.

Read more

See also

The Public Sector Innovation Network (PSIN) was an Australian government network helping public servants understand and apply innovation in their daily work. PSIN ceased on 8 January 2021.

See more PSIN resources or read about PSIN on the National Library of Australia Trove archive.