Rosni Abdullah & Caroline Vandenabeele - Oct 01 2021
How Education Pathways to Peace Built and Strengthened its Team Remotely

The Education Pathways to Peace team 

According to the International Labour Organisation, nearly 68 percent of the world’s total workforce, including 81 percent of employers are currently living in countries with recommended or required workplace closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And for many, while remote working isn’t a permanent solution, it’s a reality most organisations must contend with for the time being.

But what does it mean for teams accustomed to working together or a new team just getting to know each other? How can they be cohesive and still deliver results?

The Education Pathways to Peace in Mindanao project recently navigated these exact issues while the pandemic played out in the Philippines. “Pathways”, in partnership with the Australian Government and Government of the Philippines, works to provide quality inclusive kindergarten to grade 3 education for all children across the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). The team’s 36 members were scattered in different cities and towns across Mindanao and several were based overseas.

Before the pandemic, the team’s staff lived or travelled weekly to Cotabato City, the seat of the regional government and the location of the Program Management Office. There were established practices and routines and plenty of formal and informal exchanges, including over dinners, where strategies were defined and refined, information exchanged, and strong bonds forged.

However, in its fourth year and immediately following a restructure, the pandemic hit.

With the sudden shift to remote work in March 2020, those exchanges that had become the cement between the bricks fell away, and the program and its leadership had to rethink how to build and maintain clear lines of communication and strong internal teamwork. This was at a time when the team had to double its efforts with increased hours of work to adapt and implement the program strategies while still managing the team’s health and well-being.

Facing Uncertainty with Strategy

Cognisant of the importance and the time it takes to ensure a healthy team that can weather challenging circumstances, and in an effort to both identify and manage the uncertainties of COVID-19, while still building the team up, the Pathways’ management team set out to find the best ways to support the team remotely.

This included several pulse surveys; rapid actions to respond to the outcomes of the surveys; an online teambuilding activity focussed on strengthening empathy and on understanding where each team member was mentally and emotionally that lead to a communication tool the team could use during difficult conversations; flexible working options supported by collective time-off; and deliberate and concerted efforts to stay across what was happening inside the team and address problems directly.

"Building and maintaining a cohesive team that can adapt to challenging circumstances takes time and effort; there is no shortcut to people’s well-being."

The team’s options for working remotely and messaging around respecting working hours, weekends, and public holidays were also emphasised. Thanks in part to these efforts, the team managed to respond to any COVID-19 related problems while remaining focussed on and successfully executing against long-term goals.

Leading from the Top Down

But that success began with the leaders asking themselves how they could build and strengthen the team for sustained delivery during the pandemic.

Given that some members in the team had been in their role for only two months when COVID-19 shutdowns occurred, it was obvious to leadership that deliberate efforts and initiatives would be needed to stimulate relationship building and team cohesion. A series of conversations, some one-on-one, and some in smaller groups, were held around “what connects us?” (answer: a shared desire to have a successful program and contribute to the BARMM region) and “what divides us?” (answer: not being able to communicate and connect effectively; negative narratives about each other or about “the unknown other”).

Leadership worked with a small group of team members considered strong bridge-builders – identified at different levels across the program – to help with this effort and to ensure the communications from leadership went through to all staff. This was followed up with a teambuilding initiative in February 2021 that focussed on “empathy as a connection catalyst”, conducted by a third-party provider.

“Pathways’ initiatives during the pandemic mitigated many of the stressors associated with long periods of working from home, the anxiety over sick family members and friends, and grief over the passing on of loved ones. Most helpful were the empathy circle sessions,” says Soledad Lecaroz, a Pathways Teacher Development Advisor. “All the initiatives showed that Pathways management is responding to the needs of project team members in a proactive and sensitive way.”

Happier, Healthier Employees for the Good of the Program

Through “sharing the river of life” in which colleagues shared how their respective life story landed them in their current job, colleagues got to know each other better as human beings. Active listening to each other’s COVID-19 stories and challenges helped practice empathy skills, allowing the team to (re)connect at a deeper level and also understand the communication styles of their colleagues.

Despite the demands experienced across the year, the program met its delivery targets and its progress towards outcomes remained on-track. Between school closures, crowded days of virtual meetings, and juggling personal responsibilities at home, the Pathways team rose through these challenges and provided colleagues the support and empathy at a time they needed it the most.

Pathways’ leadership and team took a deliberate approach to place the well-being of its team as a whole, and of individual team-members, at the center of its efforts to deliver on the program in these complicated times. Without a well-functioning team, there cannot be sustained program delivery. Without a targeted approach, built on a solid understanding of the real-time challenges, there cannot be a well-functioning team.

“For me, interventions are focussed on helping staff balance work under the current flexible working arrangements. It is good that staff are supported in adjusting to the new normal of working. Somehow these efforts lifted some worries and anxiety,” observes Jane Mondares, Pathways Program Officer.

Building and maintaining a cohesive team that can adapt to challenging circumstances takes time and effort; there is no shortcut to people’s well-being. But it is a fundamental prerequisite for sustained program delivery and making a difference in the communities in which programs like Pathways works.

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