As we transition in and out of alert levels in New Zealand, and work together with a number of organisations who have teams around the globe still living in lockdown (among other disruptions), the questions around how to support dispersed teams continue.

In July, I wrote an article with my ten top tips for supporting dispersed teams to flourish. I want to build on this with a specific tip on how to build a conversation about wellbeing across a dispersed team.

In our mental health workshops, people are often worried about how to start the conversation, not wanting to get it “wrong” and being aware individuals have different comfort levels with talking about wellbeing in a work environment. 

When you ask someone at work, “How are you?”, a common response can be, “I’m OK”. This doesn’t give you a lot of information to work with and can be a default response (for a whole variety of reasons) rather than a reflective one. We also know that mental health and wellbeing are not “all or nothing” states; they exist along a continuum that we can move along, dependent on what’s happening in a day.

Creating a common language across an organisation to talk about wellbeing is a great way to shift the conversation from a single response, in a way that’s easy to engage with, in both individual and team settings: 

  • Some organisations use a traffic light approach, with variations dependent on organisational culture, along the lines of Green for “Going well”, Orange for “Something going on but I have a possible way through”, and Red for “Not doing so well and support would be helpful”.
  • Organisations who have joined us on our mental health training have adopted the language of “flourishing” and “languishing” from our dual continuum model of mental health and mental illness. 
  • The resilience continuum across thriving/adapting/resisting/recovering is another useful framework, particularly during times of uncertainty and change. 
  • Some organisations have adapted these frameworks into their own models, based on their organisation’s culture and values. 
  • At Umbrella, we’ve created our psychologically valid Wellbeing Assessment which categorises people’s wellbeing between Finding it Tough to Managing Well or Thriving. As well as giving each individual a report in real-time on where they’re sitting on the wellbeing continuum, the online survey also allows us to generate a detailed organisational report identifying the key wellbeing themes across your organisation to support targeted intervention. These insights are particularly helpful when working with dispersed teams to better understand how people are really doing.

Whichever way you do it, the idea of having a continuum approach acknowledges how normal it is to experience movement up and down, and creates an easier way into a conversation. To the question “How are you?”, the response can now be, “I’m an orange today” which opens the door to understanding why, listening and jointly working together. Equally, a response of, “I’m a green today” is a great introduction into understanding why and what supports an individual to thrive within your team, so that we can keep building on that.

As you think about introducing an approach like this within your workplace, there’s a couple of important notes:

  1. A continuum creates the opportunity to open a conversation but an individual continues to have the right to choose how much they share and who with. Leaders need to create work environments based on trust and authenticity for this approach to work well.
  2. Be clear about why you’re introducing a framework like this into your team rhythms, that the purpose is to better support people and what you intend to do with this information. For organisations that are new to wellbeing conversations, there can be a wariness and it’s good to name that up front.

The good news is that having a common language in place can be a great tool to use both in a dispersed team setting with an online conversation, and equally when returning to the office and reconnecting as an in-person group. 

If you’re keen to know more or want some support in introducing something like this into your business, please get in touch.