Business leaders have a lot to think about as they reimagine the world of work in the wake of a pandemic that ripped up the rule book. How do you maintain company culture when most people are spending less time in the office? How do you retain your best people in a highly mobile jobs market while attracting new talent?

New research from team collaboration software maker Atlassian suggests leaders should stop worrying about one question that's taken up a lot of headspace during the past few months: How do you get people back into the office? Instead, it says they should focus on how teams work instead of where the work gets done.

Atlassian's State of Teams study surveyed more than 1,000 US workers from across industries to get an insight into the current state of team health. This was based on a team health index that evaluated a number of factors including effectiveness, engagement, happiness and purpose. The results show just how badly the past couple of years has impacted team health:

  • 52% feel unable to try new things, and express themselves fully within their team, affecting their psychological safety
  • 51% believe their teams are unsustainable, struggling with burnout and lacking organization
  • 49% suffer from low energy levels, saying they don't derive meaning or purpose from their work
  • 34% think their team climate is supportive, safe, and innovative, and their team is well connected and aligned

"Leaders for years have been touting that people are their biggest asset," Atlassian's Work Futurist, Dom Price, says. "Yet the data shows we're not delivering on our promises and, consequently, teams are far from reaching their full potential."

How the healthiest teams work

The research shows five clear commonalities in how the healthiest teams work:

  1. There is a clear understanding of the team's goals and each person's role in pursuing them.
  2. They practice adaptive planning that lets them adjust the strategy when the situation calls for it.
  3. They celebrate achievement but don't punish failure.
  4. They provide regular opportunities for open reflection in a blame-free environment.
  5. There is a culture of timely, constructive feedback that flows both ways between managers and direct reports.

This is more important than ever as leaders try to navigate their way through The Great Resignation. Their success or failure will be determined in large part by their ability to understand and improve team health based on the effectiveness, engagement, happiness and purpose factors outlined above.

Even the healthiest teams are susceptible to burnout, but the research findings suggest that flexible working practices and supportive environments help to offset the impact of challenging personal circumstances. This is particularly important for the parents of young children and other caregivers, with 45% of participants with high care responsibilities experiencing burnout.

With the research showing that office-based, remote and hybrid teams are all viable, leaders should turn their attentions to managing three dynamics:

1. Organizational values that empower

Be candid about your own shortcomings to build greater trust in leadership. Elevate the importance of diverse viewpoints and make space for respectful dissent. Facilitate open decision-making, delegating when it's possible and asking team members for input when it's not.

2. An equitable, humane team climate

Recognize those who go out of their way to support teammates and strengthen team cohesion. Understand the individual circumstances and lived experiences of each team member to prevent bias from creeping in. Assess for change fatigue and burnout before making changes to team structure, processes, or where a team works.

3. Support for innovation

Openly discuss what worked, what didn't, and what improvements could be made. Carve out time to explore new ideas, individually and as a team. Make space for calculated risks and incorporate the lessons you learn. Adopt rituals designed to improve planning and collaboration.

In conclusion, the State of Teams research makes it clear that healthy teams will thrive anywhere. Instead of focusing on location, leaders should focus on the practices and rituals that teams rely on throughout the day to get their jobs done. "Our immediate priority as leaders is to build healthy teams who feel empowered and supported," Price says. "This will improve their connection with your business and how they show up for your customers."