Before organizations began to reach out across the world to new markets, our working lives were much simpler. It’s likely that we sat in the same room as the rest of our team, working as one intact unit – focused, supported and cohesive. But now things are a little trickier …
Now many of us operate as part of virtual teams, or across many teams at once, in more than 24 time zones around the world. In truly global organizations it’s possible to have colleagues who you’ll never have live contact with – indeed, you could have team members in every time zone, meaning that for every person who finishes work for the day, a team member in another country comes online. This globally dispersed, matrixed way of working has so many advantages – for workers, organizations and customers - but just how much harder is it to have really authentic and productive working relationships with people you’ve never met – and will probably never meet?
People still often rely on typically human traits to build relationships; body language, eye contact and open-ended time together all combine to create a relationship with real meaning and depth. How do you possibly replicate that with people you only ever communicate with via Skype about transactional, work- related matters? Well, it’s not easy, and the work you accomplish together might well be a reflection of that; after all when you’ve got minimal personal connection and little time to build one, it’s difficult to bounce off each other in the way that often happens spontaneously when people are physically together, within a single team that has its own identity and culture.
Jumping from team to team adds its own complexities, as people try to form connections with colleagues they only work with one day out of ten, or with temporary teams only brought together to complete a single project. Working with others at surface level means that we’re not completely aware of others’ capabilities – let alone who they are on a deeper, more personal level. This can mean we trust each other less and are more cautious about sharing responsibilities and workload.
It’s almost like handing a stranger the keys to your car and trusting them to park it for you. How can teams complete vital projects from such flimsy foundations? Well, it’s hard, but you can make it much easier if you focus on building a strong team culture from day one.
A lack of in-person team building opportunities can be a huge barrier to working effectively within a distributed workforce. Of course, it’s not easy to bring people from all over the globe to meet in person, and it can be difficult to persuade a budget-holder who prizes hard skills over relationship-building. However, even a single opportunity to meet face-to-face can create a stronger connection than months of virtual contact – especially at project kick-off – allowing relationships to be sustained virtually thereafter. All of those basic human relationship-building techniques we already mentioned, like body language and open-ended conversations, show you the real person beyond the professional persona they adopt on calls and virtual conferences.
Knowing who that person is, and how you can relate to them, promotes you from ‘distant colleagues’ to ‘effective partners’, improving the quality of the work you do together. Consider it a real investment in the performance of your people and teams, and set some budget aside to make it a priority.
If bringing your teams together in person simply isn’t possible, there are plenty of other things you can do to improve those cross-functional and virtual relationships. We’ve listed some below, and of course our teamwork solutions are built around making teams work effectively, dispersed around the world though they may be.
A team charter sounds formal but it’s really just setting some goals and guidelines to create a team identity and purpose. Although project teams may be temporary, working together to establish some team commitments will help to build those initial connections and keep collaboration as strong as possible.
You need to break down the real and perceived barriers to communication within your team, and that means setting aside time for relationship building.
If your team needs to catch up weekly to discuss milestones achieved, extend the call and dedicate some of it to opening up team dialogue. Also make sure that your technology is up to the task! (Our recent research into the optimum conditions for effective dispersed teams stresses how important it is that remote workers are supported to use technology correctly.)
Encourage your team members to build relationships with each other individually and not just as a team unit. The bonds that individuals form with each other will only strengthen your team dynamics and build trust. Perhaps introduce informal peer coaching so that team members can learn and grow with each other.
While setting time aside to build relationships seems like an obvious answer, it can be really difficult to put aside your daily workload and priorities to spend time on people. The culture of your organisation can make a big difference to whether or not people feel comfortable focusing on relationships instead of results – but the truth is that it’s relationships which ultimately determine the success of team endeavours. With just a little more effort you can build connections within your matrixed or dispersed team as effectively as you can with a co-located team, and you’ll be glad you did. Connected teams are more effective, more resilient and better at coming up with innovative solutions, so it’s not only your team members who will benefit – your organisation will reap the rewards of your investment in relationships.
* Hannah Prince is a Business Psychologist with a passion for understanding the underlying psychological factors required for high performance and general wellbeing. Her session at ATD 2019 is “How to lead the invisible team: Being an effective virtual leader” and she has conducted recent research into the effects of working in globally dispersed teams on remote workers. Connect at https://www.linkedin.com/in/hannah-prince-/