Team building across the miles

July 21, 2017

Team Building

The phrase team building has a warm, inclusive feel about it. It conjures up images of victorious World Cup winners or athletes celebrating a record haul of gold medals at the Olympics. The archetypal pictures of hijinks in the locker room and sports stars carrying each other on their shoulders spring to mind.

Consciously or otherwise, some of that imagery inevitably seeps through when we think about team building in the workplace. We all enjoy working with people with whom we get along, and creating and understand your team vibe can be good for morale and support business success.

Not so long ago, in order to build an effective team, it was necessary to all be gathered in the same location. And despite the huge variety of technological communicative methods that are at our disposal today, there is still an underlying suspicion that a geographically divided team is in some way inferior to one that is physically in attendance together. Perhaps the problem lies in the word virtual and our tendency to exchange it with the word real. Put that way, what would you prefer if you were presented with a choice of a virtual team or a real one?

However we choose to describe it, the fact is that anyone who works in a large organisation is almost certain to be working collaboratively with colleagues in other physical locations — whether that entails someone in a neighbouring building or the other side of the planet. The importance of having a close, cohesive, goal-oriented team is just the same in this dynamic as for those working in the same office. And getting it right can be even more important.

Today’s teams can comprise members from different cultures spread across various time zones speaking diverse languages. It is quite possible, and indeed likely, that many of the team members have never actually met each other face-to-face.

Whatever the organisational structure, managing a team that is dispersed across multiple locations can present even the most experienced managers and team leaders with significant challenges. Here are just a few of the questions that beg consideration:

  • How do you ensure everyone feels they are being treated fairly and equally if you see some people every day and some very rarely?
  • How do you ensure those individuals in remote locations do not feel excluded or isolated?
  • How do you keep every member of the team on track and focused on the overall goal?

Let’s find some answers, helping you keep that global team cohesive and motivated.

Building your team

The first step is to have the right team working with you in the first place. There are some key characteristics that you should focus on when assembling the perfect team:

1) Self-motivation

With a remote team, you will not be looking over people’s shoulders day in and day out, so members need to be self-motivated and independent. Those who need constant feedback and encouragement to achieve anything will drag the team down.

2) Results orientation

You need people who are comfortable with working to delineated performance objectives and, ideally, who are eager to play a part in defining these. The only way to monitor performance is by assessing those crucial KPIs.

3) Great communicators

This doesn’t just mean people who are personable and affable, although those are certainly valuable qualities. Members need to be capable of communicating through technologies such as Skype, Slack, video conferencing and so on, as there will be very little face-to-face interaction.

4) Honesty and transparency

This refers back to the fact that you will be unable to constantly monitor what your team members are doing. You need to know you can trust them to get on with the job at hand and to communicate openly and honestly with you if any problems or challenges arise.

Defining the goal

We have mentioned goal orientation several times, so defining the team goal is a fundamental prerequisite to success.

There are two aspects involved in this. Firstly, it is advantageous to create a team charter that defines why the team exists and what it is setting out to achieve. Then, this can be tied to individual objectives for those within the team. As every MBA student knows, these need to be SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound).

Developing the team dynamic

Excellent — so now we have some ideal individuals and a goal towards which they are all working. But how do we develop this into a cohesive team that is greater than the sum of its parts? Relationship building between team members is enough of a challenge when they are in the same room, but it is even more complicated for people scattered across the globe.

In the context of remote workers, it is more difficult to monitor friction between team members or slumps in morale from certain quarters as you have no visual clues from reading body language or perceiving interactions. There are some other warning signs for which you can be on the lookout, however, such as reduced output, a reluctance to engage in communication or a lack of contribution when it comes to new ideas.

In the 1960s, Bruce Tuckman published his forming, storming, norming, performing model of team management and this remains as relevant now as it ever was. Just because you can’t take the team out for a few drinks or the occasional lunch, it is still possible to get them to bond. Of course, it would be ideal to have a meet-up at least once a year if budgets permit; but even if not, consider setting up a virtual team room where people can interact to discuss non-work related topics, from the latest sporting events to birthdays.

Be sure to make as much use of webcams as possible too — it is far easier to bond with a face than just a voice over the phone.

Feedback

Everyone needs feedback, and it is particularly important when working in a remote location to know how you are doing. Keep in regular contact with everyone, whether they are across the office or in another time zone, and remember to be consistent and fair with every member of the team. Follow these tips, and you can’t go wrong!


Also published on Medium.

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