Developing Strong Virtual Teams

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How do you develop a sense of team when members are spread out geographically?  For many groups the opportunities to get  together in the same physical location are rare. But do you have to

Developing virtual teamsaccept having a disconnected team, just because everyone doesn’t come to work in the same location every day?  People often tell me how difficult it is to build relationships in that kind of situation.  I’ve experienced it myself, and I agree – it can be difficult.  But fortunately it’s not impossible.  I’ve also experienced what it’s like to be part of a strong virtual team, where no goal seemed out of reach. What made the difference?  Just like any relationship, intentional effort needs to be made to create and maintain bonds among team members.

If your virtual team is not performing as well as you’d like or you think that the interpersonal bonds between members could be stronger, consider these questions:  Do you find that when your group does get together for a meeting, much of the time is spent on activities like reviewing reports and scheduling future meetings?  Are these things that really need to be done in a face-to-face setting?  Would a conference call work for some things like these instead?  Are all team members valued for the unique qualities and strengths they bring to the team?

Here are four ways you can build a stronger team.  These apply regardless of your work setting, and are especially applicable in a virtual environment:

1. Make the most of the times you are physically together in the same location to foster trusting relationships among team members.

2.  Incorporate focused and purposeful team development activities into your event to accelerate the group-formation process.

3.  Carefully consider the content of your face-to-face meetings.  What can team members do independently ahead of time? Are there reports that can be read, scheduling that can be planned, or questions that can be shared with the group ahead of time?  If so, then the face-to-face meeting time can be devoted to those areas that address more sensitive topics, or require more in-depth discussion or brainstorming.

4. Create an inclusive environment.  Ensure that everyone has an opportunity to contribute and be heard.  Allowing everyone to be involved not only helps the team achieve its goals by leveraging each person’s strengths, it also demonstrates that each member is a valued part of the team.

What would you add to this list?  What has worked for you?

Team-building’s bad reputation?

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Have you seen it?  People rolling their eyes when you bring up team-building?  Well, maybe not eye-rolling exactly, but perhaps a slight cringe or something else in their body language that says they’re not too keen on the idea.  Why is that?

Having had many experiences myself in the team-building arena, I have some theories.  I’d have to say first that for me, every one of the actual “team-building” events I’ve participated in was a positive experience at the time.  But only a few had any lasting impact.  What made the difference?  What takes a team-building event from a fun outing or activity to a different level, where it actually results in a team of people moving toward higher functionality and performance?  That phrase itself is part of it – “moving toward … functionality and performance.”  Because true team development is not a one-shot deal.  And while a fun day at the park, beach, golf course – you get the idea – can be an integral part of developing a team, it takes more than that to have a real impact on team dynamics for the long-term.Marble Tubes

Think about the team-building events that you may have been part of.  Were there clear goals?  Did all of the participants understand the goals from the beginning?  What kind of follow-up was there to any activities you participated in?  Did team members ever talk about their experiences or what they learned?

It takes a skilled facilitator to effectively interact with activity participants so they create meaning from their experiences.  Without effective facilitator planning and guidance, a lot of time and money may be spent with no meaningful outcome for the participants or the organization.

A scavenger hunt is a classic example of a team-building activity that is fairly easy to initiate and often incorporated in a conference setting.  Have you participated in something like that before?  It was probably great fun to work with your team to find and photograph different items.  But was your activity designed in a way that maximized engagement and participation; that tied to team and organizational goals from beginning to end; that gave participants an opportunity to gain insights about the way they communicate and interact as a group; that encouraged them to share and make meaning from those insights?  These are the kinds of things that can elevate “team-building” to lasting and powerful team development.

What kind of team-building activities have been most effective for you?  What made them so?

What’s the big deal about Engagement??

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What is the big deal about engagement?  It seems everyone is talking about it.  It’s at the heart of nearly every conversation about productivity – and for good reason.  Companies spend a considerable amount of money surveying their employees each year to determine how engaged those employees are.  Why? Because studies show, again and again, that the level of employee engagement impacts the bottom line, and significantly (Harter, Schmidt, Agrawal, & Plowman, 2013; MacLeod & Clarke, 2009).

Studies such as the Gallup Q12 Meta-Analysis and the MacLeod Reemployee engagementport show correlations between employee engagement and outcomes in areas of:

  • Customer satisfaction and loyalty
  • Goal achievement
  • Safety
  • Turnover
  • Employee productivity
  • Improved working lives of employees

The Gallup Q12 showed that businesses measuring the highest levels of engagement show an 80% probability of achieving above-average performance results. In contrast, the cost of disengagement for US companies is estimated at over $300 billion annually. So, clearly engagement matters. But how does an organization go about creating an engaged workforce?   Research has shown that two of the things that influence engagement are whether there is an environment of trust and whether group members are able to function together effectively.

In order to be willing to take risks and invest energy in support of the organization’s goals, people need to be able to trust that their actions won’t be perceived negatively (Schneider, Macey, Barbera, & Young, 2010). When we feel psychologically safe, we are more likely to share our opinions, ideas, or concerns. A trusting, psychologically safe, environment encourages the open exchange of ideas and information and allows problems to surface before they become severe. When we are concerned with being judged it’s easy to become distracted and disengaged as we may be focusing more on what others are thinking than on the task at hand (Kahn, 1990).

Groups that function effectively typically have strong interpersonal bonds. Often these groups are characterized as cohesive. Tuckman’s (1965) model describes the process of a team’s development of connectedness and functionality over time, ranging from the initial stages of group formation to later stages where groups exhibit cohesion and are successful at achieving group goals. At Tuckman’s final stage of performing, interpersonal relationships are a key to successful problem-solving and goal achievement. In my own research, I found that when team members know each others’ strengths and interests, and then aligned tasks accordingly, they were more successful at achieving their goals.

What does engagement look like in your workplace? Do you see these factors at work?  Is forming personal relationships with members of the workgroup encouraged or discouraged?  Is the environment psychologically safe?  How do you think the level of engagement could be improved in your organization? Are there things that you’ve tried or have been thinking about trying? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Also, please join me in the coming weeks to explore more ideas about what it takes for individuals and groups to perform at their best. I’ll also be sharing selections from my bookshelf each Thursday.

 

References:

Gallup Q12. (2013). https://q12.gallup.com/

Harter, J. K., Schmidt, F. L., Agrawal, S., & Plowman, S. K. (2013). The relationship between engagement at work and organizational outcomes (2012 Q12). Retrieved from Gallup website: www.gallup.com

Kahn, W. A. (1990). Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work. Academy of Management Journal, 33, 692-724. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/256287

MacLeod, D., & Clarke, N. (2009). Engaging for success: Enhancing performance through employee engagement. Retrieved from Department for business innovation & skills: http://www.bis.gov.uk/files/file52215.pdf

Schneider, B., Macey, W. H., Barbera, K. M., & Young, S. A. (2010). The role of trust in understanding employee engagement. In S. L. Albrecht (Ed.), Handbook of employee engagement: Perspectives, issues, research and practice (pp. 159-173). Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, Inc.

Tuckman, B. W. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological bulletin, 63, 384-399. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0022100