Updated from the original post in 2014
At its heart, good teaming is about creating the space for a bunch of different people to build rapport – to get to know each other; their likes, dislikes, where they’ve worked before, what excites them, their personality. All of these factors, if explored will provide your team with a level of connection that will build rapport and contribute to more effective team work. After all, building rapport is about establishing sameness, and reducing differences. If you can achieve this, then you will go some way to having a connected team; but you won’t have a team that has achieved a level of closeness required to perform above and beyond expectations – both for themselves and for each other.
Effective teaming goes beyond this and allows the group to connect on a values level around their reason for being. If you can create the opportunity for this to occur then you are setting both the team, and the team members up for long-term success.
So how do you do this, especially in an era of remote working when the opportunities for coming together are limited? Well, here's the key.
It's not about 'what' you do. Reframe the idea of teaming to be 'what's our intent?' Then be open to the possibilities for how the intent can be achieved.
Whilst ever we are fixed on 'what' we should be doing, we are limited to our past experiences of teaming and fixed on activities. In fact, the best way to think of teaming in a remote context is as a 'process' of teaming. It's not going to be one single event or activity. In a remote environment it will be a process that reflects the nature of the team, the constraints of the team and the starting energy of the team. On that last point. If the team is buzzing and full of energy - leverage it. Which is a different starting place than if it was a new team, or one with multiple cultures in different countries where the energy will usually be more reserved.
It's the 'intent' behind what you do that counts; and if your intent can address these three key elements you will be working on a journey towards a connected team:
1. Get clarity on the team's reason for being
2. Create a common language
3. The teaming process never ends
Get clarity on the Team’s Reason for Being
I’ve worked with many teams and groups struggling to be effective in all sorts of situations; in matrix organisations, joint ventures, projects, leadership groups and teams spread across many countries. And the one thing they often have in common is a lack of alignment on their purpose - their reason for being.
What they hadn’t done when forming the team, was that critical piece of work that ultimately sets the team up for success. They hadn’t taken the time to ask themselves the questions that help define purpose… "why are we here – what is the specific purpose of our team?" This question is an opportunity for the team to be fully aligned around what this group has been brought together to achieve, and to be clear on the expectations that may exist of their team from other groups, such as the leadership levels above or other stakeholder groups. More importantly, when working remotely if you ensure your team has a crystal clear understanding of their collective purpose, and how their roles contribute to achieving the team purpose, then you are providing some of the most fundamental aspects of employee engagement. Clear direction. Role clarity. Sense of Purpose. In a face to face environment these are important. In a remote environment they are critical.
Create a Common Language
Language is symbolic, and it helps to define who we are. When different people come together to a team, they bring with them their own language defined by who they are. This can be defined by factors such as their race, gender, their life experiences, their knowledge and their skills. When you bring two groups together, like a joint venture, or multiple groups in a project consortium then the variables are increased and the issue of common language extends far beyond their mother tongue or the use of technical or organisational jargon – that is merely the tip of the iceberg.
One of the greatest inhibitors to sustainable teaming are the beliefs held by individuals that they have to hold on to who they are and what defines them. We see this more often in matrix structures, joint ventures and consortiums where more energy is invested in defending their patch rather than relaxing the boundaries and collaborating. Creating a common language is about defining how the group can work and succeed together without having to give up who they are. This means your process needs to provide a safe way of exploring this despite the virtual environment; and this will come back to how you frame the process up front, and the demeanour and style of the process facilitator. My suggestion is that as the leader of the team about to undertake a process of virtual teaming, that you connect with your team individually to share the intent, and your desire that they contribute as fully as they feel comfortable. Also encourage questions on the process, the intent or the content on your team sharing platform so that there is a level of transparency and demonstrated safety that it's ok to be curious and contribute without retribution. This of course means that you as the leader also need to be up for a bit of vulnerability and openness.
An extension of this in the 'new normal' is agreeing the best platforms that will support effective communication. In the past it was assumed that we could just come together or have spontaneous water cooler chats. Thought needs to go into a group commitment around the best platforms to enable their new commitment to each other.
The Teaming Process Never Ends
A team is made up of people, and people are constantly changing as is the environment in which the team exists as we've witnessed this last year. So, what’s the plan for continuing to bring the group together and check in on the commitments made during the teaming process? Think medium to long term when you pull your teaming process together and look for ways to integrate the outcomes of the teaming process into your everyday operations. Importantly, if there is a seismic shift in the environment, such as a restructure, or a major change to the make up of a team or its purpose, then it makes sense that you revisit the teaming process, even if it’s an abridged version, to ensure you are still on track, and capable of delivering as a team.
These are three core tenets of building a connected team. It doesn’t mean you can’t relax socially throughout the process or have some fun and games; but these become complimentary or a more intentional means to an end. The point I will leave you with is simple, but far-reaching.
Good business results require really good teams who are engaged not only with each other, but also with the reason their team exists. It therefore makes a whole lot of sense that investing a little more in your team at the beginning will yield longer-term success. And as we make sense of the 'new normal' it's almost a non-negotiable that this needs to happen if you are serious about setting your virtual team up for success.
Out of the many drivers of employee engagement, the one that has the greatest impact is leadership. Leaders influence engagement within an organisation both horizontally and vertically, and as identified in many research reports over the last ten years, engaging leadership is a non-negotiable when it comes to shifting culture and engagement.
And as if it wasn't already important, with the introduction of COVID-19, and a 'new normal' that has disrupted the way we work, it seems that now could be the time to rethink the way leadership development occurs from an engagement perspective. And there is a very good reason for this that doesn't need research - it's something we all know. Ask most leaders and they will be able to tell you ‘why’ employee engagement is important. They will most likely be able to tell you ‘what’ they should be doing as well; after all most leaders have at some point completed some form of management or leadership training that has provided some great ideas on what to do. But, as we also know, it's often the 'how' that lets a good leader down.
The secret to really good leadership engagement lies in ‘how’ we choose to deploy the skills and tools learned in the courses that teach 'what' to do, and in this respect the answer has been in front of us for a number of decades without realising it. Eric Berne, in his work with Transactional Analysis, identified a series of hungers that drive our behaviours, and they are integral to employee engagement:
In the simplest of terms - hit these markers in your leadership approach and you are building engagement for your people. If your personal cup is at a healthy level or overflowing, then you are most likely also engaged!
For over 25 years now, I have often found myself working with actively disengaged employees and teams. In this time I've worked with many underpinning causes of disengagement, such as, lack of challenge in the role, no vision for the future of the employee, lack of trust, psychological safety. inability to connect and integrate with new teams. The reality is that they are all related either directly, or indirectly, to each of the hungers mentioned above. Or rather, they are related to a lack of fulfilment of these hungers.
'How' we choose to create engagement as leaders should therefore look to address these basic hungers:
With the large-scale and sudden introduction of remote working, each of these factors play a much more important role when you consider the constraints of isolation. Despite this you can easily construct a personal leadership engagement approach around these three pillars despite distance, and in fact it's because of the basic hunger aspect of these elements that we need to address them more than before.
However being remote does make it harder to create stimulation, to provide recognition and to feel connected in the same way as we do in an office environment. So your challenge is to find ways to help your people feel involved; they may be geographically distant, but they don't need to be psychologically distant. So the key here is frequency of connection points, and then the quality of how you connect when you do come together. On the simplest of levels you can:
The engine room of engagement is often perceived as a complex beast; but it doesn’t have to be this way; and it probably never has had to be this way. If you can keep it simple and focus on the above three elements, then you are making it easier to lead in a naturally engaging and potent manner.
You are leading to engage.
Author: David Morley
David is a developer of global-minded and engaging leaders.