This week school started again for all my kids. This year with teachers behind face shields, and maybe, hopefully, no homework as the kids aren't allowed to bring things home from school. My oldest is dismayed, I'm happy. The beginning of the school year reminds me that I still need to finish analyzing teachers’ perception of working remotely during the lockdown. It's a pretty grim and depressing data set.
I began researching for this newsletter on Friday evening, starring at the screen, fingers hovering over the keys not sure what to hit. It felt like a difficult one to write but turned into an exciting journey into building connectedness in remote teams. I will talk about two interventions that worked for building positive work relationships. A good work relationship is characterized by:
Developing these aspects is difficult. The virtual setting of remote teams can make it even harder to develop them.
- Distributed/remote teams need to establish routines to be connected
- Respect, connectedness, and openness are key
- Purpose build (digital) spaces free of work interference help team members develop positive work relationships
- Narrating your work helps team members feel connected
Connectedness and challenges of remote teams
Connectedness describes the strength and quality of a relationship. It refers to the range of emotions expressed, and the ability of a relationship to sustain stressful situations, and evolve over time. In other words, the more emotion can be expressed, positive and negative, the stronger the relationship between two people, and hence, the more connected two people feel. Individuals who feel connected to others benefit from better health, have access to valued information, develop positive identities, and are better able to coordinate their work.
Connectedness opens doors and makes information flow freely between people.
According to research, physical proximity has a positive impact on feeling connected to others and creating a cohesive team. As most members of a distributed team are not located in close physical proximity to each other, they need to work harder to create a sense of connectedness. A co-located team, a team that works from the same office building, has some build-in connectedness thanks to sharing the same physical space.
However, remote teams share digital space. This digital space should not only be used for work-related communication, but also for developing positive work relationships. To a certain degree, people need to learn and be stimulated to create and maintain positive work relationships with their remote colleagues. This is especially true for those who are forced to work from home. When the coronavirus pandemic forced employees to work from home the focus of managers and leaders was to make sure work continues. Relationships were forgotten, neglected, or assumed to persists in virtual environments.
I've come across two articles that tested a solution to increase the sense of connectedness among team members of distributed teams. Option 1 tested the use of digital spaces to bring U.S. and Indian members of a tech team together. Option 2 experimented with a narrating your work process within a large oil company. Participants were located in four countries, spanning four time zones.
Option 1: Spaces
One strategy to stimulate positive relational dynamics is the notion of space. This is understood as a social setting which is separated through physical and symbolic boundaries from everyday work. This gives place to creative transformation.
A space allows for bracketing the everyday - Howard-Grenville (2011)
In short, a space is a digital encounter between team members which is mandated by the organization and which is not directly related to the day-to-day task. Thus, team members are required to participate, but the content of these interactions do not have a direct link to their current tasks.
At first sight, this might seem counter-intuitive and a waste of time. However, these spaces give team members the time to get to know each other and share personal and work-related stories.
Spaces have been described in different ways. For example, relational space, experimental space, reflective space. This highlights the need to be explicit about what this space is all about. It's not just a place to "hang out" and chat. It has a specific purpose which is clearly documented: Build relationships, experiments with new ways of working that are currently not accepted, reflect on what is going on, etc.
The team in the scientific study experienced two work-challenges: U.S. team members felt overwhelmed as they thought they had to be always accessible and ready to answer questions, while Indian team members felt undervalued. There seems to be a disconnected between the two teams: Indian team members felt their knowledge is not valued by US team members, and US team members thought the Indian team members needed extra help.
The goal of the space was to help team members get to know each other. This was done through collaborative work time and pulse check.
- Collaborative work time (CWT) was a weakly one-hour calls between junior and senior team members. During the first 15 minutes, they had to get to know each other. Afterward they collaborated on a non-routine task. The task was framed as a task to built knowledge and skills. It gave the junior member exposure and stimulating work while helping the senior team member, mainly from the US, better understand the expertise Indian team members had. Junior team members had to choose a senior team member and initiate the scheduling.
- Pulse check meetings were weekly mandatory 90-minute team meetings. The aim was for the entire team to be engaged in meaningful discussion about work challenges. This meeting was guided by 4 questions: How are you feeling? How valuable is the work you are doing? How satisfied are you with your learning? Is your operating model sustainable?
Over time, the protocol for these two meetings was adapted and refined. The space was successful in creating positive work relationships. Team members had a better understanding of each other’s expertise, workload, and challenges. Most importantly, the relationships they build enabled them to withstand external stress, like deadlines, better. A crucial enabler of these spaces is leaders. Leaders need to legitimize the use of space and count it as work time. Workload needs to be adapted in order to free up time to participate in these meetings.
Option 2: Narrating your work (NYW)
The focus of narrating your work is not necessarily increasing connectedness or developing better work relationships. This is more of a positive side effect. The team that was discussed in the scientific article struggled with sharing knowledge.
The argument is that sharing knowledge is important for team members. The knowledge that is shared can be explicit or tacit. Explicit knowledge is coded knowledge, facts, and things that can easily be documented. The sharing of tacit knowledge is harder due to its implicit nature. It requires interpersonal connections. Often trust is necessary for sharing tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is also harder to explain. This means it requires more time and effort to share it.
Remote teams also struggle with staying aware of each other's expertise. If you don't know what your team members’ know, it is harder to coordinate tasks and to ask the right question to the right person.
The solution this team tried out was to narrate their work. This was done through an internal social network (Yammer). Team members were given three types of posts they can do:
- a constant flow of updates throughout the day
- daily updates, involving a one-paragraph recap of the notable events of the day
- weekly updates at the end of the week.
In addition, participants were offered two options for posting their NYW updates: private, only accessible to the team, or public, accessible to the complete company.
The following benefits of narrating your work were identified by the participating team members:
- It encourages regular self-reflection. By regularly posting about the work, team members had to review what they did, and describe it in a way that makes sense for others.
- Gaining awareness of peers' specific expertise areas. As each post was work-related, reading other people's updates helped team members become aware of their skills.
- Increase awareness of what others, beyond the team, are doing. Again, the reading of updates helps with gaining an understanding what is going on in the company beyond the team.
Team members decided to post in private and public channels. The team decided that updates that were judged to not be relevant for the rest of the company would be posted in the private group, whereas posts that could be beneficial to the rest of the company were posted in the public channels.
What will you do to increase your connectedness?
If you work in a remote team, how connected do you feel to others? What will you do today to help build stronger relationships with your peers? While I like the idea of spaces, building these and safeguarding them requires leadership input and more time and resources.
But, everyone can begin narrating their work. Your company doesn't need any specific tools. Emails, WhatsApp, skype status updates, Slack, Twist, MS teams, Teamwork, Pulse, Yac, git updates, and so on will work.
These are the two main sources for this post:
- Lee, M. Y., Mazmanian, M., & Perlow, L. (2020). Fostering Positive Relational Dynamics: The Power of Spaces and Interaction Scripts. Academy of Management Journal, 63(1), 96–123. https://doi.org/10.5465/amj.2016.0685
- Margaryan, A., Boursinou, E., Lukic, D., & Zwart, H. de. (2015). Narrating Your Work: An approach to supporting knowledge sharing in virtual teams. Knowledge Management Research & Practice, 13(4), 391–400. https://doi.org/10.1057/kmrp.2013.58