Team Work Faces a Whole New Challenge

By David R. Glaser

What are Geographically-Dispersed Teams?

As a result of corporate acquisition, downsizing, merger, and globalization, more and more people are working on teams that are dispersed across town, across the country and around the world. No longer do team members have the luxury of sharing an office together and naturally developing a “sense of team.” This recent development is challenging our traditional ideas of what a team is, and how it can foster unity, align its members’ efforts and become productive. More and more team members find themselves interacting across boundaries of space, time-zone, and organizational culture. In addition, with organizations placing more and more emphasis on fast cycle time and increased quality and efficiency, the burden on leaders and members of Geographically-Dispersed Teams is enormous.

Some Challenges for Geographically-Dispersed Teams

  • Having limited time together makes it hard to get in sync. Achieving genuine alignment around mission, goals and members’ efforts is critical because more alignment creates fewer conflicts of actions, personalities or values.
  • It is hard to know when a consensus exists on a dispersed team, because there are few opportunities to think and talk together to check out assumptions. Also, body language remains invisible, which eliminates the subtle, visible clues to how the team work is progressing.
  • Trust develops more slowly among members if there is little face-to-face interacting, including spontaneity and playfulness. Covert behavior remains undetected. Also when issues arise, it is more difficult to know how to engage a person who is not familiar.
  • There is an experience of “out of sight, out of mind.” If you can’t see them, they don’t seem to exist.
  • Cultural differences are hard to recognize and resolve, and conflicts may go unaddressed longer than in co-located groups.

Some Strategies for Geographically-Dispersed Teams

  1. Leaders should ensure that a new team holds an initial face-to-face meeting. This meeting needs to last more than one day, and it should focus on relationship issues as well as mission, goals, work plans and tasks. As one of our clients said, “Our biggest mistake was underestimating the importance of the socialization process.” A crucial outcome of this meeting is the personal rapport that develops among members, which is the foundation that enables the flow of important information about the work and helps the team to work smoothly and productively. At the meeting:
    • Take and distribute individual and group photos to reinforce the presence of distant team mates.
    • Give members copies of each other’s bio-sketches, including work experience and appropriate information about personal lives.
    • Reinforce the need for members to spend time together and create relationships that can withstand the rigors of changing technologies, changing markets, changing regulations, changing leadership, etc.
  2. For long-term teams establish a schedule of periodic, face-to-face meetings to renew team relationships.
  3. Establish clear norms and protocols for making decisions and for exploring team members’ assumptions and conflicts. For example:
    • Create a method for decision making, including polling members explicitly by vote or by using some agreed-upon consensus gradient. ( 1= I strongly support this decision; 2= I’m willing to go along with it; 3= I’m abstaining from this decision; 4= I’m against it; 5= I will block it. )
    • Fill out a communication chart with each individual’s phone number, E-mail address, and preferred mode of contact. Also decide on an optimal degree of responsiveness, for example, “We will return each other’s phone calls and E-mails within one day.”
    • Use electronic meeting support (computers) to enable interaction while protecting the privacy of those whose culture or personal style is averse to open brainstorming.
    • Establish a norm of frequently checking out assumptions about others’ behavior and comments and getting feedback to confirm understanding.
    • Define conflict resolution protocols in advance so conflict does not go underground and resurface at an inopportune time.
  4. Recognize and honor cultural diversity. For example:
    • Make opportunities for team mates to learn about each other’s culture, including frequently used words, greetings, etc.
    • Take turns shopping for and cooking native dishes, and eating together.
  5. Invent team-based rewards. Specifically:
    • Ask individuals what form of recognition they prefer, and use these approaches when possible.
    • Create a get-together for the whole team as a reward for accomplishing goals.
  6. For cross-functional teams, take time to identify each member’s key stakeholders and their expectations of the team. These people form an out-of-sight, but influential, presence.

Conclusion:

If they are to function at a high level, all teams need to spend time off-line occasionally, to plan their approaches to getting their work done, and to build their relationships. Without a foundation of trusting relationships, the flow of information about the work itself is constricted, which undermines true team work. Given the demands that are now being placed on Geographically-Dispersed Teams, it is even more important for them to invest in this type of effort.

(Originally published in the Baltimore Business Journal)