Maybe you’ve inherited new team members from another group within your company as a result of recent reorganization. Or perhaps your company has merged with another, giving you a whole new group to manage. Whatever the reason, you need to pull a new team together, including people who have been working together all along and those who are just coming on board.
Adding to your challenge: Team members work in clusters. Some work close to you and some work far away, while a few work from home or from client sites. You’ve enjoyed a close and trusting relationship with your existing team members and are eager to cultivate the same kind of camaraderie with the newest members.
What actions can a team leader take to create an environment of collaboration and trust in the short-term and in the long-run? What can team members do to get connected as quickly as possible to other team members?
This edition of Communiqué, co-authored by Kristi Ferguson, Senior Relationship Manager, Learning and Development for TD Bank Financial Group Technology Solutions, provides some practical tips for finding the right “glue” to bring a new team together, even when working from afar.
- Face-to-face as foundation. Simply put, without at least some face-to-face (FTF) interaction, it’s almost impossible for people to develop deep relationships as a truly cohesive team. When people come together in person, they have the opportunity to exchange knowledge and ideas and convey feelings in a way that’s tough to do virtually. With the whole team together, you can ensure that everyone is interpreting objectives, goals, roles and other vital content the same way. Disagreements can be aired more easily and quickly, and mistaken assumptions can be identified and dispelled. FTF meetings help people create the bonds that are needed for people to collaborate virtually down the road. Intermittent small-group FTF meetings can also be critical to get important work done, but nothing can replace bringing the whole team together on a periodic basis to galvanize a team. Yes, it may cost time and money to have everyone travel to one location from time to time, but the risks in not making the investment can be far more costly.
- Enable personal insights early on. When team members rely heavily on email as a primary source of communication, it’s tempting to draw conclusions about the meaning of a certain tone or choice of words. Unfortunately, in the absence of any contradictory information, we often make uncharitable assumptions that can fray relationships and erode trust. Provide virtual team members with a way to gain insights into each other’s styles, preferences and behavioral patterns. TD Technology Solutions uses Team Dynamics. Other examples include Myers-Briggs or DiSC. So, the next time a team member gets an achingly detailed email from a fellow team member, she’ll know that this is not meant as an intentional annoyance. Rather, it’s just that the sender needs a significant amount of data to process meaning for himself, and is passing that information along to others. For a virtual team, gaining this depth of knowledge about team member preferences may otherwise take months or years.
- Practice bipartisan team leadership. Chances are you may be physically closer to some team members, or you may be closer to some in other ways due to your work history. Level out the playing field by hosting meetings from different locations, giving people the chance to alternate who participates virtually versus FTF. While in a different location, use the opportunity to walk the halls and check in with team members, catching up and sharing the latest news. Spend time with people in their usual working environment to give you a new appreciation for the challenges and priorities they wrestle with daily. If you oversee a particular function, such as learning and development, spend some time in one or two classrooms to get a first-hand perspective about how things are really going. Unless you spend time onsite at different locations, it’s difficult to understand or appreciate the real-life environment of everyone on your team.
- Socialize frequently and celebrate often. If members are within a reasonable distance, strive to socialize in person as a team or if needed, as two smaller groups. You may have a business reason to get together, such as the celebration of a newly-completed milestone or the start of a new budgeting cycle. Or you might have something more personal to celebrate, such as a birthday, service anniversary or holiday. Even if a business need is the catalyst for getting together, make sure to allocate some FTF time for relationship-building. Include activities that are both fun and team-focused. Examples: For a new team, try asking people to match a member’s name to a card with a description of job responsibilities and then assemble an organization chart that shows how everyone fits together as a whole team. Focus on activities that encourage cross-team learning and give people a sense that the whole team is greater than the sum of its parts. Alternate locations to make the commute time more equitable. Ask local employees to host, including creating the agenda.
- Reward and recognize achievements out loud. When your team can’t be together FTF, find ways to reward and recognize achievements in other ways. At the very least, use email to notify the whole team of individual or team accomplishments. Better yet, try using videoconferencing for recognizing achievements, so that everyone can feel like they’re part of something special. Also think about something tangible you can send to team members (such as team T-shirts, books, flowers or a savory treat). When people meet virtually most of the time, giving them some sort of three-dimensional team identifier can remind people that they belong to part of a larger whole.
- Cross-train to encourage easier collaboration. Discover ways to make it possible for team members to learn others’ jobs. This is especially critical for small teams where people have to pinch-hit during peak periods or when team members are absent. Cross-training has other benefits, too. People develop a more holistic perspective of the entire organizational system, and can contribute fresh ideas about opportunities for improvement or growth. Members also gain empathy for others by understanding all they are responsible for, and at the same time, can hone their own skills and knowledge beyond what their current jobs call for. Consider who would most benefit by learning each others’ roles, mixing together those who come from different functions or organizations. Encourage these small teams to take best advantage of web tools and shared portals in addition to phone, email and FTF meetings.
- Share the wealth by stimulating knowledge transfer. It can be tough enough for a centrally-located team to share members’ collective knowledge as a routine part of working as a team. A virtual team leader must give extraordinary thought to how best to cross-pollinate vital team knowledge, given the limited opportunities for real-time, or synchronous, discussions. Make sure to regularly allocate time in team meetings, whether FTF or virtual, for an information exchange, asking members to share what they’ve learned, what patterns they’ve noticed, or what they may need help with. In addition, make it easy to contribute ideas or questions in a way that is not time-dependent by using team social networking tools, such as blogs and wikis, or a team portal where people can push or pull ideas, questions or experience. To jumpstart knowledge-sharing, consider some reward or recognition for those who contribute the most ideas, answer the most questions, etc., within a given timeframe.
- Collaborate to create new operating principles. In crafting new team principles (and this is, and should be, really tough work!), reflect the values and beliefs of all members. Once team members have agreed on new principles, document the results and test for shared meaning. For example, does everyone understand the real implications of a principle that calls for decisions to be made by the fewest possible decision-makers, or one that states that only managers above a certain level can agree to a scope change? With a virtual team, opportunities to clarify meaning are rare, so more time needs to be spent on detailed documentation that all can review and edit if needed.
Weaving together a whole new team out of members who have different relationships to each other and to the team leader requires exemplary leadership skills and a keen understanding of organizational dynamics. When this newly-formed team is virtual, the remote team leader faces an additional set of complex challenges best met by gaining an appreciation for the special dynamics of virtual teams. Everyone can be successful leading a newly-formed remote team. It just takes a little more time to learn how and a great deal of creativity.