The Dehumanization of Teams: Managing Virtual Teams in the 2020s
During a recent seminar with Marshall Goldsmith, best-selling author and The Thinkers 50 #1 Leadership Thinker in the World, he shared a potent reflection, “now is the slowest period of change you will experience in your lives”. Indeed, the pace of change in the way we interact and communicate is changing rapid fire, and will accelerate in the 2020s. Digital modalities have already crept into the way we manage our teams, giving rise to different degrees of virtual teams.
The upside is that with technology, we are able to keep each other informed in real time. Yet many digital communication platforms were not designed with the ‘team’ in mind. They have inadvertently served to dehumanize our communications and connection, and may have also facilitated a ‘silo mentality’ permitting team members to work in independent units with only cursory regard for other units or team members.
Given the geographic remoteness factor of many teams, and ease of digital communication, we are less and less likely to meet face-to-face both individually and as a team, and by default go virtual. The power of high-touch, face-to-face contact is being diminished, making it challenging to operate as a bonded, cohesive, collaborative team. It is our job as leaders to mitigate this loss of connection by ensuring we have enough face-to-face team time.
Is it possible to build a High Performance Virtual Team? I trademarked the concept “Team Quotient”, or “TQ”, which identifies and measures key aspects of High Performance Teams such as Vision, Values, Identity, Effectiveness, Results Focus, Fun, Alignment and Trust. To achieve these elements in virtual teams, and nurture high TQ, you have to be smart about structuring your team interactions.
FACE-TO-FACE TIME IS VITAL
As we become increasingly virtual into the 2020s, face time will be crucial to improve your Team Quotient. At a minimum, this can be done through annual meetings, ideally in fresh, offsite environments. Some lament, “I don’t have the budget or time for elaborate annual meetings.” Be creative. Can you find a way to justify a learning opportunity or training for all team members in one location and tack on a day for the team? For those teams able to get together more frequently, I recommend a combination of monthly, quarterly, and semi-annual meetings. The face to face meetings should not be all business; spend a half day or day on stimulating activities to bring the team closer together. Making the meeting memorable will increase the TQ.
A key agenda item during your face to face meeting is exploring how to increase the team’s TQ, given its virtual nature. Key agreements on virtual behaviors are essential, answering questions such as “how are we going to show up and conduct our virtual meetings to make them stimulating ?” or “how are we going to engender a sense of camaraderie and connection in virtual meetings?”. One idea is to change it up with reflection time at the beginning of key virtual meetings, instead of launching into business topics. Another is to start meetings with short personal sharing on identified themes.
During your virtual meetings, observe the two-hour rule; spend no more than two hours on any given virtual meeting, lest team members become antsy, and tune out. Send out pre-reads in advance and focus on key areas requiring discussion or decisions. Team members prefer short and crisp virtual meetings, therefore meeting protocol and organization is paramount.
USE TECHNOLOGY TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
Despite the downside to communications technology and the bad habits it facilitates, you can use it to your advantage. The key with technology is finding a way to increase the human connection and the ability to feel you are working as a team.
One of my clients, Bloomberg, is one of the most innovative users of video-conferencing technology for internal communications. I experienced this first hand at Bloomberg when coaching individuals and teams. In their offices, the conference rooms are equipped with large screen monitors. Most meetings with remote colleagues are held using video conferencing as a standard way of communicating. Remarkably, once you get used to it, the connection barrier simply disappears.
The good news is that the quality and choices of digital communication is improving. There are a number of video-meeting platforms, including Skype, Google Hangout, Cisco Webex, Microsoft, GoToMeeting, Zoom, Polycom and so on. For a true team experience, you will need to invest in decent systems and hardware to approximate the face to face effect, one option being life-size video conferencing. Whatever you decide, a good Internet connection is imperative. There is nothing more frustrating than encountering transmission interruptions due to poor Internet connections.
The last resort of course, is audio. Conference calls are still, unfortunately, the most common way to connect remotely. Conference calls can be toxic for nurturing a High Performance Team. It is much better to upgrade to good video conferencing platforms, which will show a commitment to the team and an understanding of the need for effective communications with a sense of connection that leads to a higher TQ. There is a hilarious parody worth viewing on conference calls, “A Conference Call in Real Life” by Tripp and Tyler, two Atlanta comedians, which mimics the experience we all face using remote communications.
I have found that conference calls work best with just a few people on the call, and in multiple time zones. You may be in New York and wearing a tie but your Mumbai counterpart might be in his pajamas! Therefore, ‘being seen’ is not always an advantage, and audio works well in these cases.
Yes, it is possible to build a High Performance Virtual Team. With a bit of effort and conscious resolve as a leader, you can mitigate the dehumanizing nature of virtual teams. Keep your Team Quotient high by committing to memorable face to face meetings, at least once a year. As a team, agree on how you are going to nurture the human element in the face of both geographic remoteness and digital communication. Pay special attention to meeting protocol and the two-hour rule. And invest in some decent video conferencing technology.