In our virtual training room, we often teach our participants about the importance of relationship building in virtual space. Have you noticed, how in virtual meetings, the tendency is to ‘get down to business’ immediately? How people often say ‘we only have one hour for this meeting and the agenda is packed, so let’s not waste time on chit-chat?’.
With this approach, many teams fall into the trap of focusing on the task at the expense of building and strengthening relationships, which are necessary to move a team towards high performance. Fons Trompenaars, author of books on cross cultural communication, use this circle diagram to illustrate the intricate connection between task and relationship in a team.
Why are relationships important for sophisticated teamwork? In her PhD thesis, Ingeborg van de Poel (2016) researched a number of ‘virtual’ scrum teams, operating across national borders and found a number of factors that contribute to a high performing remote team:
As one scrum master puts it: ‘to really make it work you need everyone to be involved to be open and honest. There are a few ways to achieve that: if you are open and willing to help, you can ask something and someone asks you back. When you are having a conversation, then it doesn’t matter if you are sitting next to each other or at a distance’ (van de Poel, 2016)
Another quote from a scrum master in this research: ‘Feeling at ease with each other. Getting to know each other on a personal level, is important to get a more complete picture of each other. ‘When you know each other personally, it is easier to interpret the other person’s message and this is important when you are not sitting in the same location. The other person becomes more predictable. Consequently, the gap to connect with the other and to give each other feedback or ask for help, becomes smaller’
‘It may sound silly, but when you know the other team member, you’re not afraid anymore of how they will judge you and I think that the wall between us was broken down’.
‘I tend to be more distant with people that I don’t know’
What these quotes show is that a trusted, solid relationships creates an environment where team members dare to speak up and discuss difficult issues. This relates to the research on teams at Google, that showed ‘psychological safety’ as the # 1 aspect of high performance.
At Nomadic IBP, we have translated the task/relationship polarity into a set of principles of virtual teamwork and live online learning:
- Allow for informal communication: invite members to join a meeting early for a ‘virtual coffee’, informal chat with colleagues as well as an opportunity to check the audio quality
- Inclusion: every team member’s voice must be heard within the first 10 minutes of a virtual meeting. A practical tool to do this is the ‘check in’ process. This creates an equal distribution of ‘air-time’ and avoids dominance of those from ‘western’ cultures and extroverted personalities
- At the end of a meeting , every team members voice should be heard again during a ‘check out’ ritual
- Participants stay unmuted during virtual sessions and make an effort to recognize each other’s voices.
We often meet with resistance to these principles from participants /team members who operate from the ‘task first’ mind-set. Their response to our approach is that they get impatient and do not value the time spent on relationship building. At times, we see strong emotional reactions where people leave the group, stating that ‘virtual teamwork can never be as productive as F2F’.
Thereby, they miss the point that the road to high team performance is one that starts with building a foundation and that this may take some time at the beginning. Fortunately, many discover the value of the relationship based approach as the virtual team or learning group develops over the course of 3-4 meetings /sessions. After that time, more often than not, a group bonds, develops trust and starts forgetting that they are 1000’s of K’s apart. We call this virtual closeness (Hildebrandt ea, 2013) and this is the requirement for a team to move forward on (complex) tasks.
Click for a description of the four main areas of Nomadic IBP’s expertise, with programmes available on helping virtual teams, their leaders and virtual facilitators to feel more at ease in a remote environment.
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Fredrik Fogelberg is a chartered Organisational Psychologist specializing in leadership development and team facilitation in international organizations. He has over 30 years of international experience in the corporate world and as a consultant.