The leadership paradox of organised informalities
Communication is one of the keys to success in any team, be it local or virtual in structure. To get things done and deliver results team leaders have to pay attention to the quality of formal communication with and within the team. This applies both to meetings or written exchanges about projects, issues or tasks at hand. But to keep a team together and functioning well, the quality of relationships between its members is at least as essential. In my experience, informal exchanges and communication amongst team members play a vital role in cultivating those relationships.
In collocated teams informal exchanges happen anywhere throughout the day. Whether team members share office space, see each other in the corridor, meet for lunch or have a cup of coffee at the coffee corner or cafeteria, the chance for a quick chat is available everywhere. Over the years I came across team leaders who considered these informal exchanges, especially at the coffee corner, as extended breaks and labelled them a waste of time. It took them a while to understand the effects such informal exchanges are having on relationships and the cohesion in the team.
And based on my own leadership experience and my work as a team coach I consider these informal exchanges essential for maintaining or building the relationship and the inherent trust.
So, what happens when members of a team are spread across several sites and these informal exchanges through personal encounters disappear? Since they seem to be vital for the team cohesion the key question is how a team leader can replace them to achieve similar effects?
The paradox of organised informalities
One way of creating similar effects in a virtual team is to organise virtual occasions for informal exchange. I consider this a vital responsibility for a virtual team leader. So far the most successful concept I came across and have helped to implement in virtual teams is the virtual coffee corner. The first time I heard about this was about eight years ago from a virtual team leader at Pfizer who was leading a team across Asia, Europe, and America. I have described some more details in an earlier blog. These virtual coffee corners basically replace the physical ones with the difference that to meet each other there cannot be left to chance. It has to be planned.
Studies which compared communication between collocated and virtual teams have shown that the frequency of conversations between a leader and team members in the two different types of teams differs by a factor of between 10 and 1000. Hence, it is no surprise that members in some virtual teams feel left on their own and uninformed about what’s going on. So, the only way to replace chance encounters that cannot happen, because team members are not in the same place is: those ‘chance encounters’ have to be planned in.
And these calls have to be informal and casual only and should not include project related issues or reviews. They have to be scheduled because if they are not, experience with a lot of leaders and teams has shown that they will get lost in the day to day hectic at work.
Another medium to help fostering these informal exchanges amongst team members can also be the use of a chat platform for the team. There each member can see who is currently available to potentially be a sounding board for a thought or an idea. Prerequisite is, though, that the team leader is a role model and uses it as well. And this should not be instead of, but in addition to planned informal calls.
Planned chance encounters are necessary
In a nut shell, for a virtual team to work well it is important to create an equivalent to chance encounters and informal exchanges that normally take place automatically for collocated teams and plan them in, even though this sounds somewhat paradoxical.
If you would like to discuss this subject further please get in touch with me direct.
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