How Do You Defeat Distance in a Distributed Team?
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
No doubt, you’ve heard this familiar quote. You may even have said it to encourage others who are separated from those they love. But although research says this tends to be true, people in long-distance relationships may not find it comforting. In fact, many would say that physical distance creates psychological distance.
Whatever the reality, the fact remains that in professional life, a parallel scenario often arises among colleagues on a distributed team. Physical distance can easily lead to psychological distance. And when that happens, performance suffers.
The Psychology of Teams
Teams define the very essence of organizations. Modern companies are built around a pyramidal structure, which itself is the combination of smaller pyramids we usually call “teams.” Ideally, the team’s diversity, harmony, trust, and commitment directly influence the creativity, speed, and quality of its output. And collectively, the dynamics of an organization’s teams define its overall impact.
For decades, managers have been striving to build teams that “dance” well together. And many have succeeded at driving team performance that rivals a Bolshoi Ballet. What’s the magic in this recipe? The key ingredient is the personal connection members forge with one another.
These connections transcend basic operational interactions. Not surprisingly, in healthy work environments, we sometimes hear people refer to their team or culture as a “family.” The metaphor makes sense — especially in intense environments like the military or an innovative startup company.
However, experts say leaders should tread lightly when using the term “family” in the context of organizational culture. After all, no one should feel so obligated to an employer that they can’t develop a meaningful life outside of work.
Today, as we look beyond the pandemic era, we see a business landscape that is increasingly defined by hybrid work models – where co-workers on the same team are working from different locations at different times. So, as a leader, how can you ensure that the connections among your team members will grow deeper, rather than withering away? Here are several suggestions…
3 Ways to Bring Distributed Team Members Closer
1. Drive Ownership
In a distributed team environment, it is a good idea to get everyone involved in decision-making. While this may not always be practical, it is often easy to accomplish.
For example, say you’re planning to recruit a new team member. Rather than making unilateral decisions about the role and the candidates, it’s a good idea to get buy-in from some senior contributors. This will encourage these colleagues to see themselves as participants in a critical decision-making process. It also helps develop a sense of ownership in the hiring process, so they’ll be more invested in ensuring the success of the new employee.
2. Encourage Cross-Sharing and Learning
Nothing strengthens work relationships better than shared interests. Therefore, it makes sense to make learning a central focus for your team.
Create a distributed framework for formal and informal knowledge sharing, communication, and performance support. This sends everyone a clear message that operational delivery is not the team’s primary goal. Rather, the growth and success of each member should be everyone’s priority.
As team members step up and share their knowledge or expertise with others, it helps to build mutual respect and appreciation, both of which are hallmarks of great teams.
A word of caution, however. Do not make the mistake of treating learning sessions as isolated, one-off sessions. Instead, for maximum benefits, provide relevant context. Weave instructional content, performance support, and informational resources into the fabric of the team’s operating guidelines. And be sure to index and publish these assets where they can be easily searched, accessed, and updated by all.
3. Organize Periodic Physical Meet-Ups
Most of us have discovered the wonders of video conferencing in recent years. We’ve also developed new social norms, thanks to the likes of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and others platform providers. But although we often rely on digital technology to close the distance between people, nothing can replace in-person interaction.
Therefore, to drive remote team success, try investing in periodic face-to-face meet-ups. The ideal frequency will vary depending on multiple factors. For example, you’ll want to consider the nature of work and the geographic footprint of your team members. If everyone in your group is located in the same city, meet-ups could be more frequent than for those in different cities, states, countries, or continents.
Regardless, every manager should ensure that each meet-up offers a balanced mix of work endeavors and recreation. This will help everyone feel more connected and energized throughout the session and beyond.
Do You Manage a Distributed Team? What’s Your Next Move?
No plan or approach is bulletproof, mind you. But one thing is certain. If you incorporate these measures into your daily business practices, you will significantly improve the chance that you’ll reduce the distance between distributed team members. After all, it’s likely you’ve heard another popular quote:
“Out of sight, out of mind.”
For any leader seeking success in today’s hyper-competitive business world, this is a key issue you will want to avoid, no matter where your team members are located. So, go ahead. I encourage you to try these ideas to defeat “distance” across your organization. And don’t forget to share your experience!