Dear Crucial Skills,
I read your survey results on long-distance loathing with great interest. I work for a multi-site corporation and approximately two-thirds of our staff are in one city while the rest are dispersed over five smaller sites. Despite significant efforts to bring our teams together, there is still a strong sense of us and them. Can you recommend any strategies to make long-distance working relationships more cohesive?
Teamwork at a Distance
Yes! There is a great deal you can do to build teamwork among widely dispersed people. A good way to begin organizing your change effort is to think about all the sources of influence that create conflict and alienation in your current environment.
So first you need to ask, “What can I do to increase conflict?”
It turns out you can get almost any two people to resent each other if you do a number of things:
- Give them a separate identity or goals.
- Make it difficult for them to communicate.
- Have them associate with a social group that already resents the others.
- Make it difficult for them to help each other or limit their communication to official channels by imposing a chain of command.
- Reward them for individual achievements or for supporting those in their geography but not the larger team.
- Keep them physically isolated—allow few means for them to communicate and then only in sterile ways (voice only, e-mail, etc.)
Now, if you’ve read our book, Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, you’ll notice I’ve just outlined six unique sources of influence. I’ve also described reality for most dispersed teams. And finally, what I’ve done is describe a set of influences that will make it inevitable that individuals will, at best, tolerate those in other locations and at worst despise them.
Now some readers might think “inevitable” is too strong a word. But take a look at the findings from our recent Long Distance Loathing study:
- Employees are 243 percent more likely to have problems with distant coworkers than co-located coworkers.
- Employees report that these problems are much more difficult to solve and last much longer.
- In order to cope with annoying distant coworkers rather than step up to crucial conversations they resorted to the following tactics when working with these colleagues: avoided their phone calls, stopped reading their e-mails, avoided working with them altogether, witheld information from them, criticized them to others, and challenged their decisions.
So, what can a leader do? Well, if the six sources of influence I already outlined are the reason for the resentment, then distance doesn’t make conflict inevitable. Distance is only one source of influence. You’ve got five other sources you can use to create a cohesive team. However, it will require work. It will require intentional effort. But what human change doesn’t?
Here are a few examples for using multiple sources of influence:
Source 1: Personal Motivation—Make a greater effort than usual to create team identity and purpose. Have a mission, charter, and operating rules. Have a team name. If possible, have periodic face-to-face meetings. Take extra care as new members join the team. Create as much face time as possible so people connect at a human level, not just a task level.
Source 2: Personal Ability—Build much better crucial conversations skills. This isn’t just a self-serving argument—it is an essential skill-set for ensuring people don’t resort to the dysfunctional games we describe above.
Sources 3 & 4: Social Motivation and Ability—Work to build bonds of friendship and trust. Begin meetings by having one or more people share a personal anecdote. Have the team work together on volunteer tasks, personal betterment tasks, etc. For example, have them raise money for United Way as a team, run races in their communities, or come together to build a Habitat for Humanity home.
Have team members from different locales meet together at client sites or work together on the same client’s projects.
Set the norm that everyone holds everyone accountable—you can’t afford to involve a manager.
Schedule frequent, formal feedback sessions—times when you specifically ask about what’s working and what’s not. When you have a concern, talk it out—don’t act it out.
Source 5: Structural Motivation—Use small prizes or awards—maybe competitions—that provide the occasion for recognition. Distance often removes informal opportunities to say “thanks.” Make sure you frequently let people know you are aware of their contribution and appreciate their work.
Source 6: Structural Ability—Provide daily or weekly progress on key business indicators that track the team’s performance.
Make sure people have visual reminders of their team members—photos that are near their phones or computers.
Create a Web site, Facebook page, or other social networking hub for sharing information. Stay on top of technical barriers—for example, often small changes to the organization’s network will deny access to remote workers.
If possible, have a physical “teaming space” where team members can meet. You may also have shared workspaces where people can set up temporary offices for more intensive face-to-face interactions.
Ask team members to define their core work hours—to build in some predictability as they attempt to contact each other.
Bottom line: If you systematically and intentionally counter the sources of influence that create conflict, you’ll inevitably see cooperation. Conflict is not the natural human condition. We are social creatures at the level of our DNA. All that’s needed is wise leadership to bring out the best and truest parts of our nature!