Remote Team Integration

13 minutes, 14 links

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Remote Team Integration

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A gelled team (or integrated team) operates as a collective unit where the output is more than the sum of each individual contribution. A key indicator of gelled teams is a high level of psychological safety.

Psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for risk-taking.* Psychological safety enables team members to express new ideas or suggest improvements or changes without fearing potential negative consequences. As a result, psychologically safe teams take more risks and perform better. Unlike trust, which focuses on how individuals feel about each other, psychological safety is focused on beliefs about group norms, and being respected within the group.

In a remote team, the factors that may contribute to a feeling of psychological safety are more rare, like face-to-face engagement and general social activity. Leaders need to work intentionally to help teams gel. Thinking of teams as being entities that go through development stages makes it easier to anticipate challenges and overcome them.

Stages of Team Integration

Bruce Tuckman developed the four stages of team formation: Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing.* This is useful to use as a diagnostic framework to overcome hitches when integrating remote or virtual teams.

Table: Stages of Team Integration

FormingStormingNormingPerforming
General ObservationsUncertainty about roles; looking outside for guidance.Growing confidence in team; rejection of outside authority.Concern about being different; wanting to be part of a team.Concern with getting the job done.
Content IssuesThe team makes some attempt to define the job to be done.Members resist the task demands.There is an open exchange of views about the team’s problems.Resources are allocated efficiently; processes are in place to ensure that the final objective is acheived.
Process IssuesTeam members look outside to managers for guidance and direction.Team denies the task and looks for reasons not to do it.The team starts to set up procedures to deal with the task.The team is able to solve problems.
Feelings IssuesPeople feel anxious and are unsure of their roles.People still feel uncertain and try to express their individuality. Concerns arise about team hierarchy.People ignore individual differences and are more accepting of one another.People share a common focus, communicate effectively, and become more efficient and flexible as a result.

Source: Bruce Tuckman

importantWhen it comes to remote teams, the friction of distance makes the “feelings issues” that are a part of each of Tuckman’s four stages take longer to process. Groups rely on social cues to move from one stage to the next, and the lower the amount of social interaction, the more difficult it is for team formation to progress. This is an area of team formation where remote leaders will want to pay extra attention.

Forming

When a team first comes together, it’s important to identify the boundaries of this new unit. Identity statements like a team name, ensuring clarity on the roles and expectations of each team member, and creating a team mission statement help to bring a group of geographically isolated individuals together.

This is a good time to humanize one another, too. At Zappos, a fully remote company, new hires give video tours of their workspaces. Leaders Tony Hsieh and Jenn Lim say this practice “allows colleagues to form mental images of one another when they’re later communicating by email, phone, or text message.” Putting people in the context of their home or office environments can help remote teammates remember that their colleagues are autonomous individuals with lives all their own, and so should be treated with respect and empathy.

importantSome people might not be comfortable sharing the details of their personal spaces. It’s important for companies and managers to respect those boundaries as well.

Storming

In this phase, conflict plays a critical role in integrating virtual teams. Once this does happen, it’s common for distributed teams to get stuck in a place of “artificial harmony,” where disagreement is buried, and productive conflicts are avoided. Instead of a truly harmonious team, you get a group of individuals who are quietly and silently opposed and disengaged from whatever the team is doing, and because the team doesn’t have the levels of psychological safety needed to disagree openly and still maintain the relationship, this festers. Storming is the most common phase where team integration stalls. Without personal bonds to sustain a frank discussion, team members avoid conflict at all costs, and group performance suffers. A team that doesn’t go through the ‘storming’ phase will not reach the levels of open debate and trust that characterizes ‘performing’ teams.

importantPersonal chitchat, making time for social interactions, and other team-bonding exercises that are covered below in Morale, Mental Health, and Burnout in Remote Teams and in the Remote Company Culture section, all help to get and keep a team gelled.

During the storming phase, leaders must be actively involved in managing conflict for the phase to come to a successful resolution.

Norming

Once a team has reached a point of productive conflict, it can then enter the next phase of “norming,” in which conflict no longer dominates group discussions and the job at hand is getting work done.At this point, documenting preferences and agreements helps reinforce conflict as necessary and role-based rather than personal, and aids in moving on from continuous conflict. Helping teammates prepare for more candid discussions by reviewing one another’s conflict profiles and agreements also helps a preoccupation with conflict change into a tool in the team’s toolkit rather than its defining action.

Harvard Business Review recommends assigning an “official advocate for candor” in team discussions on an ongoing basis (Patrick Lenceoni also recommends a strategy like this). This can be a rotating position assigned at the beginning of a virtual meeting or conference call, similar to how one might assign a meeting facilitator or note-taker. Having an assigned candor advocate raises the odds of productive conflict occurring: “I sense that not everyone agrees here—can we pause for a bit of constructive debate?”

Taking this a step further, when productive conflict is occuring, giving participants real-time permission to continue can help: “This might feel awkward, Alice and Bob, but I want to remind us all of how important healthy conflict is, and that on this team, we’ve all agreed to break through artificial harmony. You’re both doing a great job at this!”

Performing

At this point, the team has started to perform as a ‘gelled’ unit, with high levels of psychological safety. In a remote team, active maintenance of the team’s focus and morale helps to keep teams in this high performance phase.

Managing Conflict in Remote Teams

Resolving conflict between team members (and across teams) is a classic responsibility for managers, and the challenges are exaggerated on distributed teams due to distance and degraded emotional information from asynchronous, written communication. The solutions, too, are not necessarily as straightforward as they would be in an office setting.

James O’Toole and Warren Bennis describe observable candor as a foundation of successful teamwork. It is the degree to which “people have access to relevant, timely, and valid information.” Without it, teams are simply less effective. Unfortunately, remote teams are especially ineffective at frank conversations: HBR research shows that in dispersed groups, leaders have to actively push team members to be candid with each other.

In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick M. Lencioni defines “artificial harmony” as the lack of “passionate, unfiltered debate around issues of importance to the team.” Teams may avoid passionate debate in an effort to stay conflict; back-channeling is often the result.

Back-channeling is a secondary conversation that happens to the side, or after, a primary conversation. In a work context, this manifests when sub-groups either talk separately via chat or other text mechanisms during a meeting, or meet separately afterwards to discuss issues in semi-private spaces, because they are unable to have productive conversations as a group.

There are a few ways to help managers predict and prevent these kinds of issues within remote teams.

Conflict Profiling

Conflict profiling is a method for evaluating the manner in which individuals on a team react to conflict.

In a conflict-profiling exercise, team members all answer a set of questions during a video meeting. These answers can then be kept on a shared document to reference later.

  • How normal is conflict for you?

  • How comfortable are you with “lively debate” and pushback?

  • What do you need to feel comfortable with productive conflict?

This helps uncover differences in teammates’ communication styles. People might assume that everyone has the same appetite for lively debates as they do, and feel shame or shock when their excited pushback is met with tense withdrawal.

Knowing who does and doesn’t feel naturally comfortable with conflict, and specifically what each person needs to feel safe when expressing or hearing disagreement, means that positive conflict is more likely to occur and be handled productively, reducing fears that disagreement or new ideas pose a high relationship risk.

dangerThe idea that everyone should feel psychologically safe to disagree can be used to defend unacceptable behavior and verbal harassment. Healthy conflict and psychological safety emphatically do not apply to violations of a company’s code of conduct, hate speech, or conflict that marginalizes people or groups. No one should feel encouraged by company policy to express racist, sexist, transphobic or otherwise bigoted views in the workplace. This conflict-norming advice applies to the discussion of ideas that do not incite harm to others.

As a manager, you may also need to help individuals manage conflict when it impacts their ability to work together. In an office setting, getting people together physically can often resolve a conflict due to misunderstanding or built-up reactions to misaligned expectations. In a Twitter thread, Textio CEO Kieran Snyder detailed how a tense, difficult relationship with a co-worker changed once they were able to get together for lunch:

We had a very human conversation that day about why our work partnership was not working. I found it easier to give and receive feedback than I ever had in the office. I was able to hear where he was coming from, and felt more open to share in return.*

When this kind of in-person meeting to resolve conflict isn’t possible, team members will need alternate approaches, and strong encouragement from their manager to make it happen. This could include talking on the phone while each person takes a walk outside, or switching to longform written communication where each party gets a chance to think deeply about the conflict and express their feelings carefully. Other approaches can include more specific directives for how these conversations are conducted, like a manager instructing the parties to use the hedgehog method.

The Hedgehog Method

Ben Erez, a Product Manager for design tool Abstract, advocates for using the “hedgehog method”*discussing difficult situations or giving feedback while using “I” statements, that frame the discussion in terms of the feelings, beliefs, and values of the person speaking, instead of placing blame or fault on the other person or people involved. The method follows a set format:

  • State your honest intention. “I would like to improve how we partner on…”

  • Share what you observed. “I noticed that when we started this project…”

  • Share your interpretation. “I ended up feeling… because…”

  • Ask for the other perspective. “How did you take that?”

  • Generate a solution. “What can we do better next time?”

Erez and team found that the “emotion and interpretation parts are critical, and combine to open a two-way door to discuss the feedback and come up with a collaborative plan for moving forward together constructively. It’s not accusatory, so the conversation doesn’t deteriorate into any kind of finger-pointing.”

Crucial Conversations Methods

The Hedgehog method echoes key points in Crucial Conversations, with the principle “Work On Me First, Us Second.” A few tactics remote team members can use from their approach include:

  • Stick to the facts. “Abandon your absolute certainty by distinguishing between hard facts and your invented story.”

  • Keep your shared goals front and center. Establish something both people care about: “Mutual purpose means that others perceive that you’re working toward a common outcome in a conversation, that you care about their goals, interests, and values. And vice versa.”

  • Avoid the “Fool’s Choice.” Crucial Conversations defines this as framing things in terms of either/or choices when there are more than two options. “Watch to see if you’re telling yourself that you must choose between peace and honesty, between winning and losing, and so on.”

Remote One-on-One Meetings

A one-on-one meeting (or 1:1, or one-to-one, or one-on-one) is a recurring meeting between a manager and their individual team members. While the format may vary significantly by organization or team, it is typically a time for the manager and employee to discuss how the employee is doing, and may include discussing projects, coaching, mentorship, establishing context, or helping the employee discuss challenging aspects of their work.

One-on-ones were popularized by Andy Grove in High Output Management, where Grove argues that “[ninety] minutes of your time can enhance the quality of your subordinate’s work for two weeks, or for some eighty-plus hours.” This is a compelling return on time invested, and so for good reason, one-on-one meetings have become a management best practice. Grove recommends that the one-on-one meeting be directed not by the manager, but by the employee, and that it is emphatically their time to bring up what is on their mind.

Increased Importance of Remote One-on-Ones

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