News & Views has tackled interpersonal relations in the physical workplace on numerous occasions (see here, here and here for just three, recent examples) – but what about when workers aren’t confined to a specific space that they must all share?
What about when they are geographically distributed over a large footprint – one that may even cover several countries?
As a recent Business Insider article reveals,  one company that has made huge strides towards creating a shared sense of its culture among its remote-working staff is US real-estate firm eXp Realty. Indeed, the firm has taken that ambition to quite unusual lengths.
Instead of using conference calls to communicate, or team-messaging apps such as Slack, it has built a virtual island inside a computer server that acts as a ‘campus’ for workers to report into. The Thunderbirds-style base of operations has a number of virtual buildings filled with digital recreations of offices and conferencing facilities, and each worker is represented by an avatar. The whole experience harnesses the audio-visual techniques of online videogames to help distributed workers feel as though they are all in the same place – and on the same page.
After taking a tour around the island, Business Insider journalist Prachi Bhardwaj noted: “It became clear that these execs were totally used to being immersed in this world. They referred to things being ‘behind me’ or ‘behind Mitch’, showing that they have a sense of where things are in this virtual space.”
Tellingly, at the end of last year Glassdoor named eXp Realty a best place to work. But what about companies that haven’t developed such sophisticated facilities, and still rely upon staples such as conference calls and team messaging?
Which communication skills are most critical to deploy among virtual teams in order to build an authentic sense of community and trust – and to ensure that the whole working experience doesn’t feel impersonal?
The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “A couple of years ago we did some research on managing and leading distributed teams, and we found that the most effective methods revolved around evoking a sense of connectedness. The Business Insider example is terrifically sophisticated – almost like something out of Second Life. But one of the most accessible and easy-to-replicate methods that we found really worked was for each team member to set up a webcam in their remote office. That way, everyone else can see who’s ‘in’, and get a feel for the shape of the team at any given moment.”
Cooper points out: “one interesting behavioural aspect of videoconferences – especially among people who are used to seeing each other in that particular format – is the amount of waving that goes on. So there’s that important note of personal recognition, plus a desire to use warmth to overcome the distance and technological trappings.”
However, she notes: “in cases where sophisticated technical equipment is in short supply, one of the most effective steps is to use voice in place of tools such as email. One of the biggest tendencies in the early days of remote working was for people to use the written word in place of the spoken word: ‘I can’t see you, so I’ll write to you instead.’ But when you reflect back on that, even just a few years later, it all seems rather nonsensical. Then we got to the point when even office-based workers started emailing each other about everything, and even emailed the people right next to them.
“The use of voice, whenever you can, reframes that whole relationship, because it takes micromanagement out of the equation. It’s about finding out, through conversation, what you want out of someone, rather than telling them in often gruelling detail what you think they should be doing. One great concept that seems to be quite popular among distributed workforces is Pizza Night: everyone rounds up a pizza for themselves, tunes into the rest of the team and the company collectively gorges on pizza even though all the members are dispersed around the world.
Cooper adds: “Alongside all those behavioural points, it really is important to note that no matter what technology you use – whether it’s videoconferencing, webcams or Skype – it has to work. That is a perennial frustration of remote teams: being unable to start the task you’d planned to fulfil because a key colleague isn’t connected, or something in the system has broken down.
“All told, though, I’d say that in ever greater numbers, workers are definitely enjoying this process of connecting, and are growing increasingly comfortable with the connection being a virtual rather than physical one – because they understand it doesn’t prevent them from getting to know their peers.”
For further thoughts on teamworking, check out these learning resources from the Institute
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- 08 August 2018