Teams: dispersed doesn’t have to mean disconnected

We can no longer dismiss the fact that more and more people are working from home, and the reasons need no explanation. However, even though remote employees report being happier at work and feel more valued, it doesn’t mean you should leave them out in the cold. 

I was recently asked by a senior executive to speak to their leadership teams about leading and working in distributed teams. How could they work as an increasingly distributed team without losing their staff in the process? As I looked out at the 35 sets of eyes turned my way, the mood in the room seemed to fall on the side of nervousness. Their eyes seemed to show concern, even hesitation.

It wasn’t until I shared one key insight with them that they started to relax.

Leaders of distributed teams face a particular challenge. We often focus on creating an environment where people will focus on results, because, after all, work is about getting a job done. However, many leaders and managers fail to notice the vital role of camaraderie in their distributed teams.

The Three-Factor Theory of Human Motivation in the Workplace by Sirota and Klein shows us that focusing primarily on results can be misguided. The three key factors which affect motivation at work are fairness (equity), achievement and camaraderie.

I value this work by Sirota and Klein because it’s substantiated by systematic evidence and applies to roughly 85 to 90 per cent of the workforce, regardless of industry and is incredibly relevant to the distributed teams I’ve coached.

We all know that getting along with people at work helps get things done but how many people realise it is as important as doing the actual work? The three factor theory tells us that having warm and positive working relationships is equally as important as fairness and achievement. This is especially so in distributed teams.

Consider team meetings; it’s essential to talk about project plans or strategy, to decide on an approach, to keep everyone informed or to coach the team in how to make  progress. It is easy to see how we can become focused on achievement and getting things done. How often do we create genuine opportunities to have a bit of chit chat at the start of a meeting?

In one distributed team I led, we made a practice of starting our meetings at 5 past the hour, so that there were always a few minutes to converse about anything and everything before getting into the work. This small shift meant that every time we met there was an opportunity for human connection.

By creating opportunities for camaraderie, you not only improve team culture, but you increase motivation. This is because the three factors combine to create an exponential impact. In other words:

Fairness (Equity) x Achievement x Camaraderie = High Performance Engagement

The more you focus on all three of these motivators, the more your employees will feel satisfied with their Workplace Experience and the more powerfully you will feel the impact and see the results in your bottom line.

  • Are you paying a decent wage and creating the right working conditions? Probably.
  • Are you providing opportunities for good work, where people feel a sense of achievement and progress? Hopefully.
  • Are you creating an environment where distributed team members feel they can have warm, exciting and cooperative working relationships? This is what will take your team to the next level.

When I shared this with my audience of leaders something clicked, the mood shifted, and people took note.

We’ve all been there, focused on work and dealing with the basics to make sure the environment is fair and equitable. Then one day you notice that people care less than they used to, they seem distracted and everyone busy doing their own thing. Imagine a workplace where a whole month went by without anyone asking how you are, recognising something important about you or acknowledging that there is more to you than being a ‘worker’. Few would feel excited about going to work. This is a real possibility in a distributed team.

In the words of Jason Fried and David Hienemeier Hansson “We make such a point of looking at the work that it’s easy to forget the humans behind it.” At their company, 37signals, the creators of Basecamp, they make a point of calling people for non-work conversations once a month. A scheduled catch up that reinforces the value of the person and provides an opportunity to connect.

Create space for camaraderie. This might mean you need to allow time during meetings to chat informally before getting to business.You may need to give travel and accommodation a higher priority to get your team together in person. Nothing beats the right combination of a focus on results and opportunities to be ‘human’ for creating powerful distributed teamwork. 

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