What do you need to consider when building a team in a hybrid world where people can work both in the office and remotely? What challenges do you need to tackle when managing virtual teams? It is all about distance.
Researchers Sarah Morrison-Smith and Jaime Ruiz categorized challenges of remote virtual teams into several categories: geographical distance, temporal distance, perceived distance, the configuration of dispersed teams, and group composition, or socio-cultural distance.
1. Geographical distance
Geographical distance has numerous challenges such as difficulty establishing trust, the lack of awareness of colleagues and their context, lack of motivation coming from the presence of others, issues with the technical infrastructure required for collaboration.
Most of them are apparent, but an interesting one is a motivation coming from the presence of others. Imagine you study at home, and then imagine you study in a library. The quietness, the muffled sounds of an occasional slowly moving person, a bunch of other people sitting here and there and focusing on their books. You can feel the studying energy. It is motivational. You may not realize, but sometimes you probably miss that energy at home. It is called the social facilitation effect, and it is known to cause people to work harder when in the presence of others.
One of the potential issues with geographically distributed teams, which is very relevant to the hybrid world, is the tendency of subgroups within a company or a team to develop us-versus-them attitudes. The word “we” is then used specifically for the subset of people who are co-located. This is a great way to build a toxic culture with lots of infighting.
2. Temporal distance
Temporal distance is arguably more challenging than a geographical one. The problem is that when people work in different time zones, there is only a limited number of hours for them to communicate with each other directly. A lot of communication becomes asynchronous and written. It isn’t easy to build rapport, relationships, and trust without ever talking to each other.
Since it undoubtedly brings delays in execution, sometimes it is easier for a person to work around the problem and approach someone in the same time zone rather than wait for the actual person who should get the work done but sits a couple of hours away. This is true, especially for decision-making. A decision needs to be made so those in the same time zone meet and decide, not waiting for another stakeholder who should be part of the decision but is currently asleep at the other end of the world. This is the easiest way to kill trust and create misunderstandings.
3. Perceived distance
Perceived distance has nothing to do with the actual geographical or temporal distance. It is all about perception. The perception of how near or far someone is affects the relationship. It is about a sense of shared identity and what communication media is used. You can close the perceived distance by frequent synchronous communication and informal chats. Being in the same country and the same culture significantly lowers the sense of perceived distance while interacting with people from other countries and cultures increases it even if geographically they are closer.
4. Team’s configuration
The team’s configuration can be divided, as Morrison-Smith and Ruiz suggest, into three parts: site dispersion, imbalance, and isolation. There is a clear inverse relationship between the number of sites involved and project success. Imbalance in the teams shows when there are few remote workers while most of the team is co-located. The amount of local communication is significantly higher and different than the communication with the remote workers. Isolation leads to the lack of a sense of belonging, but curiously enough, also to bigger or more frequent contributions as the remote worker feels they need to be more vocal to have the same impact as the co-located team members. Isolated workers identify less with the team, and that leads to the feeling of alienation and distrust.
5. Socio-cultural distance
Group composition is then about socio-cultural distance and common ground. Remote collaboration is easier when the employees have common ground, meaning they know each other well, worked together before, have shared past and mental models. This is why the collaboration during the Covid-19 pandemic often went quite well. Most teams entered the time fully build, and there was not much hiring going on. The teams knew each other from the office, so transferring to work from home was relatively seamless.
It would be a very different matter if you tried to build these teams from scratch. When you include cultural differences, it makes the common ground even more difficult to achieve. Different cultures bring different motivations, expectations, behavioral patterns, and values. All this requires more effort to build trust and common ground. Socio-cultural distance reduces communication and may lead to higher friction and collaboration breakdowns in distributed teams. It can also lead to creating subgroups within the team and potentially us-versus-them culture.
A big potential issue also comes from language preferences. A portion of the distributed team may not be native speakers in a selected language of the corporation. That lack of proficiency leads to possible misinterpretations and exclusion from culture or language-specific jokes, references, and colloquialisms. This may be somewhat mitigated by asynchronous communication when non-native speakers have more time to figure out what the communication means but can put them at a disadvantage in direct synchronous communication, like video conferencing.
What does it mean?
When building a hybrid workplace, consider the various aspects of distance. It is not only the geographical distance that makes things tricky but also the temporal, perceived, and socio-cultural distance and the team’s configuration. A successful team is one that can bridge these distances and allow everyone to feel they belong.
What is your take on the topic? What type of distance is the most tricky for building a strong team? What type of distance creates the biggest problems for you personally?
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