The virtual working conundrum – how to collaborate effectively in a dispersed group

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27October 2016
Katherine Woods

Katherine Woods

Partner
This post is authored by Katherine Woods, Partner. Full bio →
Katherine Woods
Katherine Woods

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There is a conundrum about virtual working in the business world at the moment…

Most people need to work virtually in their jobs now and companies have invested millions in technology to support this.
We all ‘get’ the commercial benefits of working virtually (saving the expense and time of travel) and the benefits of collaborating with colleagues and partners, to progress work with ‘many heads’ involved, not just one.
We all feel we ‘should’ know how to do this, and yet it feels like wading through treacle. Even the more tech-savvy younger generation, for whom the technology isn’t a boundary, are not getting the productivity benefits promised by the tech platform producers.
Why is this?…

In my humble opinion… it’s because the technology does not understand group dynamics, and how to foster effective collaboration between human beings. In fact, I will go as far as saying, you can achieve great collaboration and productivity with quite crappy technology, when you know how to work with people in groups.

Last week we ran another one of our virtual working sessions – a series of three interactive webinars for people who want to collaborate more effectively in dispersed groups. The group members came from different companies and different countries, and all reported similar troubles in virtual meetings: difficulty in managing engagement of diverse groups; trouble converging on robust decisions; struggling to resolve conflicts and differences of opinion in these spaces; not to mention all the technical difficulties with varied broadband capabilities, and audio problems.

So, what’s the answer?…

A key step, when a group decide to come together, is to get really clear on what level of collaboration is needed, and therefore how much trust is needed in the group. For example if a group come together to just share ideas, and don’t need to converge on decisions together, then lower levels of trust are fine for this quality of work, and therefore it is possible to get away with less attention to group development. However, if a group are going to be involved in making strategic decisions and driving action, then higher levels of trust are needed, and more attention needs to be invested in getting the group through the stages of group development, so that they can collaborate effectively. If a group are going to be involved in effecting change, then real attention needs to be given to developing high performance in the group, otherwise their group dynamic is likely to prevent them being able to effect any shifts in the organisation.

What is group development?

There are many models for group development. Probably the most well-known in the business world is the Tuckman model – Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning. However, regardless of the theoretical lens you use to look at a group, at the heart is a focus on the human system, in service of the results they need to achieve. In organisations these days groups of people are often thrown together and expected to collaborate, as if the magic of the whole becoming greater than the sum of the parts will happen automatically. The downside I see of the virtual space is that it seems to focus attention on the work flow, without considering the human flow, and this means that many groups are not getting the results they could when working remotely.

Supporting group development – start with small things?

Considering the human dynamic in any work done in groups is important and small things can make a big difference. For example, whenever I work with a group I will take time to check-in and check-out of the work. This doesn’t need to take long – in our team calls each week we just go around each person asking for one thing that ‘sucks’ and one thing that ‘rocks’ ; yesterday we did a check-in and check-out that involved each person sharing one word about how they were feeling. For many groups this can feel counter-cultural at the start, but the huge benefit of check-ins is that they give a sense of how each person is before launching into the work. Check-outs help us understand what people are taking away from a session, rather than assuming. We are all human, not robots, and therefore the things happening within the context of our lives affect how we think and feel about things. Being transparent about what is going on for us is the first step towards building trust and respect in a group, and is particularly important in virtual working where we don’t have some of the visual cues about what might be going on.

So, next time you connect in a virtual meeting, take time to consider the humans on the other side of the screens. What could you be doing to foster greater trust and inclusion in the way you work?

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