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Extraordinary Teams in the Age of Telework

The first agenda item in a retreat I recently ran for a scientific grant making organization last week was an amazing fashion show. The show started with a couple of staff members MC’ing the fashion show with a discussion of the new closet section for the telework wardrobe!  Once they discussed their business and work casual attire, they moved on to discuss the new telework sections of their closets and the weekly challenge of laying out their wardrobe for their telework days.  Just before co-workers began to cross the cat-walk in pajamas, work out clothes, bike pants, grass-stained garden clothes, weight lifting attire, scarves to hide unkempt hair, satin robes over blue jeans, and clashing combos of every type, the MCs mentioned that one of their pet peeves about telework was that there was no one to tell them how cute they looked…

Fast speed ahead… The purpose of the one-day off-site, for this already extraordinary organization, was to sustain productivity and excellence while fully embracing flexible work schedules. Most of the work that the staff does is completed in teams. Yet, over 90% of the workforce members have some form of flexible schedule, telework, or other flexible hours agreements.  As a group, they clearly love the flexibility that these arrangements offer individuals, but recognize the privilege and responsibility with which such schedules come.  Staff members commented that when they are in the office, there are many times when very few of their co-workers are present.  They have come to grips with many of the challenges and wanted to co-create alternatives and solutions for other challenges.

As I listened to these amazing teams and individuals describe their challenges about balancing individual needs and team needs, I was struck by how their issues fell into a couple of the key areas that distinguish ordinary teams from extraordinary ones.   Extraordinary teams are not just high performing.  But, because they also provide opportunities for personal transformation while delivering outstanding results. In development of the Extraordinary Teams Inventory, we’ve identified five characteristics of extraordinary teams in our work: compelling purpose, profound learning, full engagement, strengthened relationships, and embracing differences.

In particular, telework brings challenges in staying fully engaged when you are not present at the work site and for the team members in the work site to come to grips with embracing the differences and respecting the shift in communication required for the virtually present team member.  Because a member is teleworking do you need to reschedule meetings?  Do you invite them?  When you invite them, do you remember they are there? How do you know what’s happening with body language that conveys so much of every communication, even with video-conferencing technologies?  Does the virtual person get remembered? When he or she is speaking, how does he or she know they’ve been heard (ELMO—enough already, let’s move on)? Are the work products effectively shared via technology to make the meetings effective… The list goes on.

Teams that have a high degree of telework risk moving down a rung on the continuum of extraordinariness, from extraordinary to solid or from solid to ordinary.  No one wants to lose this productive edge.  Much of the solution lies in bringing the remote participants into presence. Here are some key learnings to keep the edge sharp when virtual teams are at work.

Full Engagement

  • Change Meetings 101 to Extraordinary-meetings 101.  We all know meetings need agendas.  But too few have one. Virtual participation makes the need for an agenda that is visual and tactile even more important. Further, the agenda needs to recognize and address the shape-shift that the virtual attendance brings. Specifically, build the agenda in such a way that teleworkers have actions and pre-work prior to the meeting and have specific time on the agenda.
  • Then take an embodiment check. When the meeting starts, acknowledge the virtual participants and bring everyone present by centering the group in purpose. What I mean is go around and let each member acknowledge how they are feeling or what their sensations are right now.  As a leader, model this by going first.  Turn off your cell phone and put it away and say that you are doing that in the process. Verbally bring yourself present, mentioning what you are letting go of to focus on this meeting and purpose.
  • Make the invisible visible. When discussions are held move from a free for all to a structured format. One novel idea that emerged was a flat-Stanley approach—put up a photo of the virtual worker at a seat at the table and as the discussion rotates systematically around the table, she has a formal place in it.

Embracing Difference

  • Conflict is hard face-to-face.  It’s harder when we can’t see each other and react to body language.  When conflict is apparent, facilitate the virtual presence of each other.  Say how you are feeling or what sensation you are having.  Slow the conversation down to add that embodiment check to each participant’s engagement in the higher conflict discussion.  Say something like “I’m feeling uncomfortable about …” and then make your statement.  End by asking the virtual participant to state how they are feeling about the position.  Something like, “So, how does that sit with you?”  Open space for “seeing the remote participant.
  • Bring patience and appreciation into the discussion. Having technology filter the finer points of hearing and understanding people can contribute to less tolerance.  Figure out ways to Don’t just talk.  Share real time visuals by taking pictures with your smart phone and sharing these across the telework gap.
  • Sub-group including the virtual member in a smaller group. Collaboration is the hallmark behavioral indicator of embracing difference. So, maybe on a separate conference line where they are actively engaged with fewer group members, have the virtual team member give the sub-group report out to the larger group.

What sets extraordinary teams apart from the rest? Yes, extraordinary teams have the ability to achieve tangible results. But what makes them so spectacular is that they do something ordinary teams cannot…they cultivate an exciting, collaborative environment that’s built upon mutual trust, respect, and engagement. As team members, individuals experience a positive personal change—and that means your organization reaps the benefits of better team performance and employees with increased skills, connections, loyalty, and enthusiasm for their work.

Click here to view the webinar from June of this year.  Enjoy!

About the Author / Presenter:

Recognized as an expert in large-scale organization change efforts, strategic planning, and executive teams, Kevin Coray is the president of Coray-Gurnitz Consulting, a Washington D.C. firm that was recently awarded the Washingtonian’s Great Places to Work Award. He earned his Ph.D. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology and he teaches at George Washington University. Kevin is the co-author of Extraordinary Groups: How Ordinary Teams Achieve Amazing Results.

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