A Better Approach to Team-Building

Remote and hybrid work have unsettled an already messy environment. Strengthening teams starts with improving how you communicate with them.

Teams are in trouble. According to research gathered by TED, half of meeting attendees find them unproductive—the proverbial “this could’ve been an email” situation. Nine out of 10 people daydream in meetings, and 75 percent of leaders haven’t received formal training on how to conduct them. The kicker is that these are circa-2014 figures, and the challenges of remote and hybrid work have only exacerbated the challenge.

Methods for effectively managing teams will vary as much as teams do, but some bedrock principles do apply. Writing recently in the Harvard Business Review, executive coach Luis Velasquez stressed that better managing groups starts with better communicating with its individual members. “Understanding and addressing your team members’ individual strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, and fears is key to fostering an inclusive and participatory environment,” he writes. “People’s self-perception and their individual personalities can discourage them from engaging.”

Leaders can unconsciously favor the input of people who are closest physically to them.

To address that barrier, Velasquez recommends that team leaders get to know their people one-on-one, which can help surface thoughts and concerns that might not emerge in open-ended group discussions. But leaders also need to understand that groups are cultures in themselves, and need to be managed with a group philosophy in mind. Leaders do best when they cultivate an environment where people feel they can safely share their ideas. And they can do that by clarifying goals up-front, demonstrating empathy when people are participating the way they want, and tamping down power struggles before they become bigger challenges. 

“As leaders, we must cultivate teams where every member’s contributions are not only heard but eagerly anticipated, and where every member feels safe to voice their opinion, even contrarian ones,” he writes.

The new remote and hybrid environment exacerbates these challenges, in large part thanks to proximity bias—leaders can unconsciously favor the input of people who are closest physically to them. As a recent article at Built In points out, that can lead to remote workers getting “left out of decision-making processes, project assignments, promotions or other career advancement opportunities.”

There are a variety of tactics that leaders can use to create a level playing field. They can avoid hybrid divides altogether by making everyone participate virtually or in-person, the article suggests: “When one person on the team is virtual, everyone should be following virtual communication protocols — even people who are in the office.” They can also be more intentional in responding to the disparities that hybridity creates, like how they likely tend to give more feedback in-person.

Or they can rethink the idea of meetings entirely—oftentimes, that meeting really can be an email. In the article, HR chief Amy Casciotti suggests that leaders try to avoid convening people for small-bore matters like delivering data or status updates. Leaders can instead record and share a short video clip in advance, which gives participants an opportunity to process and brainstorm—especially if they’re less skilled at doing so in the moment. This “flipped meeting,” Casciotti says, “ensures every employee is given equal opportunity to fully understand information, brainstorm, and share commentary in advance.”

That suggestion speaks to the challenge and promise of team management—you’re working as a group, but the group succeeds when individuals feel like they’re able to bring their honest ideas to the table. No leader will likely ever be able to entirely stop people from daydreaming in meetings. But they can create a better environment where people feel like their voices are heard.

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