How is it possible to form strong teams when the people you’re leading work in different buildings, different parts of the country and even on different continents? Such teams may rarely, if ever, interact with one another physically. Communication may take place, at best, via video-conference and, at worst, merely via email.
We all have stories about the missteps that happen when we can’t pick up on voice tone and body language. Recent neuroscience research reinforces possible consequences of the reduction or elimination of physical interaction among team members:
- Reduced ability to understand the emotional states of other people with whom interacts virtually.
- Reduced ability to empathize with team members with whom one does not physically work.
- Decreased understanding of the intentions of others, potentially leading to increased misunderstandings and conflict.
- Decreased learning through the reduced ability to imitate others. Imitative learning facilitates skill acquisition such as musical skill as well as social cognitive skills.
The possible consequences of operating in dispersed virtual environments are dramatic, yet it’s unlikely to change. What can leaders do to mitigate the effects?
- Favor interactive media that offer the greatest opportunity to engage auditory, visual and motor systems. Minimize the use of email and texting alone.
- Hold virtual team meetings using virtual worlds such as Second Life.
- Foster cross-site relationship building and collaboration where people from different teams work together on projects.
- Foster deep listening between people. Although ideally, the auditory, visual and motor systems would all be engaged, research shows a link between empathy and auditory mirror activations.
- Invest in face-to-face gatherings before and during high pressure, high stakes initiatives to promote empathy, understanding and a sense of relatedness.
Undoubtedly there are many other strategies that could be adopted. However, maintaining an awareness of what has been lost in these dispersed work arrangements is an important starting point for designing strategies to compensate.