Improving Virtual Teamwork: Fostering a Better Team Culture
Our series on how we use meetings today, what's missing from the virtual and hybrid models, and what a better model could look like starts with something we talk about a lot around here: team culture.
"Culture" often evokes aspects of the structure we try to establish to foster team and organizational culture: offsites, team building exercises, and team charters. None of this is inherently wrong (setting aside that we’ve all probably seen both good and bad execution for these types of exercises), and done right these types of exercises do create the right space for teams to develop genuine, meaningful team culture.
The reality is that team culture is not a work thing - it is a human thing. Every time there is more than one person present in a place, we develop culture. Culture is how people work together, support each other, and how they agree on the things that are important to them – big and small. It can all be intentionally developed, developed naturally over time, or both. And we do it outside of work as much as inside. The structures we have in place that are all about “workplace culture” are really about letting us have genuine human interactions in a professional setting.
“…team culture is not a work thing. It’s a human thing.”
Culture is the glue that allows a team to be more than the sum of its parts. If a team tackles simple, individual tasks, it's one thing. However, when a team is faced with challenges that require creativity, ingenuity, perseverance, and collaboration, you're asking them to take on not just individual tasks, but also to put those tasks into a broader context. You’re asking them to create new paths to completing goals, and to do it as a group and not as individuals.
This only works when it sits on a foundation of trust, shared understanding of working norms, and alignment on the ‘why’ of the work at hand. If you have to try to create that foundation as you’re doing the work itself, the team will fail. This foundation is team culture.
The best teams are intentional about building their culture. Great managers know the power of cultivating team culture, and dedicate time to let it grow. Historically, even teams less intentional about developing culture have relied on culture being developed in the margins of in-person interactions. Because, again, culture is not a work thing, it’s a human thing.
Dropping by someone’s desk for a chat. Grabbing coffee and stepping out of the daily grind to get to know your teammates. Those few minutes before a meeting when you can socialize. All of these interactions contribute to the development of team culture over time.
These margins shrink or even stop existing in a remote or hybrid work environment. Consequently, the ability for people to naturally build culture is reduced dramatically. Today, teams must be even more intentional about building culture. To discover, discuss, and document the elements of their own culture, teams must set aside time, structure, and space.
Currently, the tools teams have for collaborating remotely and hybrid are almost entirely slanted toward work management tools. Today’s best intentioned teams are trying to create the space for remote team culture in tools that are built for task management or document sharing. The result is yet another top down, band-aid that merely hides the underlying gap. It’s not working.
Today’s teams need work management tools, but they also need a tool for building teams. A tool that provides the structure for teams to come together on equal terms to both talk about and to operationalize their own culture: How they work together, their own norms, their values and why they’re doing the work. Until the right tools exist, teams will continue to struggle in rising beyond a group of individual contributors, and will be ill equipped to succeed in challenges that require higher level thinking and collaboration.