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How to bring back the human element when teamwork goes online

16 December 2022 • by Ina Toegel in Videos

The shift to virtual meetings over the past two years has made effective teamworking more challenging, but there are ways of using technology more effectively, according to authors Mike Brent and Nigel...

The shift to virtual meetings over the past two years has made effective teamworking more challenging, but there are ways of using technology more effectively, according to authors Mike Brent and Nigel Melville. Virtual collaboration also offers great opportunities to develop global teams.

The problem with the move to online meetings triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic is that it does not take account of the human side of teamwork, said Mike Brent, co-author with Nigel Melville and Fiona Dent of When Teams Work: How to develop and lead a high-performing team during an IMD Book Club discussion, led by Professor Ina Toegel.

“Humans are social creatures – we are probably the third most social species on the planet behind ants and bees, and we have this need for social contact. We have to make time for social interactions and building relationships,” said Brent, Professor of Practice at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School.

“I find using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and online meetings very transactional and one-dimensional. We are missing out on so many things, so it is important to get a balance, by doing transactional things online, but also allowing time for a more 3D version of things if we can,” said Melville, a former England rugby union team captain and high-performance sports coach, currently serving as Director of Professional Rugby for the Rugby Football Union.

However, the downside of virtual collaboration is partly the result of the way that organizations use technology. “We have made it transactional, but it doesn’t have to be. You also need some interaction, so you need to provide some time for that, as well as the chat and follow-ups that you would have with face-to-face contacts in an office,” said Melville. He cited the example of a board of rugby club owners in which he is involved, where online meetings with formal agendas have been supplemented with informal calls that generate much more real interaction.

Brent said he advises leaving 10 minutes in any 60-minute meeting free for reflection or interaction, and also invites all participants to introduce themselves and speak up whenever they want to in Zoom meetings to enable people to “get their voice into the room”.

And while virtual meetings have their limitations, they offer a huge opportunity to build international teams in ways that would not have been possible in the past. “A benefit is that you can build really strong high-performance teams without being tied to using your local resources. You can do it globally. You just need to make sure that between meetings, which may be quite transactional, you catch up with people and get to know them better,” said Melville.

The book is a pragmatic guide to effective teamworking and the skills needed to successfully coach and facilitate teams. And it includes a series of tips for successful virtual collaboration, including limiting the use of PowerPoint, never speaking for more than four minutes without asking a question and, crucially, not being afraid of silence. Too many leaders jump in to fill what they see as an uncomfortable silence, but some people need time before they have the confidence to speak up and when they do, they may say something very important. This applies just as much to face-to-face meetings, the authors said.

The notion of what counts as a team is now much broader than in the past, even if not all groups of people are necessarily teams. Melville cited the example of celebrity chef Tom Kerridge, who they interviewed for the book, who sees his restaurant staff as a high-performance team. The book also includes learning lessons from specialist teams in other areas such as the military, hospitals, orchestras and aerobatics, as well as business and sports.

There are always difficult characters, and the more difficult the character, the more skilled you have to be as a leader.
- Mike Brent

In addition, the book deals with how to address problems when teams are not working well together. Often this happens when the basics are wrong – people are not listening to each other, they are judging each other, or they are not looking for what is going well, said Brent.

Even if an organization is performing well, this does not mean that it could not be doing even better with effective teamwork, which can unlock new ideas and ensure that everyone buys in to the organization’s goals.

Some business leaders can feel challenged by such a process, but they have a key role to play as a facilitator. It is therefore important to develop the skills needed to do this effectively. These include knowing when to step back, giving space for others to speak, and when to step forward, when a team member is dominating the discussion or heading off topic. “There are always difficult characters, and the more difficult the character, the more skilled you have to be as a leader,” said Brent.

It is also vital to ensure that you have an environment of psychological safety that enables people to feel confident about speaking up and putting forward new ideas, and to discuss a team’s purpose and agree on how members will work together before they start to collaborate, in a process known as contracting. “This is essential. I’m always amazed at how many teams don’t do this,” said Brent.

And for teams to work really effectively, participants need to be ready to see things from the viewpoint of other members. 

Where you stand is what you see and what you don’t see, and if you move your position, you will see something different - so it’s important to look at things from everybody’s perspective and not just your own.
- Nigel Melville


Ina Toegel - IMD Professor

Ina Toegel

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD

Ina Toegel’s research focuses on team dynamics, organizational change management, top management teams during corporate renewal, and founder influence. She directs the Leading High-Performance Teams program which supports executives in achieving team flow and transforming a group of individuals into a high-performing dream team.

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