We are coming out of this virus and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Some of us are still hoping it’s not a train. And many businesses are beginning to rethink their co-located teams and a requirement that people physically report to work. Goldman Sachs, under the leadership of David Solomon, is requiring most workers to return to offices full time. Meanwhile, nearby Citibank, led by Jane Fraser, has announced that most workers will be allowed to choose a more hybrid approach.
Set aside the obvious difficulty for parents, suddenly faced with child-care challenges. And put aside whether the male/female difference between the CEOs influenced the decision. I want to write about when co-located teams and workforces are most important. In a follow-up blog, I plan to write about when the decision to disburse teams or allow more work from home options might make more sense. First, let me explain what I mean by teams and workforces.
Are you talking about a team or a workforce?
We frequently hear the word team or teamwork thrown around loosely. Companies talk about teamwork and effective teams, and they often really mean their entire workforce. In this blog, I will use the term team somewhat loosely because much of what I’m going to talk about applies to both.
But we need to be clear that organizations can organize workforces into teams, whether they are cross-functional or siloed teams. People talk about the HR team or the project team, the softball team, and the company team like they are all similar. And they may be, or they may not be.
There are teams and sub-teams, company workforces, department teams, and project teams. So, the words can mean different things, depending on context.
In general, a group of people all striving to fulfill the same mission can function as a team. This is true even if they don’t know one another and are located all over the world. So, when do co-located teams matter the most?
When the work requires creativity
Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan, was questioned by Forbes on his reasoning for wanting employees back in physical offices. He complained that there is an absence of “spontaneous learning and creativity because you don’t run into people at the coffee machine, talk with clients in unplanned scenarios or travel to meet with customers and employees for feedback on your products and services.”
To add to that concern, there is emerging research on the use of sociometers to study the effectiveness of small group work in face-to-face settings. The research has been primarily focused on how creativity and social signals are connected. Sociometer devices are worn around the necks of everyone in the group. They measure factors such as speech timing and volume, movement, and spatial orientation. These studies are in the infancy stage. Yet, the speculation is that team creativity is enhanced when people work face-to-face.
One study using sociometers, for example, suggested that a high level of successful interruptions suggested higher individual creativity and enjoyment. Longer uninterrupted speech segments suggested a lower level of creativity and enjoyment. There are ways to improve team creativity and personal enjoyment. Try to find a conversational balance where ideas from everyone are well integrated and people are actively listening.
These studies and anecdotal reports suggest that a return to in-person work is more important when creativity is needed.
When communication is critical
As I discussed in a recent book review on The Culture Code by Dan Coyle, MIT Professor Thomas Allen studied group chemistry during the Cold War. He was trying to uncover the mysteries of highly effective teams and found that it wasn’t quite as mysterious as he thought. The simple act of placing desks, so that people can see each other, improved effectiveness more than IQ and experience. Dubbed the Allen Curve, communication rises exponentially when people are separated by under 8 meters. Increase the distance to 50 meters and communications cease.
I’m wondering what technology has done to Allen’s observations. But I still believe that talking face-to-face, in a focused, uninterrupted pattern, is faster and more efficient than texting. Email and texts have valid uses as communication tools, but they are not a substitute for talking.
Sherry Turkle is researching the social impacts of emerging technologies. She says that these technology devices run the risk of reducing empathy. And empathy is a human trait that is increasingly needed in a global workforce.
When the team is getting started
As wonderful as videoconferencing technology is, we’ve all experienced the downsides too. There can be technology failures, lost calls, and some difficulty in understanding people when there is static or noise on the line. Also, I often see a general awkwardness about who has the floor. And it can be easy to misread visual clues. For those reasons, I highly recommend co-located teams during the getting started phase.
When you are starting out as a team, or as a company, or on a new complex mega-project, plan some retreats so that people can get to know each other.
When difficulties surface
Video calls are a hard place to duke it out, so to speak. But we can’t avoid the difficult conversations. Try co-located teams, even if for a mini retreat, to work out the conflicts. And in those conversations, use open-ended questions and actively listen. Don’t expect people to read your mind. Make it safe for everyone to contribute. When groups engage in dialogue about difficult subjects, it’s easier to get commitment to the final decision. Don’t avoid the messy middle part of conversations. That’s where the magic often emerges.
I don’t want to second-guess or critique David Solomon’s decision. But I do have a hard time believing that all 20,000 US employees are doing the kind of work that demands a full time return to the office. I work with remote teams quite successfully, although I often wish I could meet some of them for dinner or coffee.
The coming years will offer plenty of insights and learnings from the trade-offs between entirely on-site workforces, hybrid workforces, and co-located workforces. I’ll be curious to see the studies that I’m sure will take place.
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