Author: J. Kruger and S. Bissett
When the global SARS COVID 2 pandemic started early in 2020, everyone was trying to figure out how to carry on “normally” within their organisations. This has increased the creation of virtual teams and diminished (and in some cases “killed-off”) non-virtual teams. Experience and what the literature indicates, there are five key attributes present in all true high-performance teams: when team members have a clear understanding of their common purpose, they understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses, when effective and open communication is present within the team, this leads to strong trusting relationships and strong effective leadership. We believe that it is absolutely necessary for teams to function in a face-to-face environment for at least half of the time.
When the global SARS COVID 2 pandemic started early in 2020, everyone was trying to figure out how to carry on “normally” within their organisations. We find that many now believe that they are functioning well enough with most of their employees working remotely. This resulted in them abandoning or at least significantly reducing their office space with the creation of virtual teams. In pre-pandemic times virtual teams were formed as distance and travel time was a risk and cost factor. These virtual teams normally consisted of global or regional experts aiming to provide solutions and to gain insight into business challenges. Today, virtual teamwork has evolved to such a point where online collaboration has become a way of working for many companies. The current pandemic has increased the creation of virtual teams and diminished (and in some cases “killed-off”) non-virtual teams.
World-wide, there are several thought-leaders in the field of team performance and team culture that are expressing concerns with this radical approach of getting everyone to work from home all the time.
In 2004, there was talk of significant challenges in the implementation of virtual teams (Piccoli et al., 2004). Another study (Brett et al., 2006) revealed that most people thought that virtual communication was not as productive as face-to-face interaction, while half of the respondents said they were confused and overwhelmed by collaboration technology. A more recent study in 2009, involving 80 global software teams, indicated that well-managed virtual teams using virtual collaboration can outperform face-to-face teams. (Garro-Arbarca et al., 2021).
In our organisation we believe in the support and positive influence of people to be part of high-performance teams, that they can experience fulfilment in everything they do.
Our experience shows that the highest performing teams are made up of individuals standing in service of each other. When people in these types of teams are totally exhausted or down in the dumps, they will still find the strength to help the person next to them.
Many of us have at least had one experience in our lives being part of a high-performance team, where we felt motivated beyond belief and achieved goals that we could never even imagine to be reached. Trusting everyone in the team unconditionally, including the leadership and felt completely safe in this environment.
Given all this then raises the question:
How do we create an environment for people to do work at their natural best?
Through the combination of our experience and what the literature indicates, there are five key attributes present in all true high-performance teams as shown in the figure below:
Clear Sense of Purpose – WHY are we “Here”
It is well known that having a common purpose is evident in groups or teams that are hyper-successful. We are now seeing that purpose is becoming increasingly important in organisations. Especially the younger generations of employees between 25 to 40 years old, are preoccupied with this theme. They don’t just want to work to make money, their work also has to have a clear purpose.
Research shows that you can achieve the following three things by working with purpose at an individual and organisational level
A higher level of commitment and motivation because the individual person can see the purpose of their work. In fact, studies show that employees who can see the purpose of their work are up to four times more productive than employees who simply work for the money.
A better foundation for making the right decisions, since these intuitively can be related to one’s own purpose when the company’s purpose is clear.
An increased sense of direction, even if there is uncertainty. Thus, it becomes easier to handle changes, because you see the changes as part of a bigger picture.
So, how can you as a leader create more purpose for your employees in their daily work? One of the most effective ways is something as simple as a good old-fashioned conversation. You may ask: “what exactly is a good conversation and how do we successfully have a good conversation to promote purpose?
We would like to share an approach with you – it is called “REAL conversations”. REAL: Relate, Engage, Appreciate and Listen. (Note: 1)
The concept of REAL conversations is based on a mix of different theories and philosophies on organisations, leadership and psychology. Together, they form a mindset and some practical tools that you can use to create meaning in conversations.
Understanding Each Other’s Strengths and Weaknesses
It has been found that if we understand each other well – we tend to perform much better in a strong team environment. Through actively promoting and working towards a team culture where we have a conscious understanding of everyone in our team’s strengths and weaknesses (social dynamics, personality attributes, soft and hard skills), leads to a team dynamic that unleashes a level of performance that is almost unheard of.
Functioning in a virtual team does not mean that “out of sight, out of mind” should be the case. Face-to-face teams often openly experience one another’s strengths and weaknesses whereas this is not always possible when team members work remotely. Virtual team members must be encouraged to still share their thoughts, concern and support that they require.
Effective Open Communication
We are social beings and need face-to-face human interaction to be creative, inspired, or to have breakthrough brainstorming sessions. The energy of a high-performance team in the middle of a creative “storm” is something of uncountable value.
Even businesses that think they don’t develop products or are not creative by nature, need to go through continuous business improvement cycles that are extremely innovative and creative.
In 1971, a researcher and author published a book about nonverbal gestures and the percentage of communication that is nonverbal. This expert, Albert Mehrabian, asserted that around 55% of communication is body language, 38% is voice tone, and a mere 7% is actual speech and spoken words.
Silence is another challenge. Silence creates a natural rhythm in a real-life conversation. However, when it happens in a video call, you become anxious about the technology. It also makes people uncomfortable.
Even if the research numbers are not absolute correct; it goes without saying that a significant part of our natural method of communication is non-verbal.
Meeting remotely means going without the social and physical cues that set the rules for in-person meetings. In practice, this means participants in virtual meetings are more likely to talk over one another, or to not speak much at all. Communication must be improved in frequency and quality as initial description of responsibilities and tasks may not be enough. This also implies a clear expression of purpose – WHY are we “HERE” and what needs to be done.
Trust allows team members to perform their tasks at a distance in a better way, as long as their tasks are measured by objectives. Too many controls throughout the work process make the virtual team member feeling watched and that he/she is not being trusted to put in a fair day’s work.
Leaders of teams working remotely must check-in with their team members to build confidence in working remotely and provide support where required. Leaders do not now have the capability to actually observe team member behaviour in a face-to-face situation as the quality of video calls (band-width restrictions and quality of calls) often diminish this capability. The role of leaders in high performance teams is to remove any barriers that would hinder the use of “gifts” or talents present within the team. This team culture will embrace the use of skills by the individual to be maximised and encouraged.
Leadership is a “lifestyle” with the purpose to produce teams that take care of each other, who respect each other, feel valued and valuable in the organisation where they work.
The important distinction that I want to make with some traditional thinking around management and leadership is that team leaders must be actively involved and part of the team. Leaders are not people in charge, leaders are people that take care of the people in their charge. (Simon Sinek)
The disruption of face-to-face teams should not necessarily mean a disruption to their performance provided that some basic approaches and responses as described above, be followed.
When the pandemic started everyone went into “remote working mode” with a pre-established list of business relationships in terms of colleagues, clients, and suppliers. These existing trust relationships made it easier to carry on with “normal” operations as it is quite feasible to maintain these existing relationships via email, telephone conversations and online meetings.
Building new trust relationships will be much harder and I believe it might even be impossible to build these types of relationships in this way. It is way more work to build and maintain trust when people do not have an office environment or working only remotely, and this will become a much “heavier lift”.
Should people want to work from home now and then, it should become part of permanent policy in organisations.
If you don’t have trusting teams, you have a bunch of people showing up for work to get through the day and get a salary at the end of each month. They will hide their mistakes and will not ask for help because they will be afraid being victimised or even losing their job.
Trusting Team = People that Feel Safe (can be vulnerable, allowed to make mistakes, and willing to ask for help).
Given all of this; I am of strong opinion that High Performance Teams could only be cultivated when team members have a clear understanding of their common purpose, they understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and when effective and open communication is present within the team.
This will establish strong trusting relationships between team members and when this is combined with strong, effective leadership the achievement of such a High-Performance Team will exceed everyone’s highest expectations.
We can therefor conclude that it will be virtually impossible to maintain a long-term High-Performance team culture when teams only function as virtual teams. This is especially true given the fact that team member will leave and new members be added to teams as time goes by. We believe that it is absolutely necessary for teams to function in a face-to-face environment for at least half of the time.
Piccoli, G., Powell, A., and Ives, B. (2004). Virtual teams: team control structure, work processes, and team effectiveness. Inf. Technol. People 17, 359–379. doi: 10.1108/09593840410570258
Brett, J., Behfar, K., and Kern, M. C. (2006). Managing Multicultural Teams. Brighton, MA: Harvard Business Review.
"Why Leaders Should Always Eat Last – Simon Sinek Interview". Interview With Dan Schawbel, www.quickbase.com. February 19, 2014.
Sinek, Simon. (2017). Leaders Eat Last. London, England: Portfolio Penguin.
Danish in Dansk HR – Ledelse i udvikling vol. 2, 2017.
Pernille Koch Erichsen, Jacob Peterson, Rikke Sick Børgesen (2018, September). Zoom In on Purpose. https://implementconsultinggroup.com/zoom-in-on-purpose/
The concept of REAL conversations was developed by Pernille Koch Erichsen, Rikke Sick Børgesen Hoffmann and Tor Nonnegaard, Implement Consulting Group. REAL stands for: Relate, Engage, Appreciate, Listen