Online meetings and online trainings can be extremely efficient and effective. We don't have to travel to a remote location, saving lots of time and money, can use digital tools and create our own work & learning environment at home. When the online training is self-paced, we are even more flexible with time management. But there is a catch.
The Downside of Online
Online sessions can get dull and exhausting sometimes. Not really getting to know the others in the call may create a feeling of being emotionally distant. When meetings and trainings are only about getting-things-done, the commitment and motivation can get lost. But little moments of social interaction are required for personal growth and team collaboration. They add up to what we often describe as group 'chemistry'.
Alex Pentland from MIT describes group chemistry as a feeling of belonging. Here are a few examples which enhance this feeling:
- Close physical proximity
- Profuse amount of eye-contact
- Physical touch (handshake, fist-bumps, hugs)
- Lots of short energetic exchanges (no long speeches)
- High level of mixing, everyone talks to everyone
- Few interruptions
- Lots of questions and intensive active listening
- Humor, laughter
- Small attentive courtesies (thanks, opening doors, etc.)
- Members break out and come back with helpful information
As you can see, some of these behaviors can be done in a video conference, others are easier in person.
These behaviors are kind of a 'protolanguage' creating safe connections within groups. They are made up of Belonging Cues. Every single belonging cue answers the one (ancient) question: Are we safe? Is there danger around? What is our future here together?
Every belonging cue consists of an amount of energy, addresses the individual person and is future oriented. It implicitly says: You are safe here! (to speak up, to contribute, to make mistakes).
Our unconscious brains are deeply obsessed with the feeling of safety (psychological safety). One or two signals are not enough, we need constant pulses.
A lack of cues can destroy this feeling immediately. Like when you are in a Zoom call and your coworkers are looking at a document (and not at their webcams / you), people seem to fade off.
But there is even more about belonging cues. With remarkable consistency, Alex Pentland's study data confirmed that communication indeed plays a critical role in building successful teams. In fact, they found patterns of communication to be the most important predictor of a team’s success. Not only that, but they are as significant as all the other factors - individual intelligence, personality, skill, and the substance of discussions - combined.
At a higher level, successful teams share several defining characteristics:
- Everyone on the team talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short and sweet.
- Members face one another, and their conversations and gestures are energetic.
- Members connect directly with one another - not just with the team leader.
- Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team.
- Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back.
One of Pentland's study shows: Social time turns out to be deeply critical to team performance, often accounting for more than 50% of positive changes in communication patterns, even in a setting as efficiency-focused as a call center.
The managers of one young software company, for instance, thought they could promote better communication among employees by hosting "beer meets" and other events. But the data showed that these events had little or no effect. In contrast, the data revealed that making the tables in the company’s lunchroom longer, so that strangers sat together, had a huge impact.
Social time could be seen as a waste of time in online trainings, but we have to give it more time. Especially when the training is about teamwork and with intense, challenging activities. On the other hand, the above examples are strong arguments to bring people together in person, at least for a kick-off. But this time, meeting in person does have a purpose.
The New Science of Building Great Teams
Artwork: Andy Gilmore, Chromatic, 2010, digital drawing If you were looking for teams to rig for success, a call center would be a good place to start. The skills required for call center work are easy to identify and hire for. The tasks involved are clear-cut and easy to monitor.