Not long ago, employees would have ample time to build relationships with their colleagues while working together in the same office. But as organizations transition to more project-based work, workers need to understand the steps they need to take to foster trust and cooperation immediately.
That's where business owners and managers come in. Whether you have a full-time employee or gig worker working on a series of projects, you'll need to carefully consider the unique communication, inclusion, management and culture issues that arise with remote project work.
Even before the pandemic, the majority of project-based teams worked virtually. Organizations assembled teams from across locations and skill sets to solve specific business problems. Your team members most likely will be required to work closely with people they’ve never met before, and may in fact never encounter in person at all.
So much meaning is translated via body language, so working with someone entirely online adds a layer of communication complexity. When you don’t know someone, it's difficult to infer their tone, their motives or even whether or not they’re joking. Someone might perceive positive messages in email or instant message as neutral, and neutral ones as negative.
In the history of work, some of the most meaningful and rewarding one-to-one interactions have happened over chance meetings in the hallway or elevator. Many project-based teams don’t have such opportunities, so encourage team members to be direct and deliberate in communicating respect, collaboration and concern.
When most people worked in person for long time periods, the workplace could resemble high school. Some bosses would give the best assignments to their favorites, and it wasn’t unusual for some employees to feel left out when a clique of coworkers headed out to lunch together.
In other words, there were many ways to feel excluded and marginalized.
Virtual project-based teaming is a great equalizer. It provides flexibility for people, regardless of their situations. While webcams do offer a personal view into team members’ lives, people can purposely create the desired impression with dress, virtual backgrounds and decor—or simply choose to turn their camera off.
Project-based team members can still, however, be victims of microaggressions—statements, actions or incidents regarded as indirect, subtle or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized community.
New teams don't often have a reservoir of trust or comfort established at the beginning. Managers and leaders should be sensitive and mindful that microaggressions can occur and ensure that during online dialogue, all member's contributions are appropriately valued.
Make inclusion a value that's established through your hiring and onboarding process, and have systems in place that properly address any issue that does arise in a way that respects and affirms the harmed party.
Many project-based teams are self-managed, meaning they have no formally assigned leader. About a decade ago, economist Elinor Ostrom received the Nobel Prize for her studies of self-governed communities in Africa and Asia.
Ostrom found that many human societies establish agreements among themselves for sharing and maximizing resources without the “help” of higher-order authorities. In other words, self-managed teams work. The best ones have several parameters:
- well-defined operational boundaries,
- access to resources to achieve their goals,
- a system for monitoring member behavior and performance,
- an internal process for dispute resolution and
- sanctions for rule-breakers.
According to SAP Success Factors (which refers to project-based, self-managed teams as "dynamic teams"), these groups are defined by the following:
- workflow that changes rapidly as new ideas are introduced and implemented,
- membership that is cross-functional and frequently in flux and
- the encouragement of failure in pursuit of innovation.
SAP reported that dynamic team members score highly in intelligence, conscientiousness, agreeableness and openness. If you can identify and refine these crucial traits in others, you are more likely to hire people who can effectively work on short-term teams.
Project-based team members need to understand what their team's goals are so they can act accordingly. Ideally, short-term teams can build goals in the OKR format (objectives and key results) popularized by John Doerr in his work with Google.
Your team’s workflow should include tracking and measuring your individual and collective progress against the defined objectives.
Successful project-based team members pick up the cultures of both the organization and their teammates quickly. When onboarding a new team member, let them know how people like to meet (e.g. is it all Microsoft Teams all the time, or will Slack do?), how work product is presented and delivered (e.g. is a stream-of-consciousness email preferred over formal slide decks) and how work time is scheduled and managed (e.g. are you expected to be online and available from 9-5 p.m., or do you have more flexibility?).
In this era of globalization, you may be managing project-based teams with people from other cultures and living in other parts of the world. A variety of factors—some subtle and some not-so-subtle—may influence your team's ability to grow collegial relationships. Be cognizant of those factors and ask your employees if they have any concerns or needs that you can help them meet as they join your company.
As a workforce trend, project-based teaming is here to stay. By mastering its nuances, you’ll be able to use it to you company's advantage, hitting business goals you couldn't have managed on your own.
Read more articles on company culture.
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