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Insights

Creating a Sense of Belonging in Globally Dispersed Teams

Monday, May 13, 2019
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Organizations are increasingly using globally dispersed teams (GDTs) to succeed in a global economy. Constant employee availability, rich cultural perspectives, and efficient customer service are among the numerous benefits of employing people around the world.

There are, however, potential downsides—difficulty in effective collaboration, confusion about roles due to lack of visibility of work, and often less-than-effective use of technology to maximize workload. It can be hard to upskill colleagues who aren’t in one location, and if it is not tackled effectively, isolation and loneliness can set in for remote and office-based employees.

At Insights we studied a global organization to explore individuals’ experiences of what it meant to work in a team that is to some degree physically isolated by time and space. We led online focus groups revolving around their experience of working on GDTs.

From these we generated three main themes and built on them to develop a model for GDTs. Our findings suggested that employees require three main needs be satisfied if they are to successfully work as part of a GDT: belonging, trust, and support. Although organizations need to support employees with all of those needs to enable intrinsically motivated employees, this post is focused on the need for belonging.

The Need for Face-to-Face Connection

There are few completely virtual teams; most are split between remote and in-office employees. Within a completely virtual team, nobody works in close proximity, so team members usually make the effort to connect. At the other end of the spectrum, co-located colleagues see one another constantly and can more easily have organic conversations.

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The globally dispersed team is far more common, with headquarters and offices and virtual team members located around the world. We tend to identify with those closest to us physically, so there is danger of an “us versus them” mentality, which can impact the fundamental need of belonging. Nevertheless, technological advances and benefits to cross-cultural collaboration continue to make this work style a popular choice.

For decades psychologists have identified social connection as a fundamental human need important for development and growth. It is unsurprising, then, that belonging was an overarching theme from our interviews. Regardless of their employer or location, respondents expressed a desire for face-to-face connection—to be in the same physical space as someone else—as there is something powerful about seeing facial expressions, hand gestures, and body language, which don’t fully come across through email or Skype.

This proximity to others was described as key for the best outputs as well as for more meaningful working relationships and developing empathy. If I email someone, for example, in a different office and they don’t respond to me for a week, it may lead to my least respectful interpretation of them—“They are so rude!” If I can see someone in the same office, I am more likely to be able to see if they are busy and think something like, “I know they’re really busy right now. I’ll give them another week.”

How Can Organizations Help to Create a Sense of Identity and Belonging in GDTs?

  • Where possible, have regular face-to-face contact built in. It doesn’t have to be in the office; it could be coffee or lunch. Often this comes down to leaders supporting employees to have face-time in any way possible. For example, one respondent in our study said their manager allowed them to meet colleagues nearby regularly, which gave her a much deeper sense of belonging.
  • Managers can also allow people to occasionally experience different environments. You don’t know what you don’t know, so employees who haven’t worked on their own for a long period may assume remote workers just watch TV at home when they’re supposed to be working! Why not see what life is like on the other side?
  • If two or three members of your team are remote, it will take extra effort to make sure they feel included. In a meeting with a lot of people in the room, for example, and a handful dialing in, ensure everyone can hear you and that employees are not having side conversations! If you are on a multi-person call, why not have everyone call in from their desk, regardless of their locations?
  • It is natural for humans to group into cliques; however, if you work in a GDT, take time to think about what your relationships are like with all of your colleagues. Some respondents reported having a great relationship with co-workers around the world and that with effort varying locations don’t have to be an issue.
  • Watch your language. There is often unconscious bias at play, and you need to be aware of when you refer to “us” and “them.”
  • Just as we train employees to use technology, it is important to put training programs in place to ensure they are maximizing working on GDTs.
  • Trust individuals and teams to work flexibly. If we want to educate and have empathy, organizations need to accept that flexible working is required and trust that employees can effectively manage their time.

For more insights, please join me at ATD 2019 International Conference & Exposition. During my session, “How to Lead the Invisible Team: Being an Effective Virtual Leader,” I will explore the challenges of working on global, virtual teams so that leaders can understand what their employees need from them to succeed and how they can build these essential skills.

About the Author

Hannah Prince is a business psychologist with a background in sport psychology and a passion for understanding the underlying psychological factors required for high performance and general well-being. She applies this understanding and learning in her role daily to key organizational issues, providing expert advice to form the basis of solution design intended to solve those key issues. She has a Bsc in Sport Science, a Postgraduate diploma in Psychology and an Msc in Sport & Exercise Psychology.

2 Comments
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"It can be hard to upskill colleagues who aren’t in one location, and if it is not tackled effectively, isolation and loneliness can set in for remote and office-based employees."
Fortunately, "upskilling" GDTs done well can build a learning cohort that breaks down barriers between people and brings teams together intellectually and emotionally. Continuous learning can be the secret sauce that greases this wheel. -Dane (dane.cannon@kilyx.com)
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True true true!!! Figure out a good HR platform for that, something that gives you communication, control, and credibility for GDTs. Use www.peoplehum.com !
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