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Is Your Team Geographically Dispersed?

Monday, March 9, 2015
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The good news about the technology revolution is that people can work wherever and whenever they want. The bad news is that that has led to the dispersion of teams across geographies and time zones. Dispersion inevitably leads to communication and emotional disconnects. Here are ways to leverage different senses to bridge those gaps. 

Brands, Technologies, and Family Analogy 

In the article, “The Role of Brands and Mediating Technologies in Assembling Long-Distance Family Practices,” in The Journal of Marketing, Amber Epp and coauthors suggest that as families are spread out geographically, their rituals are threatened. This poses risks to the brands these families consume during those rituals. For example, families skipping their weekly taco night will consume less Tostito’s Salsa. 

The authors focus on the interconnected components of family practices, including physical and mental activities, materials, and background knowledge. Geographic disruption has a different impact on simple versus elaborate and co-located versus physically separate family consumption practices, which suggests different ways for brands to secure or modify their position. However, there are various ways to keep people connected. 

Communicating with Geographically Dispersed Teams 

We all know that only 10 percent of communication is words; 30 to 35 percent is tone and 55 to 60 percent is body language. This is why too much email is dangerous—it’s tone deaf. 

There’s a hierarchy of tools. Be sure to use:

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  • written words via letters, text, or email to convey information and make people aware
  • spoken words with tonality via telephone to help people understand
  • words, tone, and body language together via videoconference to instill belief
  • live meetings leveraging all the senses to make emotional connections. 

Things happen live and face-to-face that cannot with geographically dispersed teams. This is why Steve Jobs put all the bathrooms in the central area of Apple’s new office building. This is why Google and Yahoo! discourage people from working at home. This is why Vocus’ headquarters is designed to have the look, feel, and connectivity of a small town. All of them know the power of random, face-to-face live interactions. 

Applying the model outlined in the Epps’ article, learning from brand rituals and geographically dispersed families to organizational rituals and geographically dispersed teams suggests four ways to keep those teams emotionally connected. It’s all about leveraging different senses to encourage participation and engagement. 

  1. Increase the frequency of simple co-located training and development events. This is the easiest option. You’ve got people together. They do things together. Do them more frequently. Excellence is born of habits. Practice behaving as a team. Share the same space. Share sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste—whether it’s a new setting, sound track, aroma, experience, or food.

  2. Expand the impact of the most elaborate co-located training and development events. Amplify the impact of big events by getting people involved before and after the events. They can help with planning and preparation and do pre-reading or set-up exercises leading up to the event. Be sure to invest in follow up and communication after the event.  This is about leveraging the investment you’re already making in elaborate events.

  3. Leverage technology so dislocated team members can join in simple training and development events. Again, think across the five senses. Have a bias to video versus just voice calls. Make sure everyone has the same documents. Share the same brand of coffee. If it’s a lunch and learn, make sure everyone gets the same lunch at the same time—no matter the time zone.

  4. Explore the technological frontier to increase dislocated team members’ participation in elaborate training and development events. This is where creativity is required. The more elaborate the event, the harder it is for dislocated people to participate. Many of the ways for this to happen haven’t been invented yet. But many are already here. Think in terms of people attending via virtual reality and the like.

Bottom Line 

Live beats visual, which beats audio, which beats written. Move up the communication chain as much—and as frequently—as you can, and leverage different tools across different senses to bridge the remaining gaps. Move through awareness to understanding to belief toward the strongest possible emotional connections in your individual training and development events and your curriculum as a whole. 

About the Author

George Bradt has a unique perspective on transformational leadership based on his experience as a business leader, consultant, and journalist. He progressed through sales, marketing, and general management roles around the world at companies including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, and J.D. Power’s Power Information Network spin-off as chief executive. Now he is a principal of CEO Connection and managing director of the executive onboarding group PrimeGenesis.

George is a graduate of Harvard and Wharton (MBA), co-author of four books on onboarding, including The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan, and co-author of a weekly column on Forbes.com, The New Leader’s Playbook.

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