Keeping it together when you're apart


How members of a team behave when they are apart is the key to determining how successful they will be when they are together.

It's traditional for us to invest in our teams by organising team events. Some of these are adventurous, others are more social. And some of them are all about creating the right conditions for a team to operate effectively.

Taken together, all these forms of team investment are important and valuable. Teams do need to spend time together working out how they will work together.

But what happens when they aren't together? After all, for many people they spend more time away from their team colleagues than they do with them.

Addressing this challenge (how to maintain effective team working whilst apart) has vexed many teams. And when teams do come together they often have to spend time smoothing over issues that have arisen since they last met.

So it seems sensible to look at how we can keep the relationship strong and the communication lines open when teams disperse.

Is it a Marriage Made in Heaven?
It's hard to be a really successful team if people aren't consciously (or unconsciously) thinking and acting as a team member when they aren't together.

Just imagine a married man who is loving and attentive at home, but as soon as he leaves the marital home it's 'out of sight, out of mind'. We wouldn't think this acceptable and we'd probably have severe doubts about the strength and longevity of the marriage.

It's the same with teams. During the team meetings (which might be as few as four a year in some cases), team members can be very warm to each other, cover off lots of agenda items, make great plans and commitments. But as soon as they get back to their local patches, start dealing with the day-to-day issues, and focussing on delivering their personal objectives, it's easy to forget about the team.

This often results in decisions being made locally and expediently that should have been opened up to the team for discussion, input and team approval because they have team implications.

It's not a deliberate act of sabotage in most cases. It's just that the functional responsibilities become more absorbing day-to-day.

It's a hard reality, especially with global teams, that it simply isn't feasible to get the whole team in one space together very often. But this doesn't have to mean that regular contact is severed, nor that people lose sight of their team connection.

I don't forget I'm married when I go to work. Can you imagine me arriving home and confiding in my wife, "I'm sorry about the affair when I was at the conference, but it completely slipped my mind that I was married"?

So it seems that in order to keep the team strong whilst apart, we need to find something as strong as the best marriages to bind them.

Honey, I'm Home!
You probably belong to a team right now. You might even belong to more than one. Or you were part of a team in the past. Few of us have managed to avoid team membership completely.

But did your team feel like home? Was it a place of safety and refuge? Was it the place you retreated to when the going got tough? Was it the one place where you felt you could be yourself? Was it where you went to recharge your work batteries? Was it your home base?

I've asked this question countless times with teams and it's sad how many of them honestly answer, "No".

No wonder they seek solace and inspiration outside the team. No wonder they operate largely independently of the team when they are apart from it.

So we have to create the glue that will bind people to the team; glue so strong that whatever they do and wherever they go, their identity is partly defined by their membership of the team.

The Team Pre-Nup or Renewing of Vows
For any team starting out together, and for those teams that have been together for a while without ever really hitting it off, I propose three simple rules that will help to strengthen the team so that it can continue to function even when separated.

Rule # 1: Make Time to focus on the Team & Individual needs rather than just on Outputs & Operational Issues.
Take a moment to think about the team of which you are a member as if it were a marriage. Now consider this question: who are your children?

Most people have little difficulty answering this one: they can typically reel off all manner of people who depend on them, and who drive their workload.

But what about this: How much time do you spend on the marriage?

This question is trickier, because most teams spend very little time making sure they are strong, fit to lead, and appropriately supported.

They are often so busy servicing others, considering others, and satisfying others that the agenda items are always about operational issues.

There simply isn't enough room left on the agenda to just talk; to ask each other for help; to get to know each other's strengths; to coach each other; to share problems and solutions and experiences; to learn from each other and to enjoy each other's company.

It's hard to imagine a successful marriage where people don't make time available to do these things. So instead of loading the meeting agenda with operational details, reduce the number of items and make space for Team Time every time you meet.

Rule # 2: Wear your team identity with pride.
Most cultures announce to the world their marital status by the wearing of a ceremonial ornament. The wedding band is a symbol of one-ness and togetherness.

Membership of a team can be signalled in a similar way, both to remind yourself of where you belong and to communicate who you represent to others

The wedding band is spoken for, but other ways of publicly announcing your team membership include things like branded name tags, team badges, team membership certificates, team photos or team business cards with contact details for every member of the team on one card.

Rule # 3: Make contact with every member of the team at least once a week.
Our methods of communication have expanded beyond all measure in recent times. It isn't necessary any more to travel hundreds of thousands of miles to talk to each other or even see each other.

Whilst these means of communication never quite match the experience of physical contact, they are a pretty good substitute in many cases. Video links, web-cams, social networking sites, and even the humble telephone mean that we are never very far away from each other.

When teams are located together, much of their communication happens by accident. It's the 'water cooler conversations', or sharing a coffee that provides the main vehicle for information exchange and relationship building. But when you are separate, you have to make a conscious effort to connect, even if there is no other agenda than simply 'keeping in touch'.

When I am working away and I ring home, my wife doesn't usually say, "What are you ringing me for?" [I'd be quite worried if she did.] Because she knows I'm just ringing to say 'hello', or to hear a friendly voice, or to chat about the day. If I had to wait for some important bit of news or a problem I needed to discuss with her, I might not ring home for a week or more.

So making the effort to just 'keep in touch' on a regular basis, starts to build a team dependency and a team identity. The only time this becomes a problem is if we are insensitive or if we over-do it. Remember, the global nature of many teams and the access we all have to each other means that it might not be appreciated calling at unsociable hours unless pre-arranged and agreed.

The calls needs to be about building and developing the relationship, and that won't happen if we are insensitive to the needs and demands of our colleagues operating in a different space and time.

Being a member of a team does not require you to love each other. That's where our marriage analogy comes to an end. But:

  • it does require you to build solid and communicative relationships
  • it does require you to keep in touch
  • it does require you to share
  • it does require you to care
  • it does require you to feel a strong connection
  • it does require you to set aside time to focus on team needs
  • it does require you to be sensitive to and supportive of each other
  • it does require you to create a strong partnership and forge strong links

It might look more like a marriage of convenience than one based on love, but whatever it looks like, it has to work! And that doesn't happen by accident. As Henry Ford put it, "coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success."


About The Author

Tim Lambert
Tim Lambert

Tim Lambert is the founding Director of UK-based Kay-Lambert Associates Limited, a people & organisation development consultancy.