We are now in the unpredictable part of the global pandemic response. We have had the shock of the world turning on its head abruptly over the last few months. We have adapted fast. And now comes the long haul before the Covid-19 virus is effectively gone. Most predictions for this are 1 to 3 years with an economic recovery tail following it.

One of the biggest challenges facing CEOs, Leaders and HR professionals is the long-term impact on our teams. I like to refer to this as the Dispersed Teams Challenge. We have recently seen the huge surge in home-working, and how to deal with the work/non-work boundary to protect our mental health, during the first part of this crisis. Now that societies are starting to open up again the fresh issue is how to commute and work near others safely. This has involved such things as office redesigns and the human behaviour around commuting change dramatically.

However, the big issue for organisations is the long-term affects of dispersed teams on leadership capability, culture and productivity. With organisations all suffering from a depressed marketplace, having productive and effective teams should be their number one priority.

So, what are “dispersed teams”?

This is key as I think the new challenge for many organisations of “dispersed teams” is different to “virtual teams” or “home-working teams”. Dispersed means “distributed or spread over a wide area”. As offices reopen with social distancing their capacity will be in the region of 30% to 50% of normality. Some organisations may rotate who comes in the office and when. I believe that external issues may have an effect on this. For example, those who struggle with childcare due to isolating parents or childcare limitations, those who are with an “at risk” family member and/or those who have a long commute with capacity issues on public transport are more likely to request a more home-based style of working. Those closer to the office and/or with less out-of-work competing demands would have easier access to the physical workplace.

The end result would be a situation of variant workforces: those who go to the office every day, those who work remotely every day and a proportion who may work in and out of the office. These sub-groups within the team potentially may start to diverge their culture as the artifacts and routines of behaviour that creates team culture are not shared by all. This leads to fragmentation and a loss of cohesive productivity.

And this is the challenge of dispersed teams compared to virtual or home-working ones. Some see each other all day, every day, some potentially only ‘virtually’ see each other at team meetings. How do you foster a performing team culture with these different challenges?

Tips to develop an effective Dispersed Team:

Of course, all the usual tools and techniques of a great leader still apply to a dispersed team. The difference is that some of these need to be “dialled up” for a dispersed team. For simplicity, I have grouped these into three areas below: leader characteristics, team member behaviours and the team environment.

1)  Challenge your own leadership behaviours

Being a leader of a dispersed team has its own unique challenges. Your time is stretched further and isolation and confusion are always a danger. Here are some leadership focus areas:

  • Common Purpose – A leader with a dispersed team must ensure real clarity of vision and strategy. Even down to being explicit on how the team can work together, the leader-team member responsibilities and support structures. A good way for a leader to re-establish the team environment when a face-to-face team becomes a dispersed team is to get the group collectively to develop a visual collective charter using a tool such as a Team Canvas.
  • Heighten your EQ awareness – The feeling of isolation and of feeling lost can happen to even the most capable of team members every now and again. It is important for a leader to have regular one-to-one time and look out for behaviour that is not the team members “norm”. These changes in behaviour can easily be overlooked with the continual focus on getting the job done and are usually the first signs of difficulty coping with an aspect of their mental health.
  • Build resilience – A dispersed team with a high capacity for resilience will look out for each other, supporting you as a leader even when you are not around. Giving people a sense of control and developing an appreciation of change and adaptability are some of the elements that will support you, as a leader, deal with the unknown challenges over the next few years.

2)  Develop the behaviours and characteristics of individuals

A dispersed team will need the leader to rely on each individual to take more responsibility on self-management in their role. Logistically, it will be harder for the leader to give as much attention to each person that they were used to with physical interaction. Here are some traits of great dispersed team members:

  • Self-motivation – In my view, the biggest of the individual characteristics. Those individuals who have built the self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation to be able to have their own internal drive will be able to better adapt to a dispersed environment. This is the internal connection of personal needs with organisation goals. This often visibly manifests in not needing others to enable them to be productive and being able to organise and prioritise their own workload.
  • Communication – Dispersed team members need to be good at concisely exchanging timely information directly to those who need it. It is not sitting on information and waiting for team meetings or a “reply to all” culture, which would either starve or overload others of information. In addition, effective working at a distance requires the ability to often paraphrase back any requirements so as to avoid the making of assumptions about the original message, due to the limiting effect dispersion has on the five-senses.
  • Transparency – The best dispersed teams work well together when everyone feels they know what is going on in the wider team. Transparency is being honest and open when problems are arising and/or help is needed. It is also being open with your emotions in a way that you or others feel they can reach out if they are having a “tough moment” and need emotional support as well as support on the work itself.
  • Knows what needs to be delivered – An effective dispersed team member needs to be results-focused. This means that they can direct their self-motivation towards a goal or objective that is aligned to the rest of the team and organisation. They do not need to be drop-fed tasks to do and can be left with control and autonomy over their own work once the objectives have been defined.

3)  Foster a dispersed team environment

As important as the leader characteristics and the individual behaviours is the maintenance of the team culture as a point of cohesion and identity for the team itself. To create inclusion and a sense of belonging this needs to be overtly and consistently managed.

  • Sub-cultures need to try and be avoided where possible. It is easy for the officed-based parts of the team to sub-consciously not include those remote members in the chit-chat that forms the backbone of team culture. A leader needs to give time and space and encourage the small conversations around work to include everyone.
  • Social connection – Over the last few months I have seen quiz nights, after work virtual drinks and fancy-dress video calls as examples of where team leaders try to recreate the social aspect of office life. In this case, the most important thing for a leader is to understand the different personalities within the team and to support the various social needs of those individuals. Being overt as a leader about “it’s OK” to spend part of your working week socialising with other team members reinforces the social connection. But remember, not everyone is energised by extrovert team activities!
  • Feedback – The dispersed team and individuals within the team need to have their self-motivation “topped up” regularly with feedback on how they are doing and a thankyou for a job done well. This is again a need that varies by team member so try, as a leader, to give the recognition in the way the receiver would like it. It is easy to forget that feedback is a crucial element within a dispersed team – often the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” is all too relevant here. And ironically, in general, dispersed teams need more feedback than physical teams.

I wrote this blog as I see most countries entering into this new phase of work environments reopening with limitations. These limitations will be in place until Covid-19 becomes an isolated and irregular disease. Leaders of dispersed teams need support to ensure the people in the organisation have the environment to be the best they can be. And now more than ever, we need our people to be the best they can be in a diminishing market environment. Smart organisations are starting to understand this and are using leadership development with “surgical precision”, identifying a specific need and closing that gap. The value-add and return is there for targeted interventions.

Dispersed teams might become the standard for many organisations and sectors in the future. Environmental pressure on travel and over population in cities might further cement it into work culture. Those who get dispersed teams working well now may, well have the competitive advantage in the future…

…and, phew, I didn’t once use the phrase “new normal”!