A 2019 study by the Institute of Leadership and Management shows that building close relationships with colleagues was the most important factor in determining job satisfaction for 77% of respondents, with salary being the eighth on the list. Aside from improving engagement and performance by reinforcing a sense of belonging to the team, connections between team members can help overcome the barriers to effective teamwork and collaboration in distributed teams. A recent study (Garro-Abarca, V., Palos-Sanchez, P., Aguayo-Camacho, M., 2021) about the performance of virtual teams showed that the main factors contributing towards their performance were communication in relation to the tasks, trust in relation to leadership, empowerment, and team cohesion. Other studies by Methot et al. (2015) have also shown the positive effects of coworker friendships on engagement, higher morale, and improved performance. Connections between team members can make all the difference between a successful team and one that isn’t, and there are plenty of reports that show it and team leaders should make it their focus to build emotional agility and connection between team members, helping them increase their level of mutual knowledge, and develop better ways of communicating. Positive relations between team members also improves the outcome of difficult conversations, creates inclusion at work, increases trust and respect, and allows team members to learn from successes and mistakes together; all of which leads to greater psychological safety.
This article includes a list of practices that improve mutual knowledge and positive relations in your team.
1. Develop rituals, and stick to them!
Rituals are meaningful activities or habits your team establishes and performs on a regular basis to foster shared culture, collaboration and connectivity.
The rituals you have in place (or not) are a strong marker of your team and company culture. They help team members bond, enable newcomers to get initiated into your values, and improves team cohesion and morale, not to mention ultimately drives the levels of psychological safety and collective intelligence of teams. At Cosmic Centaurs, we have developed many rituals, from daily stand-ups, to retrospectives, to eating ice cream when celebrating a new win, to a monthly (virtual) get together that is purely dedicated to spending time with one another.
One of our favorite rituals is to celebrate someone’s birthday. For this, we have developed a full ceremony complete with special Zoom backgrounds. We sing happy birthday, we eat cake, and we share the pits and peaks of the past year. Although we are consistent with this ritual, thanks to Aion which reminds us about our colleagues' birthdays a week before the event, we’ve learned from our survey results that not everyone is: 27.7% of our survey respondents declared that they never or rarely celebrate their team members' birthdays, and only 29.8% are diligent about celebrating them.
What rituals do you partake in as a team? How do they support your values, and the company’s culture and goals? How do they help your team connect with each other? Make a list of those rituals, and think of what your team might be missing. You can do this exercise together as a team. Check out our ritual bank (pictured below) for ideas!
2. Create opportunities to learn about each other
When we are co-located there are dozens of serendipitous occasions to develop mutual knowledge. A coffee break, shared meal, an overheard conversation or a moment of solidarity to a colleague that looks overwhelmed create opportunities for finding points of commonality and exploring points of diversity in teams, leading to greater connection.
In the first episode of the second season of Centaur Stage, we invited Connie Hadley, a researcher and speaker on the future of work, psychological safety, loneliness, well-being, team dynamics, and inclusive cultures. As part of her research, Connie studied the internal mechanisms for teams working in a highly stressful environment. Her conclusion is that the most important factor in managing these environments is the connection and conversations that people have. It allowed team members to process their emotions and rely on the people around them for support. She added that investing in personal connections can enable open channeled communication, which can be used to offer help, provide ideas, and face challenges. If we know someone, and we have something in common, and they have shown vulnerability to us in previous conversations, we’re more likely to feel comfortable. It is possible to do that remotely, but it takes a lot of intention, effort, and courage.
That is why we developed Aion, which helps distributed team members gain access to contextual information about one another. Through sharing their emotions with their colleagues, or celebrating important milestones together, Aion recreates the interstitial moments that usually take place in between meetings or during breaks that foster these connections in colocated teams.
The Cosmic Centaurs team sharing their daily moods on Aion.
3. Communicate with intent
In distributed settings, the volume of communication increases. On one hand, employees spend more time in meetings, and on the other organizations ramp up internal communications to ensure their distributed teams are up to date with new policies, announcements or initiatives. We are strong believers that in order for teams to effectively communicate, it is not about volume, but rather, about intentionally communicating the right message, on the right channel and with the relevant frequency.
Oftentimes, it’s a matter of hygiene, and employees do not have a shared understanding of how to use the tools at their disposal. It's a good idea to start by making a list of the available tools and communication channels, then categorizing them by how asynchronous and collaborative they are. For this, we have a worksheet to help teams align on the relevant channels, deducing which are synchronous and asynchronous to ensure information is effectively shared.
Beyond communication around the work, teams can also improve how they communicate on a human level, about how they are doing and how they feel. Ask team members to all share a highlight of their weekend or leverage tools such as Donut, Watercooler, or Aion to inspire serendipitous conversations about each other. These prompts are not just fun to break the monotony of work-focused conversations, but they remind us that after all, we work with people just like us. Balking to each other, sharing more about ourselves and being intentional about how we communicate with each other is an important aspect of being on a cohesive team, and helps in building affective trust.
4. Strengthen ties by developing affective trust
Affective trust, is a form of trust based on emotional bonds, understanding and relating to one another. Similarly to psychological safety, affective trust in teams allows team members to express themselves more freely, therefore facilitating creativity and innovation, and positively impacts team performance. It allows team members to feel happier in their teams, as there would be less stress on whether they can count on each other or not.
There are simple ways to do this, such as opening a meeting with a ‘how are you, really’? As we previously mentioned, expressing vulnerability and creating a culture in teams where it’s okay to show that you are not okay can go a long way in creating bonds, and a more psychologically safe environment. An important step in creating affective trust is through consistency. As this article by Investors In People suggested, being consistent with how you respond and react shows team members where you stand, and that they wouldn’t be let down through unpredictable behaviors.
Affective trust lies heavily in prioritizing empathy. This means not jumping into worst scenario conclusions when your team members might have made a mistake, and understand that the reason why this mistake happened was (most likely) not out of ill intent. In many cases, the reason why team members go wrong in their work is because they struggled in understanding what to do, knowing in how the outcome should have been like, or have had too many other tasks to work on - all of these which can be prevented when there is enough trust in a team for team members to ask for help, ask questions, and admit that they might need more support.
Mutual knowledge is knowledge about one another that is shared and known to be shared. It is a vital factor in facilitating effective team interactions and team performance, especially in remote or hybrid environments. The greater the mutual knowledge within a team, the more team members have context for interpreting teammate’s actions, and the better the performance and the quality of decision making. As a matter of fact, when communication is clear in a team and words are not lost in translation , the performance of a team is improved, as per this study by Davis, Al. & Khazanchi, D. (2007).
The first chapter of the Future of Teams report, all about mutual knowledge, connectedness in teams, and affective trust is now available to download!
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