Building a positive team environment


The growth in dispersed working and the challenges presented by our more global environment are taking their toll on teams and their leaders as they have to work across time zones, cultures and organisational boundaries.

Added on 17 November 2014 by Pam Jones

Business team cheering

In addition people often have multiple reporting lines and find that their resources and expertise are stretched across a number of teams. Team members may be a mix of external contractors or employees from different organisation’s often spanning different functional boundaries.

In these situations it is important that everyone understands and buys into the overall goal and the outcome of the team.  They must be clear about their role and how this fits into the overall project. Each team member must be accountable for their part in the project and as a team leader you need be clear on the amount of time and resource each team member can give to a project.

Creating clear channels of communication and “ways of working” as a team are vitally important.

Creating the drumbeat of communication when you’re working virtually is crucial, so that everyone is kept informed and involved. Communication is what keeps a team together. It is a vital ingredient of success, particularly in complex teams where achieving a sense of ownership, belonging and common purpose is not always easy, especially without the advantage of face-to-face communication.

Regular reviews and team reviews are essential. Meetings should be either face to face or virtual.  Developing some protocol around virtual meetings can help them run more smoothly. Facilitating these meetings is important. In some cultures people won’t speak out so you have to bring people in. Checking on language ability and being aware that even if people are fluent in English it can often be confusing in meeting situation. Send out agendas and follow up with action minutes so everyone is aware of what needs to happen.

Often in virtual teams the social aspect doesn’t happen naturally so make the most of any face to face contact to build relationships and build in time to introduce new team members. Having a virtual coffee with team members can be a good way of catching up.

Through our work with high-performing team leaders, we’ve identified four building blocks, essential for creating a positive and productive team environment.

  1. Develop a clear communication strategy
    To be effective, leaders need to create a clear communication strategy, identifying who needs information, when and in what format. Regular communication is vitally important. Planning the communication, agreeing conference calls, meetings and communication protocols ensures everyone is aware of what the team is seeking to achieve. Appreciation of time zone and location issues must be taken into account, so that the burden of out-of-office working, time zone differences and travel could be shared around.
  2. Develop a network of shared responsibility
    Shared responsibility is a key success factor. High-performing team leaders recognise they have to create an environment of shared leadership. This was achieved by agreeing the shared vision and purpose of the team, and establishing what was required for each team member. They were given responsibility for different aspects of teamwork (i.e. budget management, client systems etc.)This created new communication pathways, allowing a network of interdependent relationships to develop within the team, thus helping to achieve the overall goal of shared responsibility.
  3. Building trust and belonging
    High-performing team leaders should spend time building trust. Getting to know team members, posting up and sharing biographical details, hopes and aspirations is important. Some team leaders develop chatty newsletters, others made a point spending conference call time celebrating team successes and special occasions. In addition, many team leaders should recognise the importance of being available for their team, by developing good ‘non-visual’ communication skills. Listen to the subtext in conversations, pick up on nuances in tone and inflexion, and recognise when there were issues that needed to be discussed. Be aware of cross-cultural differences, and spend time both individually and as a team to understand how to leverage diversity and avoid misunderstandings.
  4. Growing and learning together
    All teams need to grow and learn together, and in a complex team environment, this is an important way of building communication and trust. Reviewing both the task and the process of how the team is working on a regular basis helps to identify issues and problems. Understanding each other’s approach and dealing positively with conflict was also seen as a key skill. In addition, developing the skills of coaching and feedback within the team means that team members can continue to improve their performance. Team training around issues such as new technology, cross-cultural understanding, and sharing the results from psychometric questionnaires, all serve to create an environment where the team could learn and grow together.

Often the focus of communication in complex team structures is on technology. While this is obviously important, the human aspect of communication requires attention, and that the role of leadership is to create an environment where teamwork can flourish without the luxury of regular face-to-face communication.

Pam Jones is the author of Managing for performance, published by Pearson Prentice Hall.