Working in a distributed team exposes every member to a broader range of experiences and challenges than those faced by their co-located team colleagues. Distributed team members have to manage not just the tasks they are assigned and the relationships with their geographically co-located team members, they must also interface and collaborate with the members of their team who are located elsewhere.
Distributed team collaboration requires a great deal of additional empathy, beyond the needs of a traditional single location team. To be effective in distributed teams, members must have a high level of empathy, giving an increased level of awareness and understanding to the differences and issues faced by their virtual colleagues.
Forms of Empathy
Empathy requirements in distributed teams are such that, to be able to work at their most effective, the team members should be sensitive to the cultural, temporal and social differences between themselves and their colleagues. These same expectations exist in a traditional co-located project, but the combination of physical proximity and the relatively homogeneous nature of co-located teams, mean that it is easier to be aware of and allow for the circumstances of colleagues seen every day, than it is those perhaps never met.
Cultural empathy in a distributed team includes the challenges of being aware of and working with the cultural circumstances of ones colleagues. Culture includes the national and religious culture of the individuals involved, the culture of their working environment and any other cultural similarities and differences that may exist between the team members. Gaining an understanding of other cultures can be gained through conversation, background reading, training and actual lived experience, all of which add to the understanding of those involved.
It is incumbent on every team member, regardless of their location, to appreciate that personnel working in different locations, and often indeed in the same location, will see things through the lens of their own experiences and that these experiences will colour the way they approach their lives and the work they perform. As such, making an attempt to understand and be empathetic to the cultures of colleagues can help build a better understanding of challenges and issues that may have an impact on the working relationship. This awareness should then help avoid unnecessary conflict and disagreement when misunderstandings arise.
Temporality, the different way in which individuals value, manage and experience time, can be the source of many business disagreements. From relatively minor issues such as timeliness of attending meetings and responding to communications through to major issues around the different ways that schedules are seen and managed, the way that time is seen and managed by others needs to be understood for a truly collaborative endeavour to be successful.
When setting up a new working relationship and establishing timelines for work the relative perceptions of time need to be only discussed and understood by everyone. An examples of where an imprecise temporal relationship can cause issues would be where one group of personnel are highly time orientated and work with a strong focus on meeting scheduled times and dates to the potential detriment of the quality of the product are working with another group who place a lower value on timeliness than they do on, for example, accuracy and “perfection” of the final product.
This clash of temporality can lead to major fractures in the working relationship, fractures that can perhaps be avoided by a clear agreement at the start of the work as to whether time or quality are the principle driver for the work.
Empathy to the social differences and demands of distributed team members can also help avoid some of the inevitable pitfalls that will await a working relationship. In every society, social pressures such as family and group commitments have a different level when compared to others.
In some groups it is normal and acceptable for employees to sacrifice their family life for their work commitments, these personnel will work whatever hours are needed to see the work done, while other societies and cultures place a higher value on the social and family commitments than the work commitments, these societies will honour their non work commitments and will on occasion sacrifice work to meet their other commitments. Failure to understand these differences in either direction can lead to major breakdowns in working relationships as work and non work pressures collide.
Managing Empathy in Distributed Teams
Establishing a solid, open and sharing relationship between members of distributed teams from the outset of the working relationship is key to being able to maintain a healthy working relationship. As time passes and the shared experiences grow personnel will be able to learn how their colleagues see and experience their world and make the appropriate adjustments in the way they interact. This allowance and healthy understanding will then support a strongly empathetic relationship where each team member is sensitive to the views of their colleagues and can adjust their own views and values to suit.
Ulfire specialises in supporting organisations establish and run high performing virtual teams, we combine extensive practical experience from decades of involvement in virtual teams with current real world academic research into the way members of virtual teams collaborate. Please contact us to discuss ways we can assist your business.
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