Keeping Team Members Engaged in a Distributed Workplace: Initial Thoughts for Discussion

priorities - Keeping Team Members Engaged in a Distributed Workplace: Initial Thoughts for Discussion

Organizations are a buzz with collaborative strategies.

Increasingly, work environments are focusing on being team-oriented and enabling employees to establish and be engaged in organizational networks. While progress is being made, the picture is not totally rosy. It is not uncommon for members to find it difficult to stay engaged, to fully participate in an on-going manner.  Why is this occurring?

There are many potential causes to investigate but the one I want to reflect upon is the notion that competing interests and responsibilities create the need to prioritize. Such a dynamic undermines the organizations’ efforts to establish a collaborative culture. It also points to the need to be aware of and understand workers’ personal, social, and workplace context when designing workplace operational processes, especially when there is a need for a high level of commitment to interactive work relationships.

Drawing upon Hinds and Mortensen’s (2005) insights about noncollocated teams, collaborative work environments in general are more effective when there is a shared identity, shared culture and social context, and the ability to communicate in a flexible and spontaneous manner. Engaging with others to accomplish tasks, make decisions, or implement solutions involves maintaining relationships and co-developing common interactive work systems, schedules, processes, and communication channels. This takes commitment as well as extra time and effort.

Let’s explore this phenomenon and it’s dynamics more closely, focusing on teams in a distributed workplace. What might be some of the causes for individuals who are part of distributed teams to become unengaged, to not stay or be able to consistently remain active in the team’s process? What might hinder a member from giving the team’s project his/or her full attention

One makes plans, but, as we all know, “life happens.” Besides the normal daily routine, unexpected situations arise and emergencies occur. Life is not in one’s control.

Healthy work-life integration is becoming more challenging while organizational operations are becoming more complex with workloads getting larger and more demanding. Workplace collaboration becomes very challenging because one is continuously juggling multiple responsibilities—personal and job related—in a manner where they are not easily compartmentalized or aspects cannot be put aside to be dealt with at a later time. This can cause one to become stressed and feel “that there is just not enough hours in a day” or “time in a week to get everything done.”

Exploring this phenomenon further, current life and work styles are shaped by digital networking created by Information Age technology. Many have a “dynamic network mentality.” This is a significant component.

Social networks have been part of the human experience since the dawn of time. With the advent of the Internet, social media and mobile technology, networks not only span across time zones and distant geographies, but are 24/7/365.  One is always in the networks as long as one is connected electronically. Thus, there is an on-going competition for our time, interest, and energy.

Continuous connectivity coupled with the acceptance of the viability of the notion of multitasking keeps one trying to be active in multiple networks, often creating unrealistic personal life scenarios and managerial work demands.

Some networks are peripheral while others are more central. But technology keeps one always connected and continuously informed. This can create a sense of expectation to always act or be able to immediately respond to people and issues. At times a misplaced sense of urgency is created because all becomes central.

Thus, team members exist—live and function—in multiple personal and work networks simultaneously, each making demands on them. Organizational teams usually are composed of talented people, but they are often multi-tasking often while being overloaded with work due to downsizing, lean budgets, etc. The boundaries between personal time and work time are blurring because one’s personal responsibilities do not stop and work duties are requiring more time in order to keep up. The demands become overwhelming.

Thus it is not unusual for team members to:

  • Be drawn simultaneously in many directions in both their personal and work lives,
  • Be involved in too many work projects, each often with tight timelines, and
  • Have too much to do to complete in a day or week.

As human beings with limited energy, resourcefulness and time, the feeling of being overwhelmed easily leads to needing to:

  • Prioritize tasks in light of importance and deadlines, and
  • Limit “time involvement” in order to gain the maximum from the “time and energy” spent.

This step is taken for a variety of valid reasons, including:

  • Trying to survive due to work demands,
  • Adhering to mandates from one’s “boss(es),”
  • Self-preservation to maintain one’s health,
  • To maintain efficiency and/or quality of the work performance, and
  • Personal choice for it is easier and takes less time to work alone.  

When this is the case, while the interest and desire may be there, team or other collaborative ways of working either become limited in scope or completely eliminated.

Team members in such situations focus on and work based upon “their own” individualized prioritized work structure, process, timeline and deadlines. There is not a drive to maintain a common identity or commitment to colleagues, nor a sense of shared team culture with common processes based upon how the group works as a whole. Relationships lose their creative vitality and become utilitarian, mere vehicles to get the job done.

This results in:

  • the focus becoming “just getting the overall task completed” by accomplishing the assigned tasks on time;
  • communication becoming limited and colleague interaction on an “as needed only” basis; and
  • one regressing to the previous way of working in a “solitary” and “siloed” manner.

Managers in this type of situation often will:

  • focus on tasks completion not relationship building,
  • take charge by being directive, organizing the process by devising specific tasks, assigning them to particular team members, and explaining to each person what needs to be done, what is expected of them, and when it is due; and
  • have members complete the “parts” or “tasks” on their own and then bring back their work to the wider team to “assemble” or “fashion” into the completed project.

Being over connected and being pulled by competing values can significantly impact workplace collaboration.

If this is not consciously recognized and addressed, working together in a manner that draws upon the collective intelligence and the creativity that arises from the synergy of the group can be replaced by a survival mentality characterized by “individuals doing tasks on their own timelines” either by choice or necessity.

So, to enable organizations to continue to unleash workforce talent through collaboration, how can managers take the personal and social context of workers into account and devise realistic collaborative workplace systems and team operations where members can stay engaged? 

Read other posts by Chuck Piazza

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