How about a virtual coffee break?

Technology has revolutionised the way in which organisations involved in humanitarian aid and international development cooperation interact with their staff in the field. Increasingly, teams are directed at a distance by project managers and coordinators from headquarters in Switzerland.
However, remote teams cannot be managed in the same way as on-site teams. It is much more complicated to create a shared identity, ensure group cohesion and adherence to common objectives. Daniel Glinz, senior Advisor and Trainer at cinfo, presents the training course Bridging Distances and explains the issues involved.

Many managers still concentrate mainly on an exchange of facts and leave out the interpersonal aspects of social interaction.

How does physical distance affect team dynamics?

Daniel Glinz: Face to face meetings provide opportunities for interaction on many levels. Such interactions take place during team meetings, but also informally, like in an elevator or at the coffee machine. Even if people are working on different projects, when everyone is in the same place, team spirit can develop quickly. Spontaneous encounters are non-existent in teams that are scattered across different locations. In such situations, the only communication that takes place is by using technological aids. This makes building and nurturing relationships even more important.

Doesn’t new communication technology facilitate exchange?

Technological innovation has radically transformed the way information is exchanged. Today, communication takes place in real time through online chats, web- or video conferencing. In the case of managing remote teams, it is essential to closely examine one’s communication habits and be willing to adapt one’s behaviour to this new medium. Without such efforts the essential goals of maintaining focus and ensuring group cohesion may be missed.

What difficulties face managers and coordinators of remote teams?

They must collaborate with people living in different time zones, who have different ways of communicating, and most likely have very individual ways to manage projects. These factors increase the complexity of the situation. One of the biggest traps in long-distance communication goes back to habits developed during the era of long-distance phone calls, where the cost for every minute call to countries in Africa amounted to 15 Swiss francs, or 5 francs to Japan. It was therefore necessary to focus only on the essential, which had a detrimental effect on personal relationships. Today, although this no longer applies, many managers still concentrate mainly on an exchange of facts and leave out the interpersonal aspects of social interaction.

Small talk within teams is essential so that personal needs are met and a sense of belonging develops. 

So, you encourage managers to review their way of interaction?

Yes, this is the main objective of the course. Participants are encouraged to place more emphasis on the quality of relationships in long-distance communication. Small talk, such as interaction at the coffee machine during breaks, is too often ignored. This kind of interaction allows a «testing of the waters» or personal exchange about each others health and well-being. Small talk within teams is essential so that personal needs are met and a sense of belonging develops.

In other words: you invite team members to virtual coffee breaks...

Why not? Nothing prevents team members from meeting online while having a coffee. The only constraints are being equipped with the necessary technology and knowing how to make use of it. Some people feel less comfortable with mediated on-screen exchanges, which is why the course aims at building greater ease with the practice. The course specifically encourages spontaneity and tries to explore ways to compensate for the lack of direct contact.

Is this why you offer a blended learning experience with online and in person components?

Yes – in the first webinar, participants are invited to introduce themselves to their colleagues, then to reflect on how this experience felt to them: «how was it different from a face to face meeting?», «what could they improve next time?» Individual sessions with the instructor, also online, allow participants to address and reflect on these questions in greater depth and to practise bilateral conversations that differ fundamentally from meetings with many participants. Finally, the one-day workshop in Bienne is dedicated to analysing these experiences. Apart from introducing some theoretical concepts, group reflection will lead to the compilation of a list of best practices.

Interview: Jérôme Faivre

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