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Your People’s Brains Need Face Time

Dispersed teams trust more and function better when exposed to their colleagues’ non-verbal cues, best communicated in-person.

An interesting phenomenon emerged in an executive education class I regularly teach. Participants from around the U.S., and sometimes the world, come to the Harvard campus for a week, form teams that work on a significant group project remotely for six months, and then return to Harvard for a concluding session where they present what they’ve accomplished. A couple of years back, one of the teams decided to meet in-person about halfway through. They were so enthusiastic about the meeting, and the project they delivered so impressive, that I have related their experience to subsequent cohorts. Now, more and more teams opt for a mid-project, in-person meeting — a day or two of their own time at their own expense. Those projects continue to be among the best.

The technology that supports virtual meetings and dispersed teams is only getting better and less expensive. According to a 2015 report from the Institute of Leadership and Management (pdf), geographically dispersed teams are becoming more common. So why are the executives in my course embracing an optional trip away from their day jobs and families to finish a project? And why is it important for the rest of us?

One of the primary reasons to get teams together has to do with the hardwiring of the human brain, says Valérie Berset-Price, founder and president of Professional Passport, a firm that coaches, trains, and troubleshoots with international and cross-cultural teams.

The brain is always scanning for risk, according to Berset-Price, and among the things it uses to determine if someone is friend or foe are non-verbal cues. Those are absent in teleconferences and flattened in all but the best video conference systems.

“Building trust is a multisensory experience,” she says. “Only when people are physically present together can they use all of their senses” to establish that needed trust. Without a bond, conflict or disengagement can more easily arise and is more difficult to resolve. But when a group has the human connection that makes them a true team, “people can move sky and earth together,” Berset-Price adds.

“Building trust is a multisensory experience.” — Valérie Berset-Price of Professional Passport

She also noted that language, even a common one, can be a barrier to teams functioning smoothly. For example, Northern Europeans tend to be quite direct when speaking English, while Africans are more formal and indirect. Each group’s mode of speaking can irritate or even offend the other. The multiplicity of cultural and linguistic challenges are more easily navigated when people work side-by-side to solve problems as well as share a meal, learn a bit about colleagues’ backgrounds, and swap stories about kids, sports, and other non-work issues. Team members are reminded of their colleagues’ humanity and learn to respect and better understand each other in ways that don’t materialize when they only engage remotely. A team becomes more productive and cohesive as a result.

John O’Duinn, another dispersed-teams expert, agrees with Berset-Price. He has led various groups of technical engineers and prefers using distributed teams, as this enables him to tap into the best global talent — so long as they have regular in-person meetings. He likes a cadence of a weeklong in-person session every three to four months.

“In my experience, even when team members like each other in person, a bit of snippiness and impatience starts to develop after about four months,” O’Duinn says. “I noticed myself spending more and more time with conflict interventions and other mediations that distracted from the project work and undermined group trust. When we meet in person once per quarter, everyone is immediately reminded of the humanity of the other members of the team. Trust is quickly restored, and the conflicts dissipated.”

O’Duinn also notes that attrition dropped significantly once he mandated regular in-person meetings. He cites a quote from one of his engineers: “The idea is not to get work done — although we do lots. The idea is that we meet so that people will continue to work well together after they go back home.”

To maximize the benefits of face time together, O’Duinn requires that everyone on the team arrive in time to begin work at 9:00 a.m. on Monday and plans for work to end no earlier than 5:00 p.m. on Friday. “This is a work week and we’re together because there is some work best done together,” he says, adding that the team has a lot of flexibility outside of the in-person meetings. Even locals stay at the same hotel and eat with the team. “I want any burden of being away from home to be shared equally,” he adds. “And early on, people who had the chance to go home each evening told me that they felt they’d really missed out on important team interactions.”

Both O’Duinn and Berset-Price say that the perceived cost is one of the first areas of resistance when they propose getting teams together. Each has a preemptive strategy.

O’Duinn says that he goes right to the CFO and asks what it would cost to have the same team sitting at desks in company offices. “They all know that number,” he says. “My proposition is simple: ‘If I can manage the team the way I want to, deliver results, and save money, will you support me?’ They generally will and the savings are reliably there.”

He explains that the costs of each meeting are kept on a shared spreadsheet, with each participant responsible for booking their own flights and entering the cost. O’Duinn adds hotel, meals, and incidental expenses. “There is full transparency on costs. Team members see how much the company is investing in bringing them together.” The spreadsheet goes right to his immediate boss and the CFO after the meeting.

Berset-Price relates that companies rarely hesitate to fund travel to unite a team when something goes wrong. Then it’s all hands on deck and don’t worry about the expense. She, too, goes to the CFO and argues, “If you’ll spend the money when a problem arises, why don’t you spend some to prevent the problem in the first place?”

It’s too easy see travel as a luxury. Human connection, however, is a necessity and work has become global. That is a tension that must be resolved if people are to work well together. Bringing teams together enables them to establish and nurture culture. And, according to Berset-Price, “culture isn’t the cherry on the cake. It is the metal mold that holds the cake as it is baked.” Just as you wouldn’t try baking a cake without a pan, don’t expect technology alone to enable people to gel in ways that deliver breakthrough results.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

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