A Common Hybrid Team Story
A virtual team were responsible for delivering a solution to a European client. The team consisted of 2 marketing persons in France, 3 developers in India and 4 salespeople in Spain, including José the team leader. Everyone was excited for the new customer and wanted this to succeed, but struggled to really collaborate. Late replies on email were misinterpreted as lack of commitment, and regular online meetings were dull as the agenda was filled with tasks and little discussion. Any discussions were dominated by the Spanish majority, as they seemed to have a united front against the others. The French perceived the decisions were already taken and their voices were not heard. Customer complaints and tight deadlines put tension on the team, revealing the country loyalties over those of the team. Cultural stereotypes were used to explain the behavior of the other locations. José found himself in the middle as the Spanish team easily walked down the hall to complain, while he knew he needed the other team members to successfully deliver to the client. But no one was reaching out across the locations; they rarely shared information, and favored the ideas of their local team members without hardly listening to their distant colleagues.
This team struggles, but they are not alone as they experience a very common phenomenon – the formation of subgroups in hybrid virtual teams based on culture and/or location. It can feel like a force which keeps people apart, and is seen in majority/minority power struggles; us vs them thinking; loyalty to local at the expense of team; and conflict between location groups. Fortunately teams can create an engaging counter-force to bring the team members together.
What is a Hybrid Virtual Team
Hybrid teams have more than one team member in a geographic location and consist of groupings of team members. The exact configuration is as unique as the team itself. For instance, a team of 8 persons may be in a variety of configurations: 2-2-2-2, 3-3-2, 7-1, 4-1-1-1-1, and so many more. The point is there are not 8 in one location, nor 1 each in 8 locations
Intuitively most people think hybrid teams are easier to manage and collaborate because at least some team members are sitting with other colleagues and can easily speak together, go to lunch, and have a general sense of camaraderie. This gives the illusion of team harmony, because lurking underneath are dangers for the functioning of the entire team.
The problem is the harmful formation of subgroups based on location and/or on culture. People have a personal identity of how they define themselves. When confronted with the ‘other’ these identities become active. In virtual teams, the other is easy to define – the people in the other location and culture. As sub-groups form, the stronger the us versus them feelings can be. When teams are 100% virtual, everyone feeling equal, the identity is less strong as everyone is in the same situation, without co-located colleagues reinforcing one’s local identity.
The certainty of the known over the anxiety of the unknown is also a risk in hybrid virtual teams. If I turn to my local colleague, I know what to expect, how to communicate and interact. It gives a sense of comfort. The colleagues at the other locations are unknown in their behaviours, preferences, communication styles and this often will lead to misinterpretation, frustration and a feeling of anxiety.
Turning Hybrid to High Performance
As subgroupings can push team members apart, hybrid teams would benefit from structures and activities which bring them together. Following are some effective ideas:
- Increase task interdependence in the team. It may seem counter-intuitive, but organize the work for cross-location collaboration. As team members work together, they begin to build connection, trust, awareness, respect, which builds bridges across locations.
- Create a shared team identity. By creating an identity to which team members feel proud and which includes and goes above the cultural identity, the team members are motivated to contribute. The ideal words would be ‘I am proud to belong to this team which also includes people from these different locations’.
- Build team cultural competence. Culture plays an important role in virtual teams, even those in the same country, for instance, regional or office cultures, or the cultures of different companies in partnership structures. Spend time as a team to develop the cultural competence through courses and other interventions.
I always smile when I hear someone say ‘can you imagine, that company is 100% remote’. Good for them! The real challenge is when you are a hybrid team with a ratio between 0 and 100% remote. But with awareness of the challenge, and activities to build the team, hybrid virtual teams can also realize their potential performance.
Theresa Sigillito Hollema is Director of Interact Global, a company supporting leaders, teams and organizations to succeed globally, with a focus on leadership, cultural competence, team performance, and virtual working. Contact her at www.interact-global.net or firstname.lastname@example.org
Go (Con)figure: Subgroups, Imbalance, and Isolates in Geographically Dispersed Teams. Author(s): Michael Boyer O’Leary and Mark Mortensen. Source: Organization Science, Vol. 21, No. 1 (January-February 2010), pp. 115-131