Team cohesion, or the degree to which being part of a team is especially compelling to its members, is a critical characteristic of high-performing groups. Many studies have shown that a prerequisite component of high-performing teams is the degree to which members enjoy, or seek out opportunities, to work with one another.
Over the past several years, the developed world has been slowly embracing the idea of working remotely – executives have started working with remote or virtual assistants, companies have moved over to co-working spaces that are used only as in-person meetings are needed, and so on. With the arrival of COVID-19, we can no longer take our time to adjust to the idea of working remotely. Instead, we have been thrust into a world characterized by physical isolation and social distancing, where workplace interactions are occurring solely via technology. This has presented leaders of teams with an interesting challenge they may have not been prepared to address so swiftly… How do you support strong performance within your team by building cohesion, when team members are required to only connect remotely via technology?
As the leader of such a team, a small, but ever-present, silver lining is that team cohesion is a relative, rather than absolute, property of teams. Team cohesion can be cultivated through multiple means, without the prerequisite of physical presence. Research into Organizational Behaviour has found that the following five factors influence team cohesion:
- Threat and Competition – External threats to the survival of the group increase cohesion, whereas internal competition has been found to decrease cohesion.
- Success – Teams become more compelling to their members when they have successfully accomplished an important goal, such as defending themselves against a threat or winning a prize. Failure has the converse effect.
- Member Diversity – Diverse groups that are in agreement about how to accomplish a particular task tend to display greater cohesion.
- Size – Larger groups tend to have a more difficult time maintaining team cohesion.
- Toughness of Initiation – Groups that are tough to get into tend to be more compelling or attractive than those that are easy to join.
Some strategies that leaders of physically isolated teams could consider include:
- Keeping group size appropriate for the task at hand; avoiding oversized teams.
- Consistently seeking to facilitate agreement/consensus on how to approach a particular task.
- Encouraging participation in group conversations even when team members report difficulty in connecting interpersonally via technology.
- Appointing de facto leaders to sub-modules of a larger project, allowing for visibility of members and setting a higher standard for team membership.
As you and your teams navigate through the uncertain days of this pandemic, take time to rest in the confidence of one another’s support. Explicitly encourage your team to stand together and seek to leverage opportunities for personal learning and growth! I encourage you to test these four strategies to see whether they may support your ability to grow team cohesion amongst your physically isolated team members.