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Creating connectedness in far-flung teams

Creating connectedness in far-flung teams
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In my earlier career in the west, I had the privilege of being physically located with most of the people I worked with. Clients were in different locations, sure, but the people I needed to help me get stuff done, to change things for the better (and to have a laugh with about our mutual circumstances) were all there with me, under the same faux-industrial ceilings.

Now my job is to try to connect and create one team out of the vast and anciently different collection of civilisations that we refer to as ‘Asia’. Some of our country teams are quite small, and often people work from their homes. And everyone travels. Constantly. Consulting and creating innovative learning journeys requires an intimacy with our clients’ needs that can’t be achieved virtually. We have to climb inside the skin of an organisation to really understand the needs of its people, and that requires travel. Some of our top consultants spend more than a third of their lives in a different country to the people they love, just to do the job they love

Resolute in my belief that getting together physically as a regional team once per year isn’t a lot to ask – not to mention fundamental to being able to create connectedness across cultural, functional and language barriers – I duly set a date last month for our annual Offsite, and caused a minor rebellion. The rebellion was polite and enquiring, and I duly squashed it (having learnt leadership from the prevailing models of the 90s you understand). But the truth is our business is getting busier, and those who are already hard-working and hard-travelling are doing even more. And while our Offsite week had been blocked in people’s calendars for a few months, other commitments had crowded in around it which made it untenable. So, what to do? We really needed to get together, and we really needed to focus on wellbeing and give people the chance to recover by NOT traveling. 

We had recently switched most of our internal communications to the Microsoft Teams platform, which made video-conferencing our default way of connecting. I wondered if a virtual Offsite was possible... but initially dismissed it as too easy to avoid engaging with and lacking the essential ingredient of getting out of the office and connecting with each other as human beings, not just co-workers. In the end we decided to do a hybrid that we named an ‘Onsite’: regional and function/department get-togethers virtually, and one synchronised day out of the office with home-country teammates. 

Functional leads worked hard on making calls interactive (of course it helped that they are gifted facilitators who know how to engage even the most recalcitrant participants!) and we created a dedicated channel for all documents, feedback and of course general conversation and candid photo-sharing throughout the week.

We picked Wednesday for our team building day and let each country team decide how to spend their time. The only stipulation was that it had to be out of the office and had to foster wellbeing and human connection – whatever that meant in each culture and for each team. Discussing how we do work wasn’t off the agenda (as making it easier to do work is an important wellbeing issue) but doing it was. Here’s my original brief:

"Have an experience that will build our togetherness as a team, in order to feel connected and important to each other as individuals, not just work colleagues. Learn something new about each other and develop the home-country team as a source of strength to enable us to perform at our best no matter what other teams we are on."

I was sceptical that we could have a meaningful and productive collective experience this way, but its success has stunned all of us. Despite my misgivings, the virtual and the IRL* combined beautifully to create a cohesive regional experience for a dispersed, diverse and worn-out team. It has been a valuable protected week, where no-one had to travel and everyone could re-energise and re-focus together. 

So, if you face a similar challenge, I urge you consider the ‘Onsite’ model and humbly offer the following suggestions for pulling it off (all of which we realised after the fact of course). 

  • Do block the week in everyone’s calendars as you would for a normal offsite. It’s vital not to have any big distractions going on when so much is virtual
  • Have some good, stable video-conferencing technology and limit calls to 1.5 hours
  • Kick off the week with a full team call and end it the same way
  • Ensure function or department cross-region calls are focused on interactivity (a few key questions that can be discussed in small groups and then shared back more broadly) rather than using them for broadcasting information that can be circulated beforehand 
  • Allow latitude in what teams do for the offsite portion as long as objectives are the same for each country team
  • Lastly, have a channel going where you can all share photos and banter during proceedings – it really enhanced our collective experience!

In the end I realised that in desperately wanting us to get together I was focusing too much on the how and not enough on the what. Having this Onsite forced me to be ruthlessly focused on two things: being really clear on our objectives and creating opportunities for as much engagement as possible. And then of course, I re-learned one of the hardest leadership lessons to put into practice: just create and hold the space, your team and your colleagues will never fail to fill it with more meaningful and better solutions than you can. 

*IRL = in real life (I learned it from my kids)

Helen Hibbott is Head of Impact Asia. Prior to Impact, Helen was Global Chief Talent Officer for Omnicom marketing agency RAPP, a post she held for 6 years after a career on the business side of the agency, culminating in leading the New York office