How to improve remote & hybrid team dynamics

How to improve remote & hybrid team dynamics
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Group dynamics (first coined by social psychologist Kurt Lewin) refers to the underlying psychological phenomena that show up when groups of people interact. We’re talking about personalities, beliefs, attitudes, etc. Group dynamics affect nearly every part of our lives, from the family unit to the global community (the pandemic definitely made us aware of how interrelated we all are). And of course, group dynamics show up in the workplace.

Positive group dynamics are an essential ingredient of any successful team. But they don’t happen by chance. And for teams working remotely, well, it can feel like a different challenge altogether. But the antidote isn’t more Zoom meetings. And it certainly isn’t more virtual icebreakers (although they can help when done right). In this article, we’ll teach you what it takes to make long-distance collaboration work for your remote or hybrid team.

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What makes remote team dynamics particularly challenging? 

To put it simply, there are more variables when group members are working from home. Everyone’s dealing with different distractions, different work-from-home setups, and oftentimes, different working hours — just to name a few.

The limitations to face-to-face communication also require more creativity in how we carry out our conversations. Perhaps we need more tools (like Slack, Asana, and Zoom) and the etiquette that comes along with them (no notifications after 5 pm, please).

We also need to be extra cognizant of the well-being of team members, mental and physical. Without a daily commute, some may find that days have passed without leaving their homes. Social isolation, lack of physical exercise, eye strain from staring at screens — these are all factors that can affect individual team members and the group as a whole.

Of course, remote work is not all bad. For one, it’s more flexible, making it a great solution for parents especially. It isn’t location-bound, which means widened opportunity. And for many, remote work fits their optimal working styles, aiding them in being more productive (and happy, in the process). All that to say, it’s very possible to have an effective team that includes remote team members. Remote work doesn’t make teamwork and team building impossible by any stretch. It just takes a little extra creativity to make it work. We’ll offer some tips late in the post. But first, let’s talk about some things that make team dynamics difficult in general. 

What are the obstacles to positive team dynamics?

Let’s briefly discuss six of the most common obstacles to a thriving team, remote or not. Because it all starts with knowing what to watch for.

1. Weak leadership

Weak leadership can mean a lot of different things: a leader who lacks vision, a leader with no emotional intelligence, a leader who fails to lead by example, and more. If you want a stronger team, start with your leadership.

2. Lack of direction

Is there clarity around short- and long-term goals? Do people know what they’re working towards and how they’ll get there? A lack of direction is often the result of weak leadership (see above).

3. Poor communication

Healthy communication amongst a team is important whether you’re working virtually or not. But it’s also true that virtual work comes with its own set of communication barriers: Limited face-to-face conversations, different time zones, and inefficient ways of communicating (long email threads, anybody?) are just a few examples.

4. Excessive deference to authority

Being an accommodating person is one thing, but people-pleasing is another. Excessive deference to authority can look like keeping your ideas to yourself if they challenge those of the leader, and this can lead to a team culture where team members cannot show up authentically and fully themselves.

5. Groupthink

It’s not ideal when “following the crowd” and achieving harmony amongst a group overrides rational decision-making and the values of the individual. The result is similar to that of excessive deference: It makes your group work half-heartedly and fail to bring their full selves to your projects.

6. Lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion

If the dynamics and culture of the team do not actively support each individual’s unique ideas, opinions, and talents, then the team as a whole will lack the diversity and richness it could otherwise have. It’s important to foster psychological safety and allow everyone an equal voice.

The stages of team development

All teams go through ups and downs. And according to psychologist Bruce Tuckman, team development follows a typical process made of five stages: forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning.

In this section, we’ll walk you through the stages of team development, so that you know what to expect as the process unfolds. We’ll also offer practical advice for remote teams, actionable ways they can approach and navigate each stage on the way to high performance.

Stage 1: Forming

This initial stage describes the dynamics of a newly-formed team. Team members have yet to get to know each other, so it’s normal for everyone to behave with extra courteousness. Once they’re more comfortable around each other, then you can expect more candid interactions. They’re eager and optimistic about the work ahead, but they might also feel anxious and uncertain. How will my skills stack up against the other members of the team? Where do I fit into the larger picture? During this stage, they’ll be looking to you, as their manager or lead, to guide them and set expectations.

How to help your remote team during this stage

This stage is all about setting up a strong foundation. Focus less on assigning tasks and more on defining things like the team’s goals (specific and big-picture), roles and responsibilities, and ground rules for virtual communication. Examples of ground rules include: 

  • Please respond to messages within 3 hours during working hours
  • If something is urgent, send a Slack message instead of an email

Stage 2: Storming

As the name suggests, this is when conflict arises. Personalities begin to reveal themselves here, as do team members’ work styles. Remember that what seems like “poor group dynamics” is just part of the process, so don’t be intimidated! 

As a leader, your job is to facilitate open communication and conflict resolution. This way, conflict actually helps your team become stronger and more effective.

How to help your remote team during this stage

Checking in with your team members becomes even more important during this stage. It’s a great time to establish 1:1 and team meetings, to give team members the time and space to voice their honest feelings and feedback. This helps to build trust in you as a team leader and foster good team dynamics. 

Pro tip: As a manager, you’re generous with your time — but micro-managing your calendar is never fun. Let Clockwise automate and optimize your meetings for you, so that you make time for what truly matters.

Stage 3: Norming

In this stage, team dynamics begin to stabilize. Everyone’s more familiar with the strengths and weaknesses that each person brings to the team. Effective communication and collaboration begin to come more easily. And high performance is on the horizon. It’s a great time to refine your workflow and establish a routine.

How to help your remote team during this stage

At this point in the development process, it’s likely that the team has been working with each other for a few months, meaning they‘ve gained valuable insight into the systems, workflows, and processes of the team. 

Leverage their insight to brainstorm ways to improve. For remote teams, chances are that this stage will involve looking at your team management and project management tools and how you use them. Another place that might need improvement is your decision-making processes.

Stage 4: Performing

This is the stage of high-performance, when your team has found its groove. At this point, they’ve fine-tuned their processes, everyone understands their precise contributions, and can move towards their shared goals effectively. There’s more cohesion and focus around the common goal.

How to help your remote team during this stage

Celebrate your wins as a strong team. Look at the metrics to see measurable progress and encourage more clarity around goals. 

The team has a lot of momentum right now, so be sure to create a virtual work environment that supports that momentum. One way to do that is by encouraging Focus Time or scheduling no-meeting days. (Psst, Clockwise can help with both of those things.)

Stage 5: Adjourning

More than a decade after introducing his model, Tuckman added this fifth stage to discuss the dynamics of a team when it disbands. (Though not relevant to our discussion today, we want to point out that it exists.)

Going forward

It’s easy to forget about team dynamics while working from home and slip into a routine where every person is working as their own island. As with any other team, though, the same types of complications — poor communication, weak leadership, lack of diversity and inclusion practices, etc. — can still exist in remote teams. 

Here’s the bottom line: Embrace the ups and downs that are inherent to team dynamics (even in the most high-performing teams). Continually refine your tools, processes, and systems to help your remote team thrive.

More resources:

About the author

Judy Tsuei

Judy Tsuei is a Simon & Schuster author, speaker, and podcast host. She’s been featured in MindBodyGreen, BBC Travel, Fast Company, Hello Giggles, and more. As the founder of Wild Hearted Words, a creative marketing agency for global brands, Judy is also a mentor with the Founder Institute, the world's largest pre-seed accelerator. Judy advocates for mental and emotional health on her popular podcast, F*ck Saving Face. Follow along her journey at WildHeartedWords.com.

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