Several trends are rapidly changing our working lives. The rise of flexible working means people have more control over how and where they work – the ‘job for life’ is no longer expected nor desired. Workers switch companies and careers to meet their changing goals and personal needs, and freelancing provides greater freedom for individuals and talent-on-demand for businesses.

On the whole, these have been hugely positive developments. But they bring with them some challenges. In a working environment where everything is so fluid, how can managers foster unity within their teams?

The team challenge

 

Teams are built on trust, and trust develops as people spend time with each other. When teams are spread out all over the world, or people work from home for a large part of the week, there is little opportunity for bonds to develop.

The problem is further compounded by social media, which tends to engender an expectation of instant gratification. In such a climate, people want quick wins and are arguably less inclined to focus on longer-term goals and the greater good.

Flexible working is fast becoming a favoured perk of employees in the UK – including business services professionals in law firms. Our Business Services Salary Benchmarking Survey, published earlier this year, showed that 57% of staff took up some form of flexible working in 2015 compared to 34% in 2013/14. The figures may only apply to those firms that have formal programmes in place, but we know that there are many firms offering informal flexibility to more employees. And that trend is only going to increase.

With such a shift, some may be concerned about the future for office culture, and within that, how they will maintain an effective team spirit as people increasingly work from different places across various times. Technological advancements may have made communication across numerous channels easy, but teams also need face-to-face contact to thrive.

Creating cohesive teams in times of change

 

Thankfully, there are steps managers and HR professionals can take to help keep even the most disparate teams united. According to management and leadership experts Mind Tools, creating a successful dispersed team starts with recruiting people who are self-motivated, results-driven, and have excellent communication skills. Team members must then be united behind a common purpose and all agree to the goals. A team charter is a useful tool to set out the mission and clarify roles and resources.  

Regular feedback is crucial and off-site workers need to feel as valued as their collocated colleagues. The softer stuff also matters. Mind Tools suggests virtual team rooms – the equivalent of a coffee break area – where workers share the likes of charity events, birthdays and other personal information.

Keith Ferrazzi, author and founder of the Ferrazzi Greenlight Research Institute, has studied the research on managing and engaging virtual teams. He argues that personal interactions are vital. Humans are intensely social beings and need to feel connected. Personal sharing is one of the easiest and most overlooked ways to create that connection – but virtual teams often miss out on this. He advises that virtual meetings should allow for a personal/professional check-in at the beginning of meetings and not just cover what is on the agenda. 

It’s the way that you do it

 

And, while technology is vital in connecting dispersed teams, much thought must be given to the implementation. Greenlight found that while more than 80% of respondents felt virtual communications technology improves employees’ sense of engagement, more than half said constant connection to all streams of information distracted more than it contributed to their job satisfaction and productivity. Ground rules must also be laid such as restricting the use of the mute button on conference calls and no multi-tasking – both risk minimising engagement.

Workforce trends company, the APD Research Institute, looked at the direction the world of work is heading in the future. Greater freedom is likely to be a key focus with employees wanting to work from anywhere in the world and manage their own schedules; working where and when skills are needed rather than for one company; less focus on managing; a reduced importance of hierarchy; and an emphasis on working on something personally meaningful.

Some of the trends are already apparent in law, others may not come to fruition. But the idea of one traditional collocated team will become increasingly rare. For business leaders and HR professionals in the legal profession this shouldn’t be too daunting a prospect. Many have already faced the challenge of managing teams across national and international offices, where time zone differences alone can make it challenging to bring teams together.

Ways of working are evolving in myriad ways, but the fundamentals remain the same: social interaction, feeling valued, and being rewarded and recognised for a job well done. The tools by which this is achieved may change, but human nature will not.

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