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If you or your organisation’s teams are now working either virtually or in hybrid mode (part office, part working from home) building high performance has gotten a little more complex. Virtual or hybrid teams present new challenges in terms of informal communication, trust, a sense of connection and purpose, information sharing, role clarity, managing healthy conflict and a culture of accountability.

Let’s face it, none of these elements are easy to nail in a face to face environment. And with hybrid working now becoming standard, we just can’t rely on developing a team using the same thinking and behaviours we have historically.

People’s motivators of Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness are all impacted differently when not face to face with their colleagues every day. As a leader, you need to be more conscious of helping people tap into these motivators, otherwise you run the risk of disengagement and performance being negatively impacted. The good news is that you can use strategies that leverage these key motivators, even in a hybrid environment.

Google researchers embarked on an initiative to discover the secrets of effective teams at Google. Code-named ‘Project Aristotle’, the goal was to answer the question: “What makes a team effective at Google?” The aim was to find the secret ‘special sauce’ that makes a team high performing, so this could be replicated in how other teams were set up and developed.

Below are the 5 key findings that Google made regarding what most effectively contributes to high performing teams in the organisation. The researchers found that what really mattered was less about who is on the team and more about how the team worked together. They are listed in the table below in order of importance. The Google research was done on teams in general, so in the right hand column of the table, we’ve added our take on how you can tap into this for a virtual or hybrid team.

Contributing elements to building a
High Performing Team 
How to leverage this with virtual/hybrid teams
1. Psychological safety

Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive.” 

In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea

  • Get the team to do a quick anonymous pulse survey (eg using Microsoft Forms or Slido) to measure the team’s level of psychological safety. Harvard Professor of leadership and Management, Amy Edmondson, recommends asking team members how strongly they agreed or disagreed with these statements:
  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
  2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
  4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

Show the team the survey results and have a discussion which includes asking ‘based on this what could we do to create better psychological safety in this team?’ and ‘as the leader of this team what’s one thing I could do less of or more of to foster improved psychological safety?’

  • Set up a virtual meeting and then have everyone in the team except the team leader pop into a breakout room. Together in the breakout room have the team (without the leader present)  discuss their expectations of what they need from the team leader in order to be set up for success even more. Align on a couple of things the team want the leader to ‘do less of or more of’ in order to enable this. The team can capture their thoughts on a virtual whiteboard or in a Microsoft document. When they present it back it’s the ‘collective thoughts of the team’ so it protects individuals’ identity. 

In parallel, the team leader back in the main meeting room can also write down their 3 key expectations of what they want from the team. In sharing back the leader should always listen to the team’s thoughts first, before sharing their own, in order to demonstrate listening and empathy.

2. Dependability
“On dependable teams, members reliably complete quality work on time (vs the opposite – shirking responsibilities).”
  • Create a virtual dashboard of team member actions and use a traffic light system to mark them as Green, Orange or Red in terms of their progress. Ask people to provide an update on their actions by exception i.e. what’s not on track and encourage a team norm of asking ‘what help or resources do you need to get it done?
3. Structure and clarity
Structure and clarity: “An individual’s understanding of job expectations, the process for fulfilling these expectations, and the consequences of one’s performance are important for team effectiveness. Goals can be set at the individual or group level and must be specific, challenging, and attainable. Google often uses Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to help set and communicate short and long term goals.”
  • Set 1-3 shared team goals and post them onto your intranet or a visual dashboard. Allocate actions against the goals that have shared accountabilities between 2-3 team members to ensure there is both clarity and collaboration.

Note: Shared goals require that team members work together to produce joint work products (not going off and doing actions in silos).

  • Use Slack, Yammer or MS Teams to track actions and enable instant messaging.
4. Meaning
“Finding a sense of purpose in either the work itself or the output is important for team effectiveness. The meaning of work is personal and can vary: financial security, supporting family, helping the team succeed, or self-expression for each individual, for example.”
  • Run an exercise in a virtual meeting where the team collectively discovers the real purpose of the team and how it can deliver value to the organisation and its customers. Get people talking first in pairs or small groups in breakout rooms to generate ideas. Then, create a compelling team purpose statement or story as a whole group.
  • Send team members an extensive menu of personal values that human beings can have. Get them to select their top 5 personal values and share them at the start of a team meeting. Have a discussion about which of their personal values people see connecting with the organisation’s values, as well as its vision, purpose, culture and flexibility.
5. Impact
“The results of one’s work, the subjective judgement that your work is making a difference, is important for teams. Seeing that one’s work is contributing to the organization’s goals can help reveal impact.”
  • Run an exercise in a virtual meeting that you give your team a few days to prepare for. Have everyone take a turn at sharing their answers to these questions:
  1. What attracted you to work at this organisation?
  2. What was your vision about how this organisation would fit in with your values and skill set?
  3. What was your original vision about what you might achieve in this organisation? 
  4. How do you see that your role contributes to the end customer? To the broader world?
  5. What small (or large) difference are you making that you can be proud of, even when times are tough?
Scott Erskine

Scott Erskine

Scott has successfully delivered leadership and performance solutions for management across a number of industries including retail, resources, construction, government and finance and has worked with organistions such as BHP Billiton, Woodside, Rio Tinto, Veolia, Western Power, GESB, Ramsay Healthcare, Police & Nurses Mutual Banking, Flight Centre, and the Australian Defence Forces.