Understanding the psychology of group dynamics has much to offer when managing remote-working teams.
The proliferation of remote working has brought many benefits, but how should a leader respond if dynamics in a remote-working team are not quite working?
What used to be an interactive all-hands meeting is now a half-day session where we mostly stare at the Notepad software shared on our screens and watch one person write down the sub-tasks. Fatigue kicks in much earlier than when meeting in person.
Rade Martinović, Team Facilitator, Icentic AG
“It takes more effort to keep people engaged. After almost a year working this way, it’s gotten better. I less often feel someone has dozed off or isn’t paying attention.”
Considering IT, the distributed workforce needs enhanced support to manage the safety and security of business resources. As employees access IT tools from different networks and sometimes personal devices, and asynchronous communication becomes increasingly important, preserving business communication and ensuring the availability of critical data – like partner contracts, email correspondence, or service level agreements – becomes a top priority.
One way to address these challenges and help a remote team flourish might come from an unexpected place: 20th-century Canadian psychiatrist Eric Berne, famed for his pioneering transactional analysis theory. Berne also took on how groups work together in his seminal book, The Structure and Dynamics of Organizations and Groups. Exploring the relationships between an organization’s members, known as organization dynamics, many team leaders in tech have found his ideas effective in improving their team’s communication, creativity and efficiency.
Organizational boundaries: Seeds of team structure
The main pillars of organization dynamics are boundaries, defined as limits or edges of ourselves which protect our integrity. These boundaries determine expectations, accountability and responsibility of all parts of the organization, ensuring common standards across the board. In turn, these standards determine workplace communication – crucial for efficient remote work.
Berne says three types of boundaries underlie groups: Major internal, minor internal and major external boundaries.
At team level, the major internal boundary is between the team leader and team members. The major external boundary separates one team from the company’s other teams. Finally, the minor internal boundary separates each team member from their peers. Berne thinks managers can understand relationships that happen at each communication point by examining each boundary.
Open or closed boundaries
Each boundary is permeable and can be closed or open. A closed boundary is impossible to cross over once the group is formed. Berne gives an example of alumni of a university class. On the other hand, an open boundary is one anyone can cross at any time, for example, in a volunteering organization.
What happens at each of these boundaries defines the team culture and shapes the way remote teams work. By understanding these boundaries, team leads can find reasons for poor internal communication, lack of engagement or weak results and solve these problems.
What does this look like in real-life teams?
Anja Radoičić Vučićević, Serbia-based software engineer and organizational coach, recommends assessing the group’s dynamics rather than its structure, then incorporating individual team members’ needs into an overall action plan.
“We should always first consider whether boundaries are in the right place, whether agreements between all participants are clear and whether everyone in the team respects these agreements.
“In any group, including remote teams, the group is not self-sustaining: It doesn’t exist without interaction with the external environment. If we consider the pressure from the environment onto the system, the team can address it by opening or closing the boundary.
“When the external boundary is open, the team can react quickly to market events or requirements from others, but they’re also greatly influenced by external requirements. This can be a prelude to becoming reactive and endangering team identity.
“For remote teams, the main source of challenges may lie in addressing the two internal boundaries — major internal and minor internal. For the major internal boundary, consider how team leaders direct employees and how consistent they are in their decisions. On the other hand, team members may pressure team leaders to manage projects one way or another – what we call ‘agitation.’
Radoičić discusses how leaders can respond to agitation. “When team leaders address agitation by opening the boundary too much, there’s too much delegation without the leader participating. This happens, for example, when a leader is disinterested or insecure, not wanting to take responsibility. Team members begin to feel left to fend for themselves. If this boundary is too closed, there’s too much control or micromanagement, waiting for approval for minor requests, which leads to a lack of trust and responsibility among employees.”
Fine-tuning boundaries between team members
Radoičić says collaboration and innovation happen around the boundaries between team members. For a team to cooperate effectively on projects, especially when working remotely, these boundaries must have the right amount of flexibility and transparency.
When the boundary between team members becomes too open, it may be unclear who is responsible for which part of the project. If too many people are responsible for a job, no one is responsible.
Anja Radoičić Vučićević, software engineer and organizational coach
“And if this boundary is wide open, there may be too many interdependencies between team members.
“If this boundary is closed, team members have independence in their work, but reduced cooperation. Relations are strained and formal, and people don’t feel they belong to the same group. They might end up separately building the same solution to the same problem. With remote work, there’s greater need to strike a balance and keep everyone in the loop while giving enough flexibility for team members to be productive and engaged.”
Putting healthy team dynamics into practice
Martinović finds when managing engineering teams, team dynamics are crucial for improving productivity. “Teams come to be through interactions between people, communication, responding to events and all the little things.
“For established teams like mine, when the pandemic erupted, not much changed. Our team had an advantage because we supported each other, professionally and personally. The team dynamics continued online without much change, and people continued with their work.”
As a manager, how can you translate theory into practice and establish boundaries in the right place?
Radoičić suggests team leaders work with remote employees to identify what restricts boundaries, coming to a mutual understanding of what needs to improve.
There’s a set of questions to help decipher the team’s degree of control and delegation.
For control, Radoičić suggests identifying the degree of autonomy team members have in critical and non-critical tasks. Must team members ask for permission to change a process that’s not business-critical? Do managers fear delegating tasks? Look at how fit-for-purpose task definitions are, if employees have enough resources to complete tasks independently and if leaders feel insecure or shy away from performing tasks.
To understand dynamics between team members, Radoičić recommends finding out how team members see their roles and responsibilities and what they expect of their peers.
“While analyzing this internal boundary, it’s good to understand whether team members help each other out, share knowledge and ideas, or if they tend to keep information to themselves. If the boundary becomes too wide open, team members end up waiting on each other, which clogs internal workflows and reduces efficiency. So it’s crucial to see where each of these boundaries are, then get ideas from the team to set the boundaries right, so they work for everyone.”
Structuring remote teams in sustainable ways
Radoičić believes healthy teams have clear and firmly defined structures and boundaries everyone respects. “Setting boundaries stabilizes processes and makes activities effective. Some people tell me introducing processes withers creativity. But processes are not an end in themselves – there should be only as many as are needed to make a framework within which people can be creative.
“The other extreme, with no processes, leads to chaos where little actual work gets done. We have to establish a framework for work to happen, but leave freedom for ideas to bubble up and be tested.”
Martinović brings us back to transparency. “I feel fortunate we work in an environment where we’re transparent about our work, and the management didn’t try to add more means of controlling people, measuring their work or significantly changing our established process.”
Before boundaries can be set to last, remote teams need to unravel together where these boundaries lie for them. It’s in the mutual answering of these questions and frank discussions that remote teams can find a set-up that works long-term.