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Highly effective distributed teams

High Empathy Working Agreements

This is a 'Virtilitation Friends' blog post. In this series, esteemed friends and colleagues of ours share their knowledge and experiences on working in remote and hybrid settings. Today's blog post is by the long-time virtual facilitator and agile coach Peter Lee. He is the founder of the video conferencing software VideoFacilitator and supports remote teams performing just as great as if they were co-located. Here he reflects on two aspects which might help you get there with your team, too. Drawing parallels between remote teams and distributed gaming communities (guilds & clans), he sheds light were only few have done previously. A fitting comparison we believe.

Our current working environment is going through a huge period of disruption where new distributed working practices will emerge. In this time of change, it’s critical that we deliberately assist teams in building genuine rapport and connections with each other. Although it can be a challenge to do this in distributed teams, it is not impossible. Two simple facilitated activities can help you easily create high empathy teams with work agreements that support them in delivering amazing outcomes. In this article, I’ll outline what these two activities are, and how you can run them.

Digital environments such as gaming have demonstrated that it is possible to build highly effective distributed communities. Sure the goals of a gaming community may be to win a battle or defeat an overpowered boss, but taking a step back to look at the leadership mechanics applied in these environments, they are the same mechanics required to create highly effective distributed teams in a work context.

Research into this area highlights the presence of two key characteristics

  1. Genuine care for people outside periods of action

  2. Clear order and structure during periods of action

Although seemingly contradictory, these leadership characteristics are both necessary and critical for leading diverse highly skilled individuals.

If genuine rapport is not built between team members the barrier to exit a distributed group remains extremely low. Without clear order and structure, it is impossible to coordinate a distributed group towards achieving a common goal during periods of action. Check out this research paper if you want to read more World of Warcraft Raid Leadership Skills

Dialling these two aspects up can be done through two key activities focused on building empathy and effective working agreements.

  1. Empathy sessions enable teams to build a clear understanding of what motivates each other, and what a great team looks like

  2. Working agreement sessions help teams build upon a clear understanding of each other and translate this into clear rules and agreements that help them excel

In a company or department, the outcome of these activities is typically a Culture Code (You can read my previous article on creating a culture code here). In a team, the outcome of these activities is typically a Social Contract or Team Working Agreement.

Activity 1 — Building Team Empathy

Team empathy can be built in a variety of ways, but one of the most effective ways is via an activity called Moving Motivators. Although simple to run, Moving Motivators drives surprising insights and helps build team understanding by exposing in a safe way the different intrinsic motivators that each individual on a team has.

To run this activity you

  1. Introduce and describe the 10 intrinsic motivators

  2. Have each participant silently order their own motivators from left to right in order from most important to least important

  3. Have each individual explain their ordering to the group

  4. Have each individual rate the level at which each motivator is currently being achieved in the current team

The deeper understand that your team builds with each other, sets the perfect foundation for defining work agreements with the goal of maximising the motivation of each individual.

Tip: A digital whiteboard can help you capture and reuse this information as new team members join the team. Moving Motivators Miro templateview the board Moving Motivators Google Drawing templateview the board

Activity 2 — Creating a Working Agreements

With a deep understanding of each others motivators, the team is now ready to create a working agreements to provide the order and structure required to effectively work as a team.

To run this activity you

  1. Show an example of a team working agreement

  2. In small groups of less than 5, draft a proposed working agreement for the team

  3. Share back proposed working agreements to the group

  4. Vote on the best working agreement and make any final modifications or additions.

  5. Have the team sign their name as commitment to the working agreement.

With the team working agreement established the team now has a clear set of rules to begin to organise and self regulate .

Tip: Distributed working environments do have unique challenges so sometimes it is beneficial to suggest agreements like “Be respectful of peoples time”, or “Over communicate” as these factors are often important in a distributed setting but less so in a co-located environment.. Social Contract downloadable handout Social Contract Miro templateview the board

Final notes

Working agreements do, and should change as a team evolves and work habits change. You should revisit this activity from time to time, or as new team members join the team. The most important thing is to use it to build genuine rapport between team members and then clear working agreements providing the order and structure that will help a distributed team deliver effectively.

If you are interested in remote working follow Peter's VideoFacilitator blog. Also check out, a video conferencing tool which is, in the best sense, different than most other apps on the market. It helps us at Virtilitation to run high engagement virtual meetings and workshops with our clients and has become our N°1 choice for interactive sessions with breakout groups.


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