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How isolation impacts team performance: sociomapping and the visualisation of connectivity

Insight

When will you next be back in the office with your team?

For many of us, the answer to this question is simply “who knows?”

The sudden closure of offices across the world in February and March forced many teams to go virtual and, despite the easing of lockdowns, this change is not about to be reversed. Facebook and Google announced that their offices will not reopen until 2021, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has offered permanent homeworking to any employee that wants it.

But what risks does remote working pose to teams? A recent Lane4 survey found that 44% of employees working from home are feeling less connected to others, and 41% say they are being excluded from decisions or conversations because they are not there in person.

If communication is suffering due to remote working, leaders need to identify the issue and act to neutralise it now.

Houston, we have a problem

Nobody has studied the effects of isolation on teams more closely than NASA and the European Space Agency. If you’re wondering why, ask yourself if you fancy spending six months trapped in a metal box with a difficult colleague.

After the invention of "sociomapping" by QED Group in 1994, NASA began to use the process as a way to predict and prevent team failures in spaceflight. It means producing an image of a team that offers visual insights into the effectiveness of the relationships between its members.

With the capacity to “see” how astronauts felt about each other, NASA and ESA were able to resolve issues between team members that might otherwise have been hidden from view. It allowed them to nip frictions in the bud before they became problems.

Today, Lane4 and QED Group use sociomapping to help leaders understand the strengths and weaknesses of their teams. By getting members to complete short questionnaires capturing team members’ interactions, it is possible to visually represent qualities such as connectivity, availability, trust and overload. You can learn more about this process in this video:

Lessons from space

So, what can we learn about our current remote working experiences from NASA? There are plenty of lessons, but in this blog we’ll focus on one in particular that is relevant for motivation: boredom.

When NASA do experiments with teams of potential astronauts, the first part is usually extremely demanding but also very exciting. Facing a new environment brings a lot of challenges such as getting used to new people and aligning with them, coping with very limited space, facing uncertainty and processing a fear of failure. Powered by adrenalin, the participants experience exciting days and even weeks. However, as the time goes by the level of excitement falls and the negative aspects start to prevail.

Different personalities, intense cohabitation with limited personal space, lack of new impulses, next to no social contact: slowly but surely, boredom and routine begin to take hold. This is the most significant aspect of isolation and all astronauts know it very well.

Does this sound familiar? If you’re anything like me, you’ll have found the first few weeks of working from home exhausting but will also have embraced the unfamiliarity of it. The novelty of no commute, video meetings and a constantly shifting business environment all made those early days pass in a blur. But as lockdown continued, the appeal of “Zoom quizzes” began to wane…

One of the key challenges of remote working is maintaining your team’s agility and readiness for action. If boredom/routine is allowed to get a grip on your team you’ll notice some serious issues:

  • Less attention to detail
  • Reduced creativity
  • Falling engagement with solving problems
  • Increased probability of failure, misunderstandings and conflict

Boredom and routine decrease our readiness for action. You can imagine it as a standby mode; if a big project comes in suddenly, going from standby to 100% could take time.

As a leader, monitoring the mental health and conditions of your team is critical. When something is slowly deteriorating it can be hard to spot, especially if you’re not seeing that person every day. However, regularly reviewing team dynamics can indicate team failure before it happens.

Supporting remote teams

The most important thing leaders can do to support their remote teams is to nurture, build and maintain the team safety network.

All teams have strong and weak connections between team members. But what distinguishes good and bad teams is the density of this network. Poorly performing teams tend to have a few very strong relationships (i.e. a few people in the team who are highly connected and aligned to each other) but also a lot of members who don’t feel psychologically safe with one or more other members.

High performing teams, on the other hand, have a great network of relationships; you actually want many weak connections that you can then build upon rather than a few strong ones.

A good team network should have an even distribution of communication between team members, rather than bunching up in “communication centres”. Sociomapping visualises this network.

If your remote team has a good safety network, a lot of the support will happen without your involvement. Even if it was possible back in the office, monitoring every single relationship between remote team members is virtually impossible for a leader. Fortunately, people experiencing psychological safety in a team are more able to support each other, saving you the trouble.

 

Want to know more about sociomapping and what it could do for your organisation? Enquire here.

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