In a world of video conferencing, instant messaging and other tools that facilitate real-time access to colleagues around the globe, it can be hard to justify the time and expense of bringing everyone together to meet in person. But Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, author of Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate and Compete in the Knowledge Economy, says there’s still no replacement for face time, especially when dealing with nuanced topics or early-stage projects.
“At the point when information can easily be conveyed in spreadsheets or written words, distance isn’t a problem,” she says. “But if you have to see the expression on someone’s face or use your hands to show how something works—and especially if you’re brainstorming—you need to be together in person.”
Here are three productive tips that Edmondson recommends to get the most out of your team’s face time:
1. Pick the right facilitator.
The leader’s attitude and demeanor set the tone for the whole group, especially when a new team is getting together for the first time. To foster the kind of “psychological safety” that Edmondson emphasizes is essential to effective teamwork, you need a leader who can ask thoughtful questions, draw out the quieter members of the group and keep everyone focused on the task at hand. These skills—rather than titles or job functions—should determine who leads the session.
2. Get to know each other.
Forget icebreakers like “two truths and a lie,” or the three items you’d take to a desert island. Instead, position your team’s initial conversations within the context of the project you’re working on. Focus on the following areas, which Edmondson says are critical for developing a meaningful work relationship:
- Skills and experience
- Individual goals and aspirations
- Obstacles or barriers to success
Approach these topics in a structured fashion so that they don’t eat up time. But recognize that each of these topics requires different levels of vulnerability and openness. So you might do a quick “pair-and-share” exercise for skills and experience, then allow a bit more time for each person to explain their goals to their partner. Those exercises can be followed by a group discussion of the potential pitfalls ahead.
3. Brainstorm and plan
While you’re together, try to avoid tasks that require everyone to silently peck away on their laptops (though participants will likely appreciate an occasional extended break to deal with their inboxes).
Rather, take advantage of the team’s physical presence—jot ideas on Post-it Notes that can be grouped in categories and rearranged, or have subgroups brainstorm and present their findings on a whiteboard or large flip chart.
Pulling together an in-person meeting can be a considerable investment of resources, but with the right planning and preparation, these get-togethers can yield big returns.
Amy Edmonson’s forthcoming book, The Fearless Organization, explores the importance of psychological safety in professional groups.
This article was created with and commissioned by Post-it Brand.