When we can’t build startups from a garage, how do we create strong teams?

When we can’t build startups from a garage, how do we create strong teams?
Image courtesy of Cosmic Centaurs

Marilyn Zakhour is the founder and chief executive officer of UAE-based Cosmic Centaurs, a flexible work consultancy. 

It's unlikely that startups and companies established in the emerging post-pandemic world will tell stories about their founding team sitting in a garage, setting the foundations of the organisation together. Instead, origin stories will probably be about truly global teams, leveraging the power of technology and time difference to build organisations and products that are of their time. 

While these companies may not have a nostalgic birth story to pass on to generations of employees, they will tell a story of diversity and ingenuity; after all they are not bound by their geography. This can be liberating and rife with opportunity, particularly when building inclusive teams from parts of the world where salaries and benefits are affordable. But as with all things, it also comes at a cost.

These remote-first startups will miss out on the ‘magic making’ that founders and early employees leverage to innovate and iterate. Simply put, they will be challenged by the fact that their teams are not in “the garage”, or its equivalent in the GCC - the hotel lobby. This is because the true takeaway from the stories of founders creating companies in the garage is about creativity, innovation, and collaboration. 

When we are together, we can bounce ideas off of each other and flesh concepts out further. A study by Microsoft found companies’ spirit of innovation rapidly declined as their workforces dispersed throughout the pandemic with executives reporting a near 16 per cent drop when asked if they considered their companies to be innovative with products and services. But that certainly doesn’t mean that companies and leaders who are distributed will be stuck in an era of stagnation until their teams are co-located; far from it. 

While it is not as easy, a deliberate effort is needed to create a distributed world where our teams and organisations can thrive. Here is our attempt at helping leaders think through this problem.

On psychological safety  

Psychological safety is a term coined by Amy Edmondson and is defined as the absence of interpersonal fear and is one of the most important predictors of team performance. Studies show that teams with psychological safety take more (moderate) risks, are more creative, are more likely to speak their mind, have more humour and more importantly, more divergent thinking. All of which are more likely to lead the team to a breakthrough. 

Organisations and leaders have spent the greater part of the past year and a half trying to figure out what work models they should be adopting (hybrid, remote, flex etc.) to solve their operational challenges. But the answer could be simpler, solve for the looming psychological crisis and your teams will find the answers for you. 

The pandemic shed light on the fact that there has been and continues to be a psychological crisis at work. Quoting the Keynote speaker at our recent Future of Teams Conference, Mark Mortensen, Professor – and former Area Chair – of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD, in his MIT Sloan Review paper: “While loneliness is often thought of as a personal issue, it is an organisational issue as well. A lack of social connection — whether with friends, family members, or co-workers — can have serious consequences. It is associated not only with health problems, including heart disease, dementia, and cancer, but also with poor work performance, reduced creativity, and flawed decision-making. Quite simply, people who feel lonely cannot do their best work, which means that teams with lonely members are not operating at their peak levels either.” 

This is exacerbated by distance. Most startups and organisations will have some form of flexible work in place and therefore, the psychological proximity of team members will be further put to the test. So whether it’s to get a startup off the ground or to find ways for your organisation to adapt to the emerging post-pandemic world, leaders need to be thinking about how we can make the elusive concept of psychological safety a tangible reality.

We believe this is about going back to the fundamentals of community building: storytelling, rituals, and compassion.

A clear purpose to align your organisation

The theory of Dunbar’s number suggests that while humans are able to form and maintain strong personal connections with about 150 individuals, larger communities cannot be maintained through social cohesion alone. In Sapiens, author Yuval Harari argues that the secret to Man’s success is our ability to weave and believe in common myths that promote human cooperation at grand scales. Nations, money, companies are just some of those myths. 

Understanding this as a leader is vital. While there are many theories for why firms exist, focused on opportunism, transaction-costs, and knowledge sharing, one could also argue that, fundamental to all firms, is the common myth that employees choose to believe in. 

A Deloitte study shows that “purpose-oriented companies have higher productivity and growth rates, along with a more satisfied workforce who stay longer with them. Such companies report 30 per cent higher levels of innovation and 40 per cent higher levels of workforce retention than their competitors”.

The first step for all leaders then becomes to clarify the purpose of their organisations and help employees connect with it. In the words of Victor Frankl (albeit in a very different context): “Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.”

Think about the last time you got your team together and discussed why your company exists. What would your team members say if we asked them that question? Would they all agree on what your ‘why’ is?

Shared rituals to engage in your culture and values

Since the beginning of community formation, groups of people have created a common explanation of how the world operates, and supported it through mindsets and rituals that bring individuals together and help them develop confluence. Rituals are any activities or habits your team establishes and performs on a regular basis to foster shared culture, collaboration and connectivity.

At Cosmic Centaurs, we have developed many rituals, from daily standups, to retrospectives, to eating ice cream when we want to celebrate a new win, to a monthly (virtual) get together that is purely dedicated to spending time with one another. 

In a study we conducted for our upcoming Future of Teams Report, we asked over 300 team members from around the world about their work.The results indicate a clear need for more deliberate attention to creating rituals. Fifty-nine per cent of survey respondents reported they did not have any team rituals in place before the pandemic. Of those team members who reported having rituals in place, 55 per cent said that since they moved to a remote work setting, their rituals are not celebrated anymore. Without intentionally creating rituals, we miss out on opportunities for cohesion, community and creativity, all of which are critical in building more innovative workplaces. 

The rituals you have in place (or not) are a strong marker of your team and company’s culture. It helps team members bond, enables newcomers to get initiated into your values, and improves team cohesion and morale, not to mention ultimately drives the levels of psychological safety and collective intelligence of teams. 

What rituals do you partake in as a team? How do they support your values? The company’s culture and goals? How do they help your team connect with each other? Make a list of those rituals and think of what your team might be missing. Perhaps do this exercise together as a team. For inspiration, you can explore our ritual bank. 

Developing compassion through mutual knowledge 

Mutual knowledge is defined as knowledge about one another that is shared and known to be shared, and is a vital factor in facilitating effective team interactions and ultimately team performance, especially in remote or hybrid environments. The greater the mutual knowledge within a team, the more team members have context for interpreting teammate’s actions, and the better the performance and the quality of the decision making. 

The ability to effectively communicate and share knowledge is essential to the output of any team. With distributed teams, this process is challenged not only by geographical distance and time differences, but also by cultural and linguistic barriers. 

The data supports this, 79 per cent of our survey respondents reported that knowing more personal information about their team members helps them be more open with them on both personal and professional matters. We also saw a positive significant association between the amount of time team mates spend talking about personal matters with each other and the level of interpersonal connection.  

This trust and camaraderie enables teams to be more trusting and confident. We’re not alone in seeing the correlation between mutual knowledge and innovation. According to Microsoft, “innovation is fueled when people feel empowered to connect with colleagues, take smart risks and speak up when they have new ideas”.

A Google study also analysed how new employees’ ideas are established in the organisation through interpersonal relationships and how these ideas benefit from them. According to the study, good ideas that new employees bring won’t come to fruition unless they have the support of other employees who have been in the company for a longer time. 

Improving mutual knowledge requires deliberate action. You can start by integrating ice breaking questions into your daily or weekly meetings, ask team members to share how they feel by using tools like Aion or Kona, facilitate conversations around personal values, personal preferences, or struggles, or simply ask team members to share a win. 

The crux of it is to create the space for your team members to share the parts of themselves that they are comfortable sharing and using this newfound knowledge of one another to create stronger, more cohesive teams with higher levels of solidarity. 

Although the concept of emotional intelligence is by no means new, it has been difficult to advocate for in a world where we are usually asked to keep our emotions outside of the workplace. The pandemic created a window of opportunity for us to consider how we engage as humans in the workplace. Ultimately, at its core innovation is the byproduct of human ingenuity and exchange. The basic tenets of community building, coupled with the right tools and technology, might just mean your team will create the next unicorn from a virtual garage-themed white board on Miro.

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