Elite teams win over groups of elite individuals every time, says Amaechi © Getty Images
Elite teams win over groups of elite individuals every time, says Amaechi © Getty Images

How to build a team while working from home

30 October 2020

Caring about each other is key to a high-performing workplace when employees are largely working remotely due to Covid-19 restrictions, a conference was told.

John Amaechi, an organisational psychologist, told delegates at the CIPS Virtual Conference 2020, there were three elements to consider when workplaces are working remotely: operational distance, physical distance and affinity distance. 

“Operational distance is how good are your operational behaviours, how good are your communication standards, how good are the rules of engagement between people? Are they really solid, are they embedded? Then you've got your actual distance, like how far away from each other are you,” he said. 

“The third one and the most important one is called 'affinity distance'. Do you give a damn about each other? Having really good internal standards of behaviour, processes and procedure becomes more important than if you're in an office. But the one thing that really makes a difference to high performance in a workplace that's gone remote is whether there's a close affinity distance and whether each of you cares about each other. 

“That is part of the job of an inclusive leader because can you care about each other if you don't know anything about each other? If you're not curious, if you're not open minded, if you're not creating psychologically safe spaces? You can't. If you don't communicate with people, do you care about them? Probably not.”

Amaechi added despite the word “team” being used in workplaces a lot, many professionals have “never been on a team”. 

“Most of you will be one now or have been on at some point, really high-performing groups made up of elite individuals, but that is not the same as an elite team. The former is good, a high-performing elite group of individuals. But the latter, an elite team, will absolutely annihilate the former. Teams beat groups, and they do it with a consistency over time that is unparalleled,” he said. 

“In an elite group, each person has a job. They've got a task, they've got a role, and it's a bit, eat what you kill. A hundred per cent of every group member's energy is dedicated to delivering their quota, their task, their objective,” he said. 

“If someone needs support or help, it may or may not be offered at the whim of an individual group member. But if it is offered, it's offered at a cost. Some future penalty or a gift in return that will nearly always be more sizeable than the help given. Groups reward the member who carries the biggest boulder alone. The person with the biggest P&L or the person with the biggest black book of contacts and networks.”

Amaechi, who was a professional basketball player for 10 years in the US National Basketball Association (NBA) for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic, said he had only played for a true team for two years of his basketball career.

One of the key differences is the absence of an “investment mandate” in elite groups, he explained. Inclusive teams always give a percentage of their energy “willingly and without a quid pro quo” to any teammates that need help, whether junior or senior, new or tenured, Amaechi said. 

“They've got vigilance on their mind. They're constantly scanning, looking at their teammates to see who might need support. They're prescient too. They don't wait until they see someone fall before they step in, they anticipate when somebody might need help and support.”

Amaechi added it required leaders to think differently about how to generate the kind of mindset that will drive teaming instead of driving individuation. 

“But also that investment mandate in each other is one of the things that's a watch-mark of inclusion. Part of inclusion is investing in each other. At least in the sense of getting to know each other. At least in the sense of embracing the differences, looking to see where advantages can be gained. 

“Teams don't reward the person who carries the biggest boulder necessarily. They reward the teammate who helps someone else carry a weight that would crush them alone.”

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