Everyone is discussing the idea of remote work and what work will look like after the COVID-19 pandemic. The big question is: Should we all go back to the office, or is remote work the solution for the future? But before you decide which is best, you should think about the advantages of a co-located team, with all members working in the same place, and consider what you need to create an environment for success.
It is undisputed that remote work offers many benefits to employees and companies. Less time commuting and the ability to work from any location are two benefits for employees. Companies can also save a lot of money without the need for extensive office space and can hire the best people for their teams no matter where they are located. At the same time, highly successful companies like Netflix believe co-located teams are an essential ingredient for success.
However, success doesn’t happen without the proper framework for remote teams or teams working in one location. Both solutions have specific requirements that you need to consider. In this article, you will find a selection of useful aspects to set the stage for high-performing co-located teams. Frankly, if you don’t take care of these essential aspects, you risk failing to take advantage of co-located teams.
What is Your Team Style?
Co-located and remote working represent opposite ends of a spectrum of work scenarios. As Martin Fowler described in his blog Remote versus Co-located Work, there are various options for how teams can organize their collaboration. He defines four main categories of working together:
These teams physically meet in the same place. Since the physical distances between team members are very short, communication can flow easily.
A multi-site team splits into two or more groups. Although they are divided into groups, they belong to the same team. The individual groups are, in turn, co-located. For example, if you need to work on a follow-the-sun basis, part of the team is located in San Francisco, another part in London, and a third in Sydney.
In this model, most team members work in one location. Only a few members work remotely.
In this model, all team members work from different locations. In many cases, team members will never meet in person. The sites can also change without making a difference in work and success.
All of these models have specific requirements that you need to consider. Let’s take a closer look at what it takes to make the most of co-located teams.
A Suitable Space to Work as a Team
Barrier-free, synchronous communication is one of the most significant advantages of co-located teams. If you can turn to face your conversation partner, communication becomes much more accessible. This face-to-face communication encompasses all the implicit information from body language, gestures, or facial expressions lost in asynchronous, digital communication. In-person communication makes it easier to build trust in the team. In his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team , Patrick Lencioni describes that trust is the critical foundation for teams to focus on their goals and succeed. Short distances for team cooperation, greater transparency, and better overall coordination are other advantages of co-located teams.
Having a team space is a good choice to benefit from these advantages. A team space is a room where the team usually works together and has the necessary equipment to be creative, visualize ideas, and have engaging debates. There should also be space for just coming together, interacting, and having fun. These opportunities are critical for making commitments and aligning on goals.
The downside of simple face-to-face communication and a team space is that working with deep concentration can sometimes be challenging due to interruptions and distractions. To avoid this negative outcome of a team space, you should, on the one hand, offer explicit spaces for concentrated work and, on the other hand, commit within the team to use these explicit spaces for deep work.
In the blog post Workspaces That Move People , the authors mention that a reasonable approach might be to think of the office not just as real estate but as a communication tool. According to Scott Birnbaum, CEO and co-founder of MORF AI and former VP of Samsung Electronics, you want to get knowledge workers to “collide” because these unplanned interactions will improve performance.
If you want a high-performing, co-located team in one location, design a team space that reflects how you want to work. However, you don’t have to create an entirely new building. If there is an existing building, ask yourself or your teams: how could we redesign our office to encourage open communication and “collision” AND support deep work? Sometimes small changes—like turning the area around the coffee machine into a gathering space or closing the back door of the building so everyone has to use the main entrance—can yield significant results. Transforming areas into meeting places brings people together, lets them share and discuss ideas, and strengthens their internal networks, which is always a good way to remove upcoming obstacles and foster innovation.
However, a good team space doesn’t automatically mean you have a high-performing team. It only provides opportunities for open communication, trust, and knowledge sharing.
Size DOES Matter!
When you look at teams, it’s not about “the bigger, the better.” It’s about the right size with the right skills.
If the team is too small, not all the required skills may be present, and the team will have to rely on the support of others. If the team is too large, the number of links between people grows so much that they do not add value to the work but slow down the whole process. The ideal team size is six to eight (ten), also known as the two-pizza team. In the blog article Why Jeff Bezos’ Two-Pizza Team Rule Still Holds True in 2018 , the author explains that it makes sense to split teams into subgroups when the number of team members exceeds ten. Trust is the essential ingredient for high-performing teams. To build up trust, teams need transparent and open communication and strong bonds. The more people you add to the team, the more they need to communicate with each other.
Researchers have found that six plus/minus two people is the sweet spot where the necessary amount of communication has the best outcome for the team. If the number of people is higher than ten, the team’s time to invest in communication is much more than the outcome of adding more people to the team.
Besides communication, the two-pizza team, a team that can be fed with two American pizzas, also refers to having everything necessary to get the job done within the team. This diversity helps, as you can count on different perspectives and establish a smooth decision-making process for self-organizing teams.
On the one hand, you want to encourage communication and interaction between team members, but, on the other hand, you need to make sure that there are not too many people on the team. Otherwise, people will either spend more time communicating instead of being productive or stop trying to communicate because it consumes too much energy and time.
The assumption that co-located teams can be larger than remote ones is simply a misconception.
Team Building is Crucial
A group of people is not the same as a team. Gathering a group of people with the right skills in a room and calling it a “team space” doesn’t necessarily make them a team. The result of a good team is not just the sum of all the skills—it is much more. People don’t just bring their professional skills to a team. They also use their individual superpowers to help the whole team grow and make the magic happen. Superpowers are each person’s unique traits that help them interact, solve problems, and make decisions, among other things. These traits are not tied to our professional background or experience.
SYPartners has identified twenty-one superpowers. Some examples are empathy, creative thinking, pattern mapping, or evangelizing. If you want to find out what superpowers you have on your team, you can use the Superpowers Tool as a set of cards or an app. Leveraging the individual superpowers within a team will help it grow and become a great or high-performing team that can easily learn, adapt, and deliver great solutions.
To grow together, people need time and resources for team-building activities.
Team-building activities establish team rules and values and help team members gain shared experiences that strengthen the bonds between people. These strong bonds will help them overcome any issues that come their way and focus on the team’s goals and results. These activities are critical at the beginning of a new team and throughout its life cycle.
Team-building activities are not just a task for remote teams. Co-located teams need this explicit time to become and, indeed, be a team.
Visions and Goals
Strong visions and clear goals are essential to succeed as a team, regardless of whether the team works remotely, at one location, or somewhere in between. Visions and goals help teams to work in the same direction and set the right focus, which becomes even more important in times of self-organizing teams. The article A Leader’s Role in Setting and Meeting Team Goals provides an overview of the importance of the leader in this process.
Physical proximity has a significant advantage in that it is much easier to visualize these visions and goals. Taking advantage of this by being creative and thinking together can really make a difference. The prerequisites for this kind of cooperation are effective, open communication and appropriate space and time.
In-person workshops and meetings with hands-on methods, like using canvases and sticky notes, foster creative thinking and open discussions. Additionally, you can bring visuals to the team space or office and stick them on the walls so that everyone will remember them every day. No one can “hide” behind a “bad internet connection” or turn off their camera.
Co-located teams need time and space to understand the visions and align on goals.
Intention and Transparency
It is always helpful to be clear about the “why.” Why do you want to have a co-located team? What is your intention? What should be the outcome of co-located working? If you can answer these questions for yourself, you can make the right decision and determine if it works!
However, you should never forget that there might be people who would prefer to work remotely. Be open and transparent about your “why” and involve the employees in the decision-making process, motivating and strengthening the engagement.
Co-location should not be a selfish leadership decision and works best with a strong “why.”
No Co-Location Without Digital Support
Teams need to learn when it is helpful and necessary to talk directly with each other and when it is better to make information visible, transparent, and available for the whole team. The most successful co-located teams use the best of both worlds: the in-person, face-to-face communication of the co-located world AND the digital tools and workspaces for asynchronous communication, knowledge sharing, and transparency of the remote world! Digital tools will help prevent communication overload and provide more time for deep work.
You can’t synchronously communicate all the time. A team also needs solutions that support asynchronous communication.
The Leader’s Role
The leader plays an essential role in this question. The leader’s task is to determine what the team needs to outperform. If co-location is best for the team, the leader must provide the team’s environment. The leader also must understand that co-location alone is not the key to success. It is more about taking advantage of the physical proximity! But that means the team needs to have time to benefit from it, for example, time for creative and thinking together meetings, team building, and chats at the coffee machine.
Co-location is not meant to please the leader. It is intended to give teams the environment they need.
Maybe you have identified that this article describes some agile practices like being creative and thinking together or using visualizations to align on the same goal. Co-location is optimal for agile working. With almost no barriers to communication, the broad range of methods for inspiring meetings, and the right team size, agility can flourish. However, co-location doesn’t automatically create agility, nor a high-performing team. Please consider that from the agile point of view, a high-performing team is a team that can learn and adapt these learnings to their work at a high pace to create valuable solutions. High-performing is not about a higher speed of working.
Indeed, you can create high-performing remote teams, but besides all the aspects described, you need to find helpful tools to replace the creativity and hands-on practices of in-person meetings and workshops. And you need to think in a different way about building trust and strong bonds between team members and how to keep them.
Developing a high-performing team is always a challenging task. Co-location can be a suitable foundation for a team. However, there is still much work to be done. But if you’re willing to look at co-location as a platform where you can give the team all the support it needs, the team can indeed deliver more and better, and co-location can be the secret to success.
To utilize the advantages of co-located teams, here are the most important takeaways:
- Create team workspaces for open communication as well as for deep work.
- Use visualizations and hands-on methods for being creative and thinking together.
- Make sure you have the right team size!
- Team building is crucial, even for co-located teams.
- Co-located teams also need clear visions and goals!
- Take care of the “why“ and create transparency.
- Co-location needs digital support.
- Think about the role of the leader and how to support the team!
Sabine Wojcieszak is the enthusiastic Agile and DevOps Enabler at getnext IT, a German based consultancy. As a coach Sabine helps technical teams and leaders to communicate and collaborate in a better and more effective way. She is a lecturer at university, writes articles, and speaks frequently about soft skill topics at international tech conferences.