The COVID-19 crisis has forced teams to continue working together using electronic media. Many organisations are finding that at least temporarily, they can operate on a virtual basis, giving much credence to the argument that remote working is at least as effective as office-based operations. However, a question that has been playing on my mind over the past three weeks is; how much knowledge are we missing from the part of natural communications process that might be called our ‘peripheral vision’? Peripheral vision is how I would describe what enables us, often accidentally, to discover that someone else has found a solution to a problem we are struggling to solve, or those moments we find a connection to an option which we were previously unaware of. A couple of simple questions highlight my point:
- How often do you gain the most valuable insights while having a conversation over making a coffee prior to a planned meeting, rather than during the meeting itself when following a pre-set agenda?
- How often within an office environment do you hear a snippet of a conversation which makes you stop what you are doing and go and find out more?
I sense that this information gap is going to increasingly impact our ability to move projects forward as the return to working in an office environment looks even more distant. My concern is whether the working habits we are developing at this time are nudging us unintentionally into siloes, where connection and communication across sub-team boundaries become limited. So, what mechanisms could we try and develop to help replace this missing source of information in a distributed team? I can think of three potential areas:
- Behavioural – Part of the answer might be to become more expansive in our thinking about our current work and how it might be used. Who else might find it useful to know what we are working on and the challenges we are struggling with?
- Becoming a ‘learning team’ – The benefits of recycling learning back into a team are a well understood feature of high performance. Adopting the habit of regular review of what has happened and what could we do to improve, will push a team to extend their peripheral vision. By pausing to reflect, team members increase their chances of thinking laterally to explore new connections.
- Explore technology – One example that I am interested in exploring further is the use of software to analyse communications and connect people within an organisation who are not already connected but are having conversations with others about similar topics. The increase in the availability of free-text theming software could really support knowledge management in a new way.
My purpose in writing this short article is not to prescribe the answer, but to try and stimulate some discussion about how we continue to adapt our working practices to ensure we can be as effective working in distributed team. I would therefore love to hear your thoughts and opinions on this issue.