How to ensure social cohesion within Home office?
First part of the series: Our 3 dimensions of mutual learning in intercultural and digital teams
The organisation Kultur vivante was founded in 2019 and has since than developed into a management team of 6 members and more than 30 editorial staff. Even before the crisis, cooperation within this team deliberately operates in a purely digital and decentralised way. Our team has no fixed office or regional mergers. We network throughout Europe and specialise in the use of slack and trello.
We are therefore experts in teleworking
After a year and a half of cooperation and development, I have decided to collect and publish some of our observations. After all, we want to appear as a transparent, innovative and agile organisation and for me this means communicating openly about our development, obstacles and solutions. Because only by being aware of our mistakes can we continue our development!
In this text, I will discuss our learning processes. In this first part, I will focus on team learning, working in a teleworking environment.
These lessons may be different for each organisation, but we always hear about similar problems and issues from other organisations. That is why I decided to make my approaches openly known.
Lessons we have learned as a team
Our organisation was founded and a few weeks after the official announcement of our existence, the first members joined our organisation. In one year, our team grew tenfold, from three active founding members to more than 30 members.
In this team, very few members know each other personally, very few live in a city and we speak 50/50 German or French. Most only know each other by videoconference or instant messaging.
This is in line with our initial objectives. We wanted cross-border cooperation – digital, cultural and Franco-German.
Those who join us know this and like this way of working or at least get to know it.
In doing so, we encounter problems, as do most organisations that deliberately – or under pressure from Corona – switch to 100% distance working. Many of them are solved in a very pragmatic and quick way:
How to organise projects? – With software! Podio, Asana, Trello, Slack… The choice of excellent tools is there, it is now up to the teams to choose their tool and get started.
How to organise videoconferences? – With software! Zoom, Jitsi, Meet… Here too, there is a wide range of tools that are more or less concerned about data protection. Before the meeting, a team member with a particular affinity for digital technology sends a Doodle survey, and there’s nothing to stop the meeting. Except a stable Internet connection and microphone setup for all participants.
But is this really the heart of what we imagine the job to be? Especially in intercultural cooperation, in cross-border communication and cooperation, especially in working with volunteers? No.
I appreciate the advantages of teleworking and I am clearly in favour of videoconferencing as an alternative to commuting or long-distance travel for meetings, but I also see the need to develop new concepts for digital work.
In cultural and creative teams in particular, we expect more than just assigning tasks or checklists or simply mute ourselves at Zoom conferences to listen to others talk about their strategies.
What is missing?
Coffee break, lunch break, greeting each other in the morning and complaining together about the past crime scene – social closeness. For it is from the social bond that we weave what unites us to our team, connects us to our company and – which is particularly important for volunteer management – motivates us to keep up our pace.
But how do we do this in the digital world?
My approach: communication is essential! You can’t communicate too much. Especially not if we don’t see each other or don’t know each other and the team is constantly on the move.
When coffee/lunch breaks are missing, when daily life together is lacking and the only time we spend together is devoted to “Zoom” lectures or “Slack” messages, then every message, however insignificant it may seem at first glance, is important.
With new members, we have had to learn that without intensive support, most new faces disappear. What can I do with whom and when? These are the most frequently asked questions at the beginning of our recruitment periods. Our conclusion: just because it’s clear to the team doesn’t mean it’s far from clear to the new members. Where can I find what information, who is the contact person and on which platform, when can I be reached? All this needs to be communicated more clearly in the digital world, because after all, we don’t have offices with nametags and responsibilities.
Instead of holding monthly round tables in bars, we organise a virtual aperitif once a month. During these evenings, we meet digitally so that we don’t have to talk about projects, plans or formalities. Instead, we discuss whether we’re leaning towards Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings, whether we’d rather take a trip into the future or the past, or play pantomime. Everything is digital, everything is in real time, everything is scattered all over Europe.
These evenings may not help projects move forward, meet deadlines or make marketing strategies work, but these meetings are what makes people a team. It doesn’t matter whether that team speaks a language, lives in the same place or shares the same cultural values.
In the future, in addition to our aperitifs, we will also be organising Franco-German breakfasts to get to know each other in the morning as well.
We have learned that it is possible to create a proximity in digital spaces from which totally analogue friendships can develop. We have also learned that without proximity there can be no team and even less motivation for voluntary work.
Our first concrete lesson concerning the functioning of digital and decentralised teams is therefore that traditional coffee/lunch breaks must also be possible in the digital world. There must be a framework in which the team can interact and get to know each other, even without a project idea. Otherwise, the best project management tools, the best strategy and the best framework only produce empty products, without real team spirit.
What is particularly pleasing about this individual learning is that we have developed experimental formats, which are very well received and allow us to offer culture in an unbiased and personal atmosphere. Examples include our highly successful Franco-German online book club and our future digital cooking club.