Eric McNulty, director of research at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, has written a blog post for Strategy + Business that addresses how to lead dispersed teams effectively. McNulty argues that teams should not be managed virtually the entire time that they are working together on a project. Instead, a geographically dispersed team should come together in person from time to time. He argues that in-person meetings offer several key benefits. Perhaps most importantly, McNulty argues that in-person meetings facilitate the formation of trust among team members. Higher levels of interpersonal trust increase a team's effectiveness for a number of reasons. Here's an excerpt:
One of the primary reasons to get teams together has to do with the hardwiring of the human brain, says Valérie Berset-Price, founder and president of Professional Passport, a firm that coaches, trains, and troubleshoots with international and cross-cultural teams. The brain is always scanning for risk, according to Berset-Price, and among the things it uses to determine if someone is friend or foe are non-verbal cues. Those are absent in teleconferences and flattened in all but the best video conference systems.
“Building trust is a multisensory experience,” she says. “Only when people are physically present together can they use all of their senses” to establish that needed trust. Without a bond, conflict or disengagement can more easily arise and is more difficult to resolve. But when a group has the human connection that makes them a true team, “people can move sky and earth together,” Berset-Price adds... The multiplicity of cultural and linguistic challenges are more easily navigated when people work side-by-side to solve problems as well as share a meal, learn a bit about colleagues’ backgrounds, and swap stories about kids, sports, and other non-work issues. Team members are reminded of their colleagues’ humanity and learn to respect and better understand each other in ways that don’t materialize when they only engage remotely. A team becomes more productive and cohesive as a result.