Back in the 1980s, around the time robots started replacing humans on automotive production lines, some pundits confidently predicted that automated systems would soon replace humans in most walks of life.
Yet here we are in 2015, humans are very much alive, present and integral to producing stuff. Granted, we are trying to stay afloat in the sea of technology that surrounds us, while at the same time being exhorted to work more effectively.
How then do we predict how the teams of the not-too-distant future will work? How much will change? And will the concept of the "team" still exist?
What Makes a Good Team?
Let's start by unpacking the team of the present.
A recent initiative by Google, Project Aristotle, analyzed the behaviors that resulted in high performing teams. One stand-out finding: we need to throw out agendas, schedules and formality.
As Charles Duhigg reported in the New York Times Magazine, the key to building great team dynamics is feeling comfortable being ourselves.
Although this doesn't sound particularly groundbreaking, a lot of effort is required to make work-orientated teams bring out the best in their people. All team members need to feel that they've had a chance to have their say — and this isn't necessarily through an allocated time slot on an agenda. It's through fluid conversations that may or may not be related to the topic at hand.
The key to this is emotional empathy: building personal connections, understanding feelings — through what is said or more importantly, what is not said, but conveyed in expressions and mannerisms. These are the relationship building blocks for any get-together.
Tearing down the norms of meetings to encourage these behaviors means letting go of the rules and conventions that we are expected to follow. Stop being efficient and talk.
The Tools of a Virtual Future
We're all familiar with how teamwork has evolved: face-to-face meetings supplemented or replaced by teleconferences and video-conferences. Virtual collaboration and social tools allowing the creation of team spaces, wikis and online conversations.
So what will we see in the coming years?
Let's start with video conferences that actually work! Imagine, a future where when we try to host a video conference, we actually succeed in hosting a video conference. Starting on time, everyone able to connect, hear and speak — that's a future worth hoping for.
We now take for granted the ability to connect from anywhere. But will these virtual connections ever recreate the feeling of being in the same room as colleagues—seeing what they are seeing, reading their expressions, responding empathetically as well as professionally?
Virtual reality team rooms will come up against this challenge, with no visible faces or worse, hidden inside VR headsets. We've already seen the phenomenon of "meetings with myself," where colleagues in the same office, and often in the same team, dial into a meeting from their desk, or alone in a meeting room.
Hopefully technology doesn't lead us into a future where these same people wear virtual reality headsets to "join" their team in a meeting. Or worse, a team where eye contact is forever lost as they all sit around a table resembling a squad of Death Star technicians.
On to the cloud — what does it mean for teams? While connecting to cloud content has long been a part of our personal lives, fears remain in the business world. I will leave it you to decide if your boss leaving his laptop in the nearby bar is safer than trusting the security of specialist cloud providers.
Once confidence in the cloud rises, local copies will be a thing of the past. Unfortunately this doesn't guarantee that documents and other information will be any easier to find.
The tool that future teams most need is a way of finding documents, information or people by a contextual analysis that exceeds today's versions by many hundreds of times. Putting documents in the cloud is the easy part. We won't reach the future until we can find the stuff that we're so good at storing.
Which leads me to...
Stalked By Information
We're creating more and more information and data every day — so feeding it into collaborative networks, finding its intended target and vetting its usefulness is critical to the team of the future.
Information won't follow future teams, it will stalk them. Information will be pushed towards us based on the mass of contextual data that surrounds us — where we are, what we are doing, etc.
This is a good thing.
Useful information will always be attributable to a person, and show a clear trail of who has accessed or read it. Finding the information relating to your team members is more than just efficiency. It's about making connections, understanding more about them, and learning about what they have worked on. Readily accessible information will spur conversations and interactions.
And one thing we know for sure: Conversations, real and virtual, are not going away any time soon.
Goodbye to Offices?
Technology facilitates remote and virtual working, but does this actually kill the office? Judging from what we see playing out in some organizations, I predict future teams will find themselves back in central offices.
This isn't about managerial oversight, it's about maximizing collaboration and bringing energy to team working. However, the increasing quality of virtual collaboration tools will mean that disconnecting from work will become harder as we leave our real office, head home and join the virtual office.
The High Performing Virtual Team of the Future
Now let's go back to the Google research. Any future technological advances will only be effective if members can actually make personal connections, and feel like they can be completely themselves.
So how can we get the most out of technology today and in the future, to deliver great virtual team outcomes (and hold off being recalled to the office)?
- Autonomy: Giving teams autonomy to deliver tasks, particularly with offshore teams, drives collaboration. Ownership of the task free from fierce oversight of head office encourages independent thinking
- One common platform: This is a big one — invest in ONE common platform, a place for teams to call home, where conversations, knowledge and process all interact
- Relationships: Get started by building personal connections. Whenever possible, gather team members early on in person in a social or informal environment. Break down the barriers, and start talking
- Remove the 'Work Face': Find a means to discuss who you really are, what makes you tick. Virtual working doesn't preclude this, we just need a subject from outside of work to start a conversation
- Time: Virtual meetings are difficult to manage, and are hard to get started. Introduce conversation subjects that invite anyone to participate, and allow time for this to flow. The benefits of giving time to building a team dynamic are far greater than the risk of holding structured meetings where the majority of participants don't get involved
- Networks: Build a network that you can trust, a place you can ask questions without fear
It's reassuring to know that even as technology speeds things up, connecting us and automating how we interact with information, that relationships will be more important than ever. The humans aren't dead, although sometimes we may look like we are during the formal weekly meeting.