Teambuilding Pitfalls in an Online Environment

I once took a class on teambuilding for my Game Design Degree. I went into the class thinking it’d be slack. After all, I’ve led teams before, used teams at work, and micromanaged game guilds (much to their annoyance). What actually happened is I learned WHY I do the things I do, and I also learned some valuable lessons about the team dynamic and my own weaknesses.

I want to say, first off, that I was blessed with an awesome assigned team. We were all willing to work hard and spend the time to succeed, and we all had the skill and drive to get through our class goals. We meshed well, and had no major destructive moments. I found, though, that even with a near perfect team there are hurdles to overcome. Let me elaborate.

Communication

We emailed each other maybe three times a week, sometimes more. We all had access to Skype for instant messaging, and some of us used it often. We also held our meetings in Skype chat at least twice a week, some of which where more than 6 hours long when we went into power mode.

That is not enough.

The problem with online collaboration is so much gets missed in the cold voids between typed words that it takes much longer to get your point across, and that point often needs to be reinforced and refined over and over again. Some of us had that level of communication through Skype chat, as we messaged each other throughout the day to ask questions or pass along information. Other members of the team answered emails and showed up at the meetings, but had a definite lack of presence between those times. We communicated well when we communicated, but it wasn’t nearly often enough to reach our full potential.

Another aspect of team communication that is absolutely essential in online environments is getting to know your team. You may think socializing is a waste of time, but let me put it to you this way: When you use instant messaging, much of the tone and emotion of the conversation comes from knowing the person typing to you. When you encounter a new person online, you don’t know when they’re joking, holding back, angry, busy, or anything else until you get used to reading the signs in the way they type. Without this, there can be no real trust between teammates. You will always be second-guessing each other.

Conflict

The communication topic leads nicely into the topic of conflict, primarily because much of the conflict you’ll see between online teams stems from failed communication.

  • I didn’t understand what you meant…
  • I thought we talked about doing it this way instead…
  • I didn’t get copied into your email…
  • I wasn’t at the meeting…
  • The kids were distracting me and I missed what you were saying…
  • I thought you only wanted a reply if I disagreed…
  • I thought you were joking about that…
  • Nobody told me that we had an emergency meeting…

Conflict is inevitable in an online environment. There are a few different ways to handle it, with variable effectiveness.

Procedure

There are many procedures created to draw out conflict and help solve it. The web is infested with advice and helpful techniques. Many do not apply to online collaboration. Fail.

The best “procedure” I’ve discovered (hindsight is 20-20) is the idea of team assessment. However, I would personally make it a bit less of an exercise than the texts I’ve read describe. In the most simple terms, a team assessment is the act of deciding how well your team is doing, what they’re doing right, what they’re doing wrong, and what they could do better.

If I took this class again, I would have the entire team do a quick assessment at the end of each week or so. Have each team member write down one thing the team is doing well, one thing the team is doing poorly, one thing for EACH team member to improve upon, and one thing THEY personally need to work on. This way each member comes up with something not only for the entire team, but for themselves. It brings out their own weaknesses and makes them take a good hard look at their participation. It’s also an excellent way to broach a sensitive subject, if you discuss these assessments at the next team meeting.

There are, of course, many ways to document or assess conflict. What works for some may not work for others. The point is to try to draw out the problems before direct confrontation is required.

Confrontation

At first glance, this seems like the same thing as conflict, but in reality it’s “elite” conflict because confrontation implies the conflict is being brought out into the open where it can potentially be solved. Confrontation can result from a team member voicing concerns, from a flare-up of suppressed conflict, or from a third person catalyst that brings all parties together.

Many people shy away from confrontation. How many of us like to be the bad guy in a group? To be the rat? To be the whiner? Maybe you’re afraid your peers will take offense and you’ll lose credibility with them? Maybe it just isn’t worth the effort? There are a few things I’d like to point out about the choice to avoid confrontation. First, you are damaging the effectiveness of the team, because latent conflict will either stagnate and hold your team back, or eventually explode. Secondly, if your teammates are petty enough to hold constructive criticism against you they aren’t the kind of colleagues that will be a positive contribution to your career anyway.

The thing to remember about confronting the team or a team member, is to be PROFESSIONAL. Never take personal shots, never insult, never yell or swear, never be rude. Anger or accusing behavior only results in more of the same. When you confront a person, state the problem and possibly why it’s a problem, and try to respectfully suggest a solution.

Mediation

When all else fails, when parties are hostile or uncooperative, when things escalate… seek a higher power. Find a neutral party that both sides will listen to, and present your case as clearly and unbiased as possible. A mediator may not be able to fix everything, but it never hurts to get some sound advice, or an outside viewpoint.

The Non-Team Player

My final subject is dealing with the team member that refuses to be a team member. We only experienced a passing hint of this kind of behavior in our team during class, but a hint was enough to get us talking about it, and thinking about it.

There will often be that one person who doesn’t return emails, doesn’t show up at the meeting, doesn’t talk during the meeting, doesn’t do their work… You know the kind. How do you get them to participate?

Take Out the “Optional”

Don’t make participation based on initiative. Tell them when to be at the meeting. Ask for their opinion directly in meetings. Assign them tasks. We are not all the same, and some of us need a bit of prodding to get started. If this works, great! If not…

Discuss Participation

This is where the team assessments come in. Bring the subject of participation up in the meeting. Stress that each member is responsible to contribute to the project. Don’t accuse, and don’t name names. Make it a broad statement, and they’ll figure out you’re talking about them. Still not working?

Confrontation

Confront the person. Professionally and respectfully explain, either in person or as a team, that their participation is required. Clearly state your expectations, and allow them to speak. Don’t jump down their throat, but be clear that the behavior isn’t going to be tolerated. Always keep your temper, and if the meeting is getting out of control, end it and either return when heads have cooled, or move on to the next step.

Removal

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, there’s no reconciling with a person. Once this is clear, take measures to remove the person from the team. Consult higher authorities if necessary, and drop the dead weight. This is an extreme solution, only to be used when there’s no other way to solve the problem. While it may result in tougher deadlines, more work for the remaining team members, and high emotions, it will benefit the team overall.

Concluding Thoughts

I’m no expert. This article is merely the hindsight of a normal team member. Hopefully someone can find this and learn from my experiences. All professions have their versions of “crunch time”, not just the gaming industry. Teams can use all the help they can get.