4 Obstacles to Building Real Team Culture and How to Conquer Them
Before we launch into a piece about team culture, we should really make an effort to explain what it involves — so what exactly is team culture? You’ve probably seen it mentioned many times (or something similar like company culture), but it tends to get thrown around in vague ways, presented as a generic positive with no specifics.
We need team culture, success-oriented mindsets, customer care, sticktoitiveness, and the determination to go above and beyond the extra mile!
It’s the kind of hollow statement that a manager can issue with no particular thought or plan. If they’re lucky, it can even be mistaken for an indication of strong leadership.
But that doesn’t mean that team culture itself is a concept worth of mockery, because it isn’t. Big companies don’t invest in building team culture for the sake of it, and their managers — hired at great expense to get meaningful results — don’t deal in platitudes and empty corporate talk (at least, not for internal operations where results trump appearances).
They invest in team culture because it genuinely matters. They know from experience (and rich analytics) that making a commitment to building a team culture ultimately leads to greater productivity, improved morale, better publicity, and vastly-superior employee retention.
Note, though, that the key word there is invest. The process of creating a team culture is slow and challenging, and plenty of companies mess it up (potentially with disastrous results). In this post, we’re going to take a look at some obstacles you can encounter during your quest to bring your team closer together, and set out some useful tips for overcoming them. Let’s get started.
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Obstacle #1: not investing in communication tools
In principle, team culture is all about bringing people together. Get it right and you end up with a force for productivity that goes far beyond being the sum of its parts. That said, bringing people together is somewhat difficult in these times of social distancing, so it isn’t quite as simple as paying for a larger office and getting everyone in the same room.
You can still build a team culture when everyone (or mostly everyone, at least) is working remotely, but you need to change your approach. More specifically, you need to invest in team communication tools. If you make the basic mistake of simply assuming that your employees already have everything they need to communicate effectively, it will likely cost you.
Tools like Brosix were developed to ease the process of corporate communication, making it markedly simpler and easier for people throughout an organization to stay on the same page (and for leaders to keep track of what their workers are doing and discussing). Each form of collaboration can be keenly enhanced, with conventional means of operation being suitably mimicked in the digital realm.
We can look at virtual whiteboarding as the perfect example. It’s often extremely important for team members to discuss broad concepts, whether for products or general tactics, and spoken discussion lacks the key component of visualization. When you can’t get them in front of a physical whiteboard, you can offer them a virtual whiteboard which can allow that rich teamwork from any distance. In fact, it’ll constitute an upgrade in several ways: the non-destructive nature of digital editing makes it easier to go back and forth between ideas, for instance.
The broader and deeper you make your digital communication platform, the better equipped your team will be to get (and stay) in sync. The temptation to save on money by relying solely on free tools must be overcome. A strong team with suitable support will prove markedly more productive, earning you more money and more than returning your infrastructure investment.
Obstacle #2: overlooking individual preferences
Because team culture fundamentally invites a group-first approach, it can lead some business owners to treat all their employees identically. This is a mistake. You should give people equal effort and consideration, but that doesn’t mean treating them identically. On the contrary, it should lead you to treat them all differently, recognizing that they’re unique individuals who deserve to be treated as such.
So what makes individuals happy? Agency and recognition. In these times of remote working, the biggest opportunity for agency is the home office. If you send everyone the same setup — the same chair, the same keyboard, the same laptop, the same monitor — then some people will feel aggrieved because not everyone will want to use the same equipment.
Perhaps the simplest example is that some employees will want Windows laptops and others will want MacBooks. You can ignore that and give everyone the same type of machine, but it’ll reduce their productivity and passion, and it certainly won’t make them a team player. So take the step of asking each employee what they want — and providing it.
A split ergonomic keyboard for comfort? Check out models like the ErgoDox. A Thunderbolt 3 hub? There are plenty of decent Mac docks. A monitor with reduced glare to ease eye strain? Matt-finish displays are great in harsh lighting. Sure, these pieces of equipment can be expensive, but remember that they should last for years to come — and if an optimized home office makes someone a more enthusiastic team member, it’ll absolutely be worth it.
You should also extend this attitude to your management of workloads and schedules. Some people like to start their working days as early as possible, frontloading their productivity and relaxing somewhat after lunch. Others are late starters, getting warmed up before hitting their peak efficacy in the late afternoon. When you disregard this and expect everyone to conform to the same working structure, people will feel like cogs instead of unique assets.
Outside of project deadlines and team meetings, let people work their required hours however they like. 9 to 5, 6 to 2, 6 to 5 with an extended midday break… What difference does it really make to your operation? This isn’t to say that there isn’t value in getting people on the same page for some things — there’s a reason why big companies still invest in uniforms, after all. Rather, it’s to say that strong teams typically involve drastically-different individuals pooling their unique talents and skills to pursue common goals.
Obstacle #3: repeatedly changing course
What are your company’s core values? Do you have any? Maybe you fall into the trap of frequently changing your mind about the things that are supposed to be deeply embedded in your corporate DNA. One day you decide that being empathetic to your customers is the most important thing — the next, it’s being proud of what you do.
Each time you change course, you need to ask your employees for different things. Should they gear their teamwork towards better understanding what customers want, or should they try to build up their brand pride? It’s even worse if you can’t settle on team-building approaches. Going from saccharine motivational speeches and trust falls (not good) to an emphasis on autonomy and candid criticism is a good way to leave everyone confused.
To combat this, you need to come up with a long-term plan of action for building team culture, and make a commitment to seeing it through. Figure out what you need people to learn and how you need their actions to change, and maintain your focus. It takes time for people to gel into a team, and even more time to establish something you could consider a culture — something that will stay with the team even as people leave and others join.
And when you have a plan, don’t just leave it in your mind. Document it. Write out a full plan concerning team culture, and make it available to all your employees. If you’d rather not do that because you expect criticism, that’s an even greater reason to do it: if the exposure of your full plan leads to its mockery, the component parts would never have proven effective. Only a plan that your team members are willing to engage with has any chance of succeeding.
Keep in mind that you don’t need to copy existing team structures. Every business can have a unique approach to this issue, because the only worthwhile goal of having a team culture is improving morale, cohesion, and productivity. How you achieve that is up to you. It’s possible that your best approach is to make profit the core of your team culture: this is something that’s typically framed negatively, but it can work extremely well in the context of a sales team where everyone involved gets to share in the earnings in accordance with their contribution.
Now, it’s key to remember that your team culture will still need to move with the times as old employees leave and new ones join. Continuity and legacy can be great things, but there’s little sense in trying to enforce an old culture that doesn’t fit a new generation. The point here is about consistency within a given plan, not committing blindly to using the same plan year after year and decade after decade. Set a leg for your journey, stay the course so you reach your destination, then think very carefully about your next stop.
Obstacle #4: trying too hard and asking too much
Think about the utterly banal statement we looked at in the introduction (the one involving “success-oriented mindsets” among other things). What’s particularly frustrating about a statement like that is that it can be utterly sincere and well-meaning. It’s often the result of someone not knowing what they’re supposed to do but wanting desperately to make progress.
Even if you do know what you’re doing and have a plan set out, you can still render that plan ineffective by trying too hard to push team culture as an important objective. If you talk about it too frequently, your employees can start to tune it out, viewing it as an annoyance to be endured — and once you lose their attention, you’ll struggle to get it back.
You can also ask too much of them. The occasional team-building seminar isn’t such a bad thing, but if you make it a 3-hour slog and determine that you’re going to run one every couple of weeks, it’ll burn people out on the concepts. You can relate it somewhat to matchmaking, amusingly enough. If you take two compatible people and push them to get together, they’ll resent the pressure and come to dislike each other, ruining the potential you noticed.
The best thing you can do for developing team culture is be delicate. Encourage teamwork where possible. Give people opportunities to work together in interesting ways. Support social activities without mandating them. Provide the framework and gently nudge people to support one another. Do that, and team culture will eventually emerge (and be stronger for the tact).
Now, you might object to this argument on the basis that being delicate doesn’t always get results. What if the anticipated team culture fails to emerge? Should you simply wait in perpetuity for your actions to bear fruit — or should you rethink being delicate and opt for an approach with much firmer actions? Well, neither is a great idea. Give your strategy a good amount of time to produce results, then adjust it carefully if you’re not getting anywhere.
To put it another way, imagine that you’re trying to cut through something with a knife and you’re not making any progress. You could simply get more forceful, but it would be a waste of effort if it didn’t work, and if it did work then it would result in a jagged cut. Alternatively, you could sharpen your knife or even swap it out for something more fitting. If you have the right knife when you’re making a cut, it should require relatively little effort, and the resulting cut should be smooth and clean. So don’t force anything.
Building Team Culture Isn’t an Impossible Feat
Team culture is undeniably important for so many reasons, but if you encounter the pitfalls we’ve outlined here as you attempt to cultivate it, you can ultimately make things worse instead of better. By investing in communication tools, helping your team members to optimize their home offices, sticking to a set plan, and proceeding carefully, you can get results.