Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Overcoming A Propinquity Deficit

I first learned the term "propinquity" on a road trip.  I bought the audio cd of "Influencer: The Power to Change Anything" by Kerry Patterson (and others) to convert downtime into my own private learning lab on wheels.  

Propinquity caught my attention the way odd sounding words do, but it really hit home when I applied it to my experience of working with virtual teams.  At the time, my group was spread out across ten different corporate offices and I was headed to one of them while I listened. 

The theory of propinquity, the impact of space on relationships, by Festinger, Schachter, and Lewin is explored in several applications in this book, including the corporate environment.  Their research shows that physical proximity plays a key role in spontaneous group efforts at work, and that distance contributes to silos. "If you want to measure who doesn't trust or get along with whom, take out a tape measure."

Well, my group was sorely lacking in propinquity and we did have our silos.  Yet, we also had some very strong relationships within the group that crossed time zones and state lines.  What were those individuals doing to overcome their propinquity deficit?

  • Client Teams - While the organizational chart reflected teams grouped by location and function, it took members from several teams to pull a whole project together for a client.  These less formal client teams formed strong relationships as they learned to respect what the others contributed to the project and trust that the hard work they handed off to the next team member would be met with the same level of effort and skill.  They rarely saw each other in person, but they communicated by phone, email, and IM on a daily basis.
  • Teleconference Lunch 'n Learns - This is a great tool for learning and it also puts the spotlight on an individual as a subject matter expert.  As remote team members get to know each other for their specialties, they become more likely to reach out across offices when they have a question. 
  • Newletters - A monthly newsletter kept the teams in touch.  In addition to articles on clients and projects, it featured different team members each month so the group could learn about their backgrounds, their hobbies, their families, and their career aspirations.  Another section highlighted work anniversary milestones, graduations, wedding and baby announcements, and special honors.  Photos were included wherever possible.  Names on the organizational chart became real people.
  • Quarterly Strategy Sessions - The budget included travel funds so that the top leaders of the group, each from a different office, could meet quarterly to create and review strategy.  These were key relationships for keeping the entire group connected and strong. 
  • Shared Outlook Calenders - Management opened their Outlook calendars to the entire group to encourage interaction.  When you can't walk down the hall to see if someone's free or in a meeting, a quick check of the Outlook calendar is a pretty good alternative.  This also allowed the leadership team to find out in advance about travel plans so that they could sync up and arrange for additional face to face meetings while traveling to the same location.
The bottom line is that virtual teams have to make an effort to get the same strong working relationships that other teams come by more easily based on their proximity.  

I highly recommend "Influencer" for many reasons, the theory of propinquity being one of them.  And if you've read this far and not said the word "propinquity" out loud, you should give it a try.  Rolls right off the tongue and is guaranteed to get someone's attention if expressed at your next virtual team meeting. 

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