I have believed in the power of learning communities for as long as I can remember, even before I fully understood the research behind communities of practice. Now, as we have been forced to physically distance from our communities, I am even more of a proponent of why community counts. For those in the education space, using a community of practice for learning is not a new idea, but now those leading teams in all sorts of organizations are realizing that how we build and connect our employees makes a difference in their engagement, productivity, and well-being.
Shift from leader-led to peer-to-peer collaboration
When we are talking about leading teams, we also have to remember that our teams are communities. Too often leaders approach their team with a one-to-many mentality–as the expert with the answers versus as a co-collaborator. Shift your thinking. What might happen if you adapt meetings you are leading as the ‘head of the class’ to collaborative sessions where your team is focused more on peer-to-peer interaction? When we create space for our teams to collaborate in this way, we help build connection, engagement, and productivity. Seasoned team members pass on historical knowledge and skill building. As leaders who facilitate a community of practice, we have the advantage of observing team dynamics, are able identify emerging leaders, and can reflect on how to distribute projects to both stretch and motivate. As we build our remote team culture, we have an opportunity to move to a community model, which can be easily facilitated with technology.
So, yes, leverage technology… but beware of tech burnout
As someone who has been working remotely for over a decade and leading teams that are co-located and distributed (and a mix!) I can say that technology tools are a critical connector for team building. Using IM, collaboration sites, and video conferencing can all be great. But, as leaders we have to remember that technology tools are also ever-present for our employees, and if we don’t manage these tools and the expectation for use, we risk invading our team members’ time in a way that forbids them from unplugging. Take IM, for example. If you are online and you send an IM during off hours (like on a Saturday morning or late in the evening), what do you expect for a response time? In your mind, you might reason “Well, I’ll send this now while I’m thinking about it.” To your employee, however, they feel like the need to respond right away, due to the purpose of IM technology being more of a ‘need-it-now’ solution. You might choose to let your team know that you do not expect an immediate response. Or, preferably, resist the urge to send that IM. Consider putting your question in an email and then scheduling it to send during regular hours. Leverage technology to be productive but not invasive.
Community counts now more than ever before. While we might be facing unknown times, we have also been presented with an opportunity to reflect on the efficacy of our approaches. Consider how you are creating opportunities for your teams to build community, and don’t mistake that for giving up control. Good leaders know that they are not the nucleus of a team, and facilitating a community of practice will have benefits in many areas of your organization. Building a community of practice is one way we shine and rise.