29 Oct 2015 19:28 IST

The art of centering

With business conducted across borders, it is important to strengthen proprioception

I was in the physiotherapist’s office recently and he made me do an exercise — standing on one leg, trying hard to balance with the other, counting the seconds. I barely made it to 20. He then asked me to repeat the exercise with my eyes closed; I barely made it to two!

Why was it so? Well, because this has to do with proprioception — the sense that is responsible for maintaining equilibrium, apart from telling us the optimum effort required for a particular action. The experiment at the physiotherapist’s demonstrates our difficulty in maintaining balance in the absence of visual cues.

Exercises help in improving proprioception. While training on a gym ball, an athlete is often asked to balance on it, and as he learns to balance on a wobbly surface, it toughens his core and strengthens his ankles, preventing injury.

This led me to think of other literal situations in our lives when, in the absence of visual cues, we need to adjust our stand on various issues. Working on virtual teams is rather like doing without proprioception. Today, as we conduct business across borders, we work with remote teams spread across India and the globe.

Constraints of time and resources do not allow frequent one-on-one interactions. But technology makes up for that — we use conference calls, audio and video techniques, besides e-mails, to keep in touch. Hence, we are all expected to be on the same page. Easier said than done! In this context, I present a few thoughts on how we could apply proprioception strengthening techniques to our virtual work lives.

Balance

As with the gym ball exercise, if we can recognise early signs that our virtual relationships are getting wobbly, we can avoid falling into verbal or written communication traps, correct our responses to suit the other, check each time for full understanding, and thus, meet project deadlines. Balancing day-to-day project work while taking a long-term view of relationships could strengthen the core of remote teams.

‘Wobble’ signs to watch out for:

Asking for a change in team members on a project

Irate customer-vendor relationships marked by shouting matches

Unsatisfactory reporting or communication of status updates

Things to look out for while working with virtual teams:

In such situations, communication problems as body language can’t be assessed. Since we interact remotely, we can miss opportunities to gauge the client’s mindset, so do ask questions and find out whether you are meeting his or her expectations.

The basic problem is our reluctance to confront that which prevents us from speaking up or seeking a meeting to sort out issues. We hope things will sort themselves out and go away.

Also, virtual teams in India often feel that the Westerner does not understand the infrastructure limitations under which they operate. Clearly outlining expectations and proactively communicating delays help a great deal.

Feeling of isolation: Remote teams, whether in India or abroad, tend to feel that the overseas boss cares more about his own success than that of the team. So my advice to managers based in remote locations is — meet your virtual teams in person at least once, otherwise, the members won’t feel connected.

Motivation: Or the lack of it, in virtual teams is also a problem. But when feelings of isolation and communication are sorted out, motivation takes care of itself. A conscious multicultural team-building workshop, even via a webinar, is necessary and time well spent.

Burn-out: This is difficult to spot as there’s virtually no face-to-face interaction or monitoring among teams that are in remote locations. Again, it is something that the local managers would have to watch out for and communicate to their overseas bosses.

Caution: One problem with the loss of proprioception is that the victim doesn’t realise the exact amount of effort required for an action. You might end up gripping a spoon with all your strength so that you don’t drop it. Managing virtual teams presents a similar risk — you might be tempted to micro-manage, not giving your team members the flexibility and freedom essential to make outsourcing a success.

Client retention: In today’s virtual business world, client acquisition seems a doable target, as we can all connect halfway across the world and ramp up our websites and services. But retaining the customer seems to be the key with competition constantly nipping at our heels.

For this, it is imperative that we use the small touches that matter.

Build trust — with quality, promptness and follow-ups.

Get regular feedback from your customers — what was right, what was wrong, and additional requirements, if any.

Address their needs — celebrate your clients’ successes, share them on your website/ newsletter/ magazine.

Find common ground with your clients — the customer will soon become a friend, and the relationship, a long-lasting one.

Technology helps with this, as we can compile detailed databases on our customers, learn about their cities, countries and companies and use this information in our dialogues to build relationships that last. Business then follows automatically, almost blindfolded.

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